As JEMS celebrates 30 years of publication, I can’t help but reflect on how much knowledge someone with 30 years or more of experience can offer to others. Back in 1977, when I started working for the City of St. Louis, some of the people at my station had that much experience. Many were World War II veterans who started working in the late 1940s. I thought they were ancient but, being brought up to respect my elders, I also looked at them with admiration and respect. They had "war stories" that I could listen to for hours. I sometimes was so engrossed in what they were saying that I wouldn’t even hear a phone ring.
One of the veterans who gave me the benefit of his knowledge was Chief Richard Davis. Rich was one of those balding, large, gruff-looking individuals, and he always had a cigar hanging out of his mouth. Because of this habit, he always had burns or ash on his white shirt. Even within the first day of putting on a new white shirt, he’d have burn marks on it.
Rich was so experienced that he knew every street in the city without looking at a map, could tell you every fire alarm box’s location and number, and could name every building or business on any corner. He knew every baby he had delivered and every multiple-alarm fire he had been on. He also remembered every major EMS or fire event that had occurred not only during his career but also prior to it—probably because some 30-year veterans from the 1920s and 30s told him war stories.
Rich told his stories with precise detail, remembering dates, times and even the names of the individuals involved. His uncanny recollection of such specifics made me wonder sometimes if he was making it up or if he really had that great of a memory. (Eventually, I found out it was the latter. He indeed had a great memory.)
Looking back, it was Rich who helped form the framework for my future career. Our countless hours of conversation helped me understand everything, from how to deal with troublesome employees to taking command of an incident.
It took awhile, but one day I realized that Rich was mentoring me. It wasn’t official. No one ordered him to do it. There was no memo telling the veterans to pick someone and prepare them for their career. There was no ceremony where the veterans drew names out of a hat and were assigned to the new guy. It was just part of who Rich was.
I’ve since learned that mentoring can take many shapes and forms. But basically, mentoring is when one individual with a vast amount of experience and knowledge in a certain career field shares it with one or more individuals who have less experience and knowledge in that same field. Usually, this mentoring takes the form of face-to-face communication, but it can also happen via telephone calls and e-mails in just one session or over a prolonged period of time.
After Rich retired, I’d call him periodically to see how he was doing. From our conversations, I could tell he missed the career he loved so much. So, I made arrangements for him to ride on the Red Cross truck in St. Louis. The truck was a roving vehicle that went to all fires and handed out water, coffee and cookies. To many in St. Louis, it was known as the "cookie truck."
Rich enjoyed his time riding on the cookie truck. He got to go to fires and see people he knew. Often, when I would see Rich on scenes, he would tell me a war story, give me his assessment of the ongoing situation or provide me with his after-action appraisal. All of it was valuable. I might differ with him on certain aspects, but there was always something to glean from his comments.
As Rich got older, he eventually stopped riding on the cookie truck. But, I still called him from time to time, seeking his advice on different issues that popped up in my career. Or sometimes I'd just call him to see how he was doing.
The last time I saw and spoke to Rich was at his wife's funeral a couple of years ago. He was in poor health at that point, and as I tried to talk to him during the visitation, it was apparent his mind was not functioning properly. He had lucid moments interrupted by rambling periods. I learned that Rich died a few months after his wife.
I have always been thankful this 30-year veteran shared his vast knowledge and experience with me. Today, I'm ever so grateful that he took a young kid from South St. Louis and pointed him in the right direction.
So, whether it's Chief Rich Davis, your own special mentor or JEMS with 30 years of experience, appreciate the opportunity. Tap into the valuable experience and make sure you share it with others.
Thanks, Rich! JEMS