Mentorship: A Word Thrown Around Too Easily

By David Hesselmeyer

Having the privilege of being in emergency services now for over twenty years, I have never heard the term mentor used as much as it is currently. We all can agree that we need mentors in our lives; whether it be for our daily lives, our religious path, or in working to perfect our craft in emergency services. In a couple of ways, we are shorting ourselves when it comes to discussing mentors and mentorship.

To discuss this topic, we need to start by agreeing on some definitions. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mentorship as “the influence, guidance, or direction given by a mentor.1”  It goes on to define a mentor as “a trusted counselor or guide.2”  These definitions make a lot of sense in the term of how we use them in our society.

None of us are where we are at in emergency services without some level of mentorship. Even though we are oft said to eat our young (i.e., make it very tough on new recruits), we do this to ensure that they are prepared for anything that the fire (and life) throws at them. We know that be it a fire, an active assailant, or such, their lives may just hang in the balance of the level of their training and mentoring by others.

The first issue with mentorship is that we do not do it enough. Take a second right now and think, “what opportunities have I potentially missed, in mentoring someone?”  I bet it has happened at least one if not multiple times. I can say it has to me. 

So why do we miss the mentorship boat? There are multiple reasons. 

First, being a true mentor takes time. You are investing in that person and their success. It is not something that is done for a couple of minutes and then we tell them good luck. Our lives are busier than they ever have been. Some of this may come from being so busy that you cannot add one thing to your plate. It may come because we are too lazy and do not want to put that amount of effort and time into it as we have other things (like watching sports) to do while at the station. 

Second, we do not like the idea of others knowing as much or more than us. The bottom line is micromanagement is partially derived from this mentality. You do what I say and how I say it and then I am still going to watch you ensure you do it my way. Ever heard that line or seen it in action? Sure, we all have. We feel that we are always in competition with each other. If I mentor and train them, they may make Lieutenant or Captain before me. Plus, if I teach them all my tricks, they may be able to show others how little I know. These are all farces we need to extinguish. Holding on to knowledge and abilities does little more than hurt our traditions in the service. 

Whenever I get the chance to mentor someone, I tell them this: “I want you to be better than me. I want you to not make the mistakes I did because I have made them and know they are wrong. I want you to start where I am nearing the end of mine because that is how we grow as a profession.”  Are there chances that they make Captain before you? Could they accidentally or intentionally show where your weaknesses are? Those are true potential occurrences. However, we need to begin being supportive of any of us that move forward and expose our weaknesses (with weaknesses we need to plan corrective action on how to move forward with these and turn them into strengths). 

Finally, I think that many do not have the passion we used to have in the firehouse. It is sad to say this. I remember my early years being in a fire department. I had an officer AND a senior man that took me under their wings. The senior man made a significant impact on me. After drills he would spend additional time with me, showing me how and why my turnout gear did this or protected that or why we had to be proficient in this or that area. Unfortunately, I think we are all seeing fewer people wanting to train and fewer senior people and officers wanting to train them (this is generic as I know many departments that train and mentor every member). 

We need to figure out why we do not mentor people and fix it. This will help the mentee, reinforce ideas and such to ourselves, and further aid our profession.

You may be able to determine what a second issue is with mentorship based on the previous paragraphs. Mentorship is a word we throw around too often these days. At a recent conference, I heard in a conversation that they felt that John Doe was a mentor to them. I asked them how they have impacted them and how they went about it. The reply that came back astounded me. They stated that they had only met the person once or twice but followed them on social media. 

In my humble opinion, this is not mentorship. There is nothing wrong with what this person was doing by any means. We can learn a lot from a variety of people through many different methodologies. However, mentorship goes deeper than just a causal learning situation. 

I think back over the last almost twenty-four years in emergency services and two mentors stick out for me. One was a great firefighter/officer (Rest in peace Chief), and the other is an amazing emergency manager (who hates when I call him my mentor due to his humble nature). These two gentlemen did not just show me a thing or two. These two men were vested in me like they owned stock in my success. 

What made them so invested and my mentors? I am glad you asked. 

First, they were always available to me (within reason of course). They knew what our jobs were and that sometimes you needed your mentor to talk to about a situation. I can remember many times sitting down to a cup of coffee or a meal and speaking about issues and listening to amazing amounts of knowledge be spoken from them. 

Next, they never withheld one thing from me that could help me. They realized that by building me up, they were building part of the next generation in our profession and teaching me how to do my job better leading to better outcomes for many people I will encounter through their needs. 

Another aspect or quality that made them so vested in me was their desire to see me succeed. This desire was not simple, “I hope he does a decent job one day.”  It was an all-out, “I will do all within my power morally and ethically proper to ensure that he succeeds.”  Of course, this leads into the previous aspect of time invested. 

There are many more qualities and aspects that designate someone from simply an instructor or colleague to a mentor role. These mentors are so vital in today’s fire service. Every day we are seeing more seasoned veterans retire and unfortunately for one reason or another, they are leaving without this knowledge being passed on. Today, take the time to see if you are being a mentor. If not, then find someone to invest in and share your knowledge, skills, and abilities. If you want a mentor, find someone you look up to base on their morals, knowledge, skills, abilities, ethics, etc., and ask them to be your mentor and let them know what you ask of them. Let us take the time today to build-up to tomorrow’s fire service leaders! As the saying goes, let us leave the job better than we found it.

Until next time, be safe!

David Hesselmeyer began his emergency services career in 1997. He is credentialed as a firefighter, paramedic, rescue technician, North Carolina Executive Emergency Manager, an as an International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Certified Emergency Manager. He graduated from East Carolina University with a Master of Public Administration (MPA). He owns On Target Preparedness, LLC, which is an emergency services consulting firm serving public and private agencies in preparing and responding to disasters. He is a member of the Buies Creek Fire Department in North Carolina. He writes for multiple emergency services publications.




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