It's been 5 years since I wrote "Missing a Mentor: What about Bob?" — a tribute to someone who I admittedly underappreciated until it was too late.
A lot has happened in these 5 years. I was a chief officer in my volunteer fire department then and now I'm back to riding backwards, still struggling to find my place in my company. The ups and downs in my personal and professional life are countless. Against all odds, I even survived long enough to turn 50 last week. lol
We've built three new multi-million dollar live fire training facilities, created state-of-the-art roof ventilation simulators, added fresh blood to our cadre of dedicated instructors and coordinated nearly 5,000 training events from our Erie County Fire Academy. Those are big investments.
I think that one of our greatest investments, and thus our greatest returns have come from the fact that we've trained and graduated more than 1,000 new firefighters in our county in the past 5 years. More than a thousand firefighters now unselfishly serving their volunteer fire departments and their communities.
If anyone thinks that today's generation is only all about themselves and not about giving back — they need to observe one of our Firefighter 1 Boot Camp courses. I'm proud to say that Erie County NY is bucking the national decline in volunteerism as we brought in over 600 new recruits in 2012. Those sheer numbers are a tribute to the great work ethic and spirit of our caring community.
But that's not by accident. We've invested heavily in creating recruitment opportunitites for our fire service and volunteering opportunities for those considering life in the fire service. And, we've invested even more in high quality training generating well balanced and capable firefighters poised to be great team members, and for some, team leaders. We have trained our replacements.
Five years ago, on January 22, 2008, we lost a man who shared and enhanced our vision to be a quality fire training organization that trained firefighters to be the best. Robert 'Bob' Newell was a friend, instructor and mentor to thousands in his career that spanned 40 years. Bob was one of the visionaries and lead instructors of our Firefighter 1 Boot Camp that is now a model for basic training statewide. Locally, there are few firefighters in leadership positions today who were not affected by his uniquely disciplined but giving style of delivery. I am one of those firefighters and I contine to be not only a-ffected but in-fected by him today.
I think that one of Bob's greatest gifts was his ability to do a quick size-up of someone and determine if they were worth his investment in their future and success. If you were one of those people, there wasn't absolutely anything that Bob Newell wouldn't do for you. Although he never said it, he quietly made you realize that it came with a price, that his investments in you were "matching gifts," in that you had to match his gifts with the best of your attitude, efforts and willingness to help others in return.
This past year, we started a new tradition of giving out the "Robert E. Newell Firefighter 1 Boot Camp Recruit of the Year Award" to "The One Worth Investing In!" Quite fittingly, the first recipient was Randall Stanton from the Depew Volunteer Fire Department who succeeded with a never-give-up attitude while overcoming many physical and mental challenges.
I'd like to think that I inherited not only Bob's keen "size-up" skills, but his ability to impart grace on those who at first blush didn't fit the "profit profile" of his investment of time and energy. That was the beauty of Bob, as tough and hard-nosed as he personified, he always left the door open for you to prove his theory wrong. He always opened his heart and his head to anyone who eventually came around to sharing the value in "matching" his gifts to the fire service and others.
He trained his replacements. I am just one of them.
More than a year ago, I created a web presence titled: TrainYourReplacement.com (often referenced as TYR), publicly admitting that like many others, it took me too long in my career to realize that I've really only ever had one job in the fire service: to train my replacement.
And I'm proud that I didn't create it alone. Although I'd reserved the web site name several years ago it wasn't until I intentionally invited a young man to partner with me in delivering training to a group of some 150 fire instructors in South Dakota that I actually launched the site.
I met that young man just once prior to extending the invitation to join me — a brief encounter in the instructors room at FDIC that created a lasting impression and an ongoing friendship. We collaborated by phone and even met half-way once to close the four-hour travel distance between us, holing up in a friendly firehouse in Ashtablua, Ohio, merging our thoughts, ideas and presentations; and eating ice cream.
By sharing this opportunity and under no obligation to do so, I made an investment in him, and in myself. The investment paid off big time. Our tag-team approach to "Generations Unplugged" at the South Dakota Fire Instructors Conference was hugely successful by all accounts. In fact, I'd even say that his creative approach to making the training needs of his generation relevant to a wide array of experienced instructors stole the show. And I was ok with that.
I'm proud to be associated with Lt. Paul Hasenmeier from Huron OH, an emerging leader in his own fire department, his region and the fire service at large. I enjoy our [very] late night chats as I try my best to motivate him through balancing the challenges of fire service life, his thirst for continuing education and training others, and his family life full of a beautiful wife and three (yes, three!) beautiful little girls.
Our relationship would probably not fit the traditional mold of mentor/mentee. Just like life, technology and personal communications in general — the playing field has flattened. Ironically, I taught him how to create and manage a new web site and he's taught me some old school firefighting tactics. While I do my best to impart my experience and guidance in navigating life in the fire service, I take away his zest for self-improvement and raising his personal bar for preparedness and performance. He inspires me to reach higher. Like one of our TYR instructor equations: to go from being just interesting to inspired, and to go well beyond inspired to be truly innovative.
While "this kid" will soon accomplish a master's degree in public administration, he constantly encourages me to complete my quest to earn a degree in emergency management, finally compiling my extensive experience, training and more than a hundred unclaimed college credits into something I can frame on the wall, representative of my long journey to just be "a good firefighter" some day.
I'm humbled by the fact that this is just one of the great opportunities I've been given to train my replacements over the past 5 years since Bob left us and in my entire 32-year fire service career. And, you should know by now that my passion really starts with focusing all my energy on recruiting our replacements.
An increasing number of young firefighters reach out to me for educational, career and life guidance and I can think of few honors as great as that. I'm flattered whenever someone visits our fire academy and compliments me by saying that they see my "thumb print" on a lot of people and things there. Thank you notes from interns and firefighters I've helped create opportunities for; and discovering that trainees have gone on to achieve great honors and careers are the greatest rewards I could ask for.
The message of hope that TrainYourReplacement.com shares is that the earlier and more often we're able to instill the TYR attitude, we're convinced that the longer and more successful careers we — and our replacements will enjoy.
TrainYourReplacement.com is simply a framework, a placeholder for ideas and examples of how training our replacements can and will pay big dividends. It emphasizes the importance of sharing our experiences with the less-experienced by becoming better storytellers. And, just like the lives of Paul and I, we're not totally sure where the site is headed, but we know it's going to be great — and great getting there.
Thanks to great firefighters and instructors like Bob Newell and Paul Hasenmeier and many more just like them who I'm blessed to have in my life, I'm enjoying the hell out of training my replacements and I hope to enjoy that luxury for many years to come. I hope you will too.
Stay safe. Train often.
Also on Tiger Schmittendorf …
- 32 Years in the 15032 – September 23, 2012
- The roof is on fire! – October 28, 2013
- Thanks and Giving! – November 22, 2012
- I do solemnly swear – October 14, 2013