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September 5, 2002
NEEDED: FIRE SERVICE MENTORS
By: Captain James Benjamin, M.S., CSHM, CFSI, CFEI

How can you establish and maintain a structured program to recruit, retain, and nurture the youths who have an interest in today’s fire service?  By having dedicated, experienced members/officers help then learn “da job,” and giving guidance with the often daunting task of landing and succeeding at their first position within the fire service.

ATTRACTING YOUTH

There are numerous ways to attract those who might have an interest in joining the fire service.  Some of these include: Explorer, Cadet, or Junior Firefighter programs; Citizen Fire Academies, or just good old-fashioned PR events (fire extinguisher demonstrations, first aid classes, auto extrication demonstrations, etc.).  I cannot say enough about these opportunities, especially the Explorer and Cadet programs.  Many fire departments have had these programs for years and do an excellent job of mentoring the youths.  However, there are also departments who feel these programs are just smoke and mirrors, or turn the fire department and its members into babysitters.  PLEASE!

Let us look at the facts.  Generally, these programs meet once a week for two to three hours.  The members of these programs (males and females usually between the ages of 14-21) are there on their own time, not because they have to be there, but because they want to.  They want to learn the craft, so make the limited time available to them worthwhile.  Instead of complaining that you have to teach another search and rescue, CPR, or ropes and knots class, embrace the opportunity to instill your knowledge and experience on a group of interested individuals that wants to hear what you have to say.  How often does that happen throughout your normal workweek?

Over time, your program will gain a reputation for offering quality training and instruction, and will then start attracting even more outstanding and motivated individuals.  As the training continues and the young “rough-necks” start learning the ropes, deploy their knowledge.  After major details, have a phone tree set up to contact these members, and then have them assist in placing the units back in service.  Let them use the skills that you have taken the time to TEACH them.  As the computer-programming saying goes “garbage in equals garbage out,” the same can be said for this training.  So remember to teach them well.

RETAINING QUALITY PERSONNEL

If the average member of these programs joins at the age of 14 and stays with the post until the age of 18 (the average age most states allowing individuals to enter fire training programs) that means the participant will have four years of training before even being eligible for their fire training!  That is equivalent to having a fully trained firefighter on your department when they enter the fire academy (providing you have furnished quality training). 

Think about that for a minute, FULLY TRAINED!  Who would you rather hire, someone you have known for better than four years, or someone who pops in off the street and turns in an application (an unknown)?  Well, in a perfect world, one where budgets and limited staffing does not apply, I would love to hire both.  However, faced with the reality of today’s fire service, there is no question.  Discuss these options with your city governments, draw new blood into your department early on and give them an incentive to stay!  Again, take the time to set up a quality program, then train and retain these individuals.  The time and energy you spend now will pay you back countless times in the future!

SOUND INTERESTING?

So how should your department go about establishing an explorer post?  The very first step is to do some soul searching.  You need to determine if your department and its personnel are up to the challenge of having their own explorer post.  Do you have committed personnel at all levels?  Do you have the time and facilities to devote to the post and its members?  These are all very important questions that need honest, no “BS” answers!

So who should be recruited internally to help mentor the members of your new post?  Well, ask yourself whom would you want training the future of the fire service, its new “rough-necks” and leaders?  What traits should these mentors have?  While there are no certainties, here are important qualities to look for in a mentor/advisor.  However, these are some important qualities to look for in potential mentors and post advisors:

1) Patience:  This attribute is often lacking in today’s “while you wait” society.  To teach patience, you must demonstrate it.  Use knowledge and leadership skills to intervene at the appropriate time.  The ability to strike with an elegant response at the most opportune time is a valuable skill.

2) Gentleness:  An advisor or mentor should be unassuming and mild mannered, which is not to be confused with weak.  You must use your power/authority judiciously.  This quality requires humility, which, as we all know, can be difficult to find in the fire service, considering we all are proud of who we are and what we represent, and want to show anyone that will listen what we can do.

3) Leadership:  Choose an advisor who leads from the front, one who leads by example.  A good leader should be able to challenge the post with formidable yet attainable goals.  Again, make the time spent during training beneficial to both the department and the post.

4) Vision:  Never lose sight of the ultimate goal and focus energy on objectives that will enable these results.  Know exactly what you want out of your members and determine the best route to obtaining that result.

5) Trustworthy: Not only will this person be responsible for the safety, security, and overall direction of the post’s members, but they will also be representing your city, village, or township, as well as your fire department.  Make sure they are up to the task!

Additional information about the Explorers can be obtained by calling your local chapter of the Boy Scouts of America.

Mentoring is a life long process.  When done correctly, it never ends.  I would urge each of you to become a mentor/advisor in order to help shape and nurture the future of the emergency services.  The satisfaction you gain will remain with you forever.

About the author:
Captain Benjamin is a career Safety Professional for a global chemical company headquartered in Cincinnati.  He is also a Captain on the Glendale Fire Department, which is a historic residential community just North of Cincinnati, Ohio.  The Glendale Fire Department runs Automatic Aid (on all structure related calls) with the Woodlawn and Lincoln Heights Fire Departments in Ohio.  James has served the Glendale Fire Department since 1988 when at the age of 14 he joined as a Cadet.  At the same age, James joined the Springdale Fire Department Explorer Post (Post 911).  During his time as Explorer Post Chief, Post 911 was ranked 3rd in the Nation.

Captain Benjamin holds both a Masters of Science Degree in Loss Prevention and Safety, as well as, Bachelors of Science Degree in Police Administration with a minor in Fire Protection Engineering Technology from Eastern Kentucky University.  Some of the professional certifications Captain Benjamin holds include:Firefighter II, National Registered EMT-B, Certified Arson and Explosion, Investigator/Instructor, Certified Safety and Health Manager, Certified Fire and Safety Inspector, and Certified Hazardous Materials Technician.

Captain Benjamin is also an active member of the Hamilton County Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).  He is also a member of the following organizations: National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA), The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) Professional Member, National Association of Fire Investigators (NAFI), Institute for Safety and Health Management (ISHM), and the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA).

Prior to working as a Safety Director, James was employed by Eastern Kentucky University as an Adjunct Professor and taught courses in Fire Protection Engineering Technology and Fire ground Command and Tactics.

In 1994 Captain Benjamin received the Lincoln Heights Fire Department’s Heroism Medal for a double rescue involving a man and his infant son who were trapped in a fully involved apartment fire.

James is a native of Cincinnati, Ohio and currently lives in Glendale.  He is a second-generation firefighter; his father (deceased) was a firefighter with Glendale and his brother is a career firefighter for the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Loveland, Ohio.