Mentorship Programs for Volunteer Fire Departments

By Jason Decremer, PhD

This article is reprinted from the latest issue of the NVFC’s Firefighter Strong publication. Find more articles with tips, tools, and best practices to help with recruitment and retention, in the full issue here.

Your volunteer fire department has gone through the hard work of recruiting a new member. The new member began as a prospect, with little to no knowledge of what your fire department is tasked to complete on a daily and weekly basis. The prospect became a candidate and successfully went through the interview and background check. The candidate became a probationary member and is beginning the onboarding process. It is at this point in the membership lifecycle that your department should match the probationary member with a mentor.

Volunteer fire departments throughout the United States are facing high turnover rates in their ranks. It is difficult to successfully recruit new members for the long-term until the retention issues are solved. This article will focus on the critical role mentorship programs can play in the retention process and detail tips to build a successful program.

Mentoring as a Retention Tool

Keeping the lines of communication open with new members is a critical piece of their retention. Throughout my years of service in volunteer organizations, I have witnessed multiple occasions when communication with new members simply stopped. As the days and eventual weeks passed, it finally became noticed that the new member(s) were nowhere to be found. The finger pointing began as to who and why there was significant communication breakdown. Developing and successfully managing a mentorship program is one solution to prevent the communication breakdown.

There is a great deal of work that is required to build and properly execute a mentorship program, but when you consider the amount of work and resources it takes to recruit and onboard members, the investment in the mentorship program is worth it to reduce the chance of losing them.

Building a Mentorship Program

Building a mentorship program is not a task that can be solely managed by one individual. The first step is to form a mentorship committee. This committee should be made up of a member of the recruitment and retention committee, membership committee, a line officer, and two or three other members with interest in building a program. The committee will have several tasks to accomplish, including but not limited to reviewing the department’s mission and value statements, developing an SOP/SOG, identifying potential mentors within the department, and selecting a chairperson to spearhead the efforts.

The policy that is developed around your mentorship program needs to include roles and responsibilities for both mentor and mentee. Create a policy that includes how mentors are selected, what their responsibilities will be with their mentees, how often and for how long they need to connect with their mentees, and what are the responsibilities of the mentee to successfully complete the program. Set very clear goals and objectives that can be measured, with the inclusion of timelines. The policy should also include a training section for mentors that teaches them the skills and attributes of becoming an effective mentor.

Roles of the Mentor and Mentee

The individuals that are selected as mentors should be experienced members of your volunteer fire department. They should be goal orientated, calm, caring, and have a positive attitude. A good mentor is also an individual that is a great communicator and is willing to spend time with a new member at least on a weekly basis. The mentorship committee should find a mentor that best matches the new member they will be paired with for the next six months or year. When determining how many mentees one person can successfully mentor, a good “rule of thumb” is the span of control model, 3 to 7 with 5 being the ideal maximum. As your mentorship program gets started, it is recommended that mentors work with no more than two mentees at the same time.

The mentee also has responsibilities in this program to ensure that it is successful. They need to be committed to the process and meeting with the mentor on a regular basis. It is important for mentees to be coachable and self-motivated. Mentors need to be encouraging and guide mentees through your established SOPs/SOGs, bylaws, apparatus, equipment, member introductions, etc. Develop a checklist for mentees to complete during the program. Ensure that the checklist is something the mentee can reasonably accomplish – they do not need to know everything in the first six months!

Get to know what skills the mentee can bring to the department. This will help you identify some things they can do right away to get involved in the operation of your volunteer fire department. The precise nature of what they can do is dependent on how policies are written, how long the probationary period lasts, and what the requirements are for completing an entry-level firefighter course. Set these expectations with the mentee at the very beginning of your onboarding program and introduce them to their mentor as soon as possible.

Getting Department Buy-In

A mentorship program is going to be successful if department members are fully invested in the program. This is especially important for department leadership. They must get behind the program 100% and become active, vocal supporters from the very beginning.

Simply stated, the program will not last if not supported by the leadership. As your volunteer fire department begins the exploratory process of beginning a mentorship program, include leadership in the discussions. When the mentorship committee is formalized, ensure that lines of communication are open between the committee chairperson and department leadership. The committee needs to complete the research and be prepared to answer questions regarding the creation of a mentorship program and how it is going to be managed.

Final Thoughts

Your volunteer fire department must always be preparing for the future. Recruit your successor today and begin to build a plan for their long-term success in your organization. The long-term stability of your volunteer fire department is dependent upon identifying future leaders and putting a plan in place for their eventual succession into leadership positions. It starts with your mentorship program. Get leadership behind it, select a committee to manage it, craft policies that take into account goals and objectives, select the best mentors that are available, and set expectations of the program with mentees.

The mentorship program is a critical piece of your overall retention program. In fact, a survey of current and former volunteers conducted by the National Volunteer Fire Council in 2020 found that establishing a mentorship program was one of the top things respondents indicated would have a positive impact on department retention. Mentoring is a product of positive encouragement that can lead new members to be inspired and motivated in pursuit of their own goals. Do not discount the impact a good mentoring program can have on morale and engagement in your volunteer fire department. It will help solve your retention problems, which will enable you to more aggressively and successfully recruit.

Jason Decremer, PhD, is the director of certification for the Connecticut Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. He is responsible for over 40 levels of national certification testing for approximately 20,000 firefighters statewide. He also is an adjunct professor at the University of New Haven and Goodwin College and teaches recruitment and retention courses for the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He has been in the volunteer fire service for 20 years and has a PhD in public policy and administration and a master’s degree in curriculum design and education.