Reciprocal Peer Coaching for Firefighters

RPC is a way for firefighters to help one another for it is fellow firefighters who are in the best position to understand the unique challenges of their work. (Photo by Pixabay.)
RPC is a way for firefighters to help one another for it is fellow firefighters who are in the best position to understand the unique challenges of their work. (Photo by Pixabay.)

As public servants, firefighters are relied on by the community during all kinds of disasters and emergencies. Giving primary medical care, being first at the scene post storm, and putting out fires are just some of the essential services that they provide. With such a great responsibility on their shoulders, it is important for fire rescue teams to be trained in a wide range of skills. New developments in emergency medicine, building construction, hazardous materials, and firefighting tools and technology require teams to keep their skills sharp at all times. This is not only to ensure the best possible outcome in every situation but to keep firefighters and civilians as safe as possible.

Since individual firefighters carry out these many tasks together, each member of the team must ensure the continuous fine-tuning of their skills to keep the entire group in top shape. But continuous learning need not be done alone; it can also be a team effort. More specifically, firefighters can support fellow firefighters in their professional development, through an approach known as reciprocal peer coaching (RPC). Here, I will describe RPC as well as explain how it can help fire rescuers reflect on current practices and refine new job skills.

Peer Coaching Defined

In the field of education, peer coaching has been used extensively to help students support each other through the learning process. Teachers themselves have also employed the same model to share knowledge and best practices with fellow educators. Pam Robbins, author of Peer Coaching to Enrich Professional Practice, School Culture, and Student Learning, defines peer coaching as a process through which colleagues work jointly to accomplish some professional goals, including (but not limited to) the following:

• Reflect on and analyze current practices and their effects.

• Develop or fine-tune new skills.

• Share ideas and learn from each other’s experiences.

• Share resources for personal and professional development.

The goal of peer coaching relationships is to support each other’s continued learning and not to provide critique on one’s job performance. It is meant to complement the team members’ formal training process.

Characteristics of RPC

Peer coaching is a flexible model that can be adapted to the needs of any organization. Its structure can be as collaborative as the team wants it to be. Each peer group or pair can set whatever learning goal they like, whether this is advancing one’s vehicle extrication skills or finding creative ways to train primary school kids to “stop, drop, and roll.” Matched peers can choose almost any work-related objective.

RPC is also nonevaluative. The interaction between peer groups or pairs is meant to be a way to share each person’s own thoughts and experiences of various aspects of the job without fear of being criticized or judged. Despite the use of the term “coach,” individuals largely take on the role of sounding boards. Any evaluation that is done is essentially self-assessment after having bounced ideas off one’s peer coach.

RPC is also a confidential process. Communication lines between two peers need to stay open, but any discussions must be kept between the individuals.

Successfully Implementing Peer-to-Peer Coaching

1 Establish trust. It is important to first ease any anxieties that team members may have as they reflect on current practices and expand skills. An atmosphere of trust is the foundation for a successful peer coaching program. In their book Cognitive Coaching: Developing Self-Directed Leaders and Learners, Arthur Costa and Robert Garmston describe the different dimensions of trust that must be cultivated to encourage the improvement of the learning process.

Relational trust is developed through interactions among members of the team, from the highest-ranking firefighter to the new recruit just starting his career. Relational trust grows when the exchanges between team members are marked by integrity, mutual respect, personal regard for colleagues, and competence.

• Another dimension of trust is trust in self, which is built on self-awareness (for instance, knowing one’s values and beliefs or being conscious of one’s attitudes toward the demands of a firefighting career). Self-trust also involves knowing that our actions and words have an effect on our colleagues and being more aware of what these effects could be.

• A third dimension is trust in the coaching relationship. Each peer group must understand that the process is meant to encourage collaborative, hands-on learning. It must be made clear that peers are there to provide and receive support and not make conclusions about each other’s skills and knowledge.

Trust in the workplace is the fourth dimension, and it is developed by ensuring that the culture within the fire station is stimulating and cooperative and values continuous self-improvement.

2 Encourage voluntary participation. This highlights the idea that fine-tuning and expanding new skills is something that we must actively and willingly do throughout our career. Keeping RPC voluntary gives team members the chance to own their professional advancement instead of seeing it as just another task they need to do at work.

3 Match colleagues in similar career stages. This ensures that coaching partners are equal and that the relationship does not take the form of “mentor-mentee.” Firefighters in the same stage of their careers are likely to be interested in refining the same types of skills. In addition, neither person in the partnership is considered the “expert,” as both participants are learning with the help of their colleagues. For instance, two new recruits may want to improve physical fitness in preparation for their first emergency call. On the other hand, more experienced team members may wish to explore advanced skills required to become firefighter paramedics.

4 Encourage objective reflection. Full understanding of which skills you may need help with requires honest self-assessment. In the beginning of the RPC process, team members may hesitate to share what they think, but as trust is built, individuals become more open about what they think they have done well and what mistakes they may have made at work. Being aware of both our strengths and weaknesses through objective reflection is key to identifying skills we wish to improve.

5 Set regular appointments. Just 15-20 minutes once a week can be a good start to an effective peer coaching relationship. The important thing is to make time and honor appointments with each other. This shows respect and personal regard for fellow team members.

6 Help peers set goals. The popular acronym SMART describes the successful characteristics of setting goals: Specific (also simple and sensible), Measurable, Achievable, Relevant (also realistic and reasonable), and Time-bound. Setting goals can help team members develop their careers more easily, which will give them confidence to continue developing new skills. It is important to set each other up for success when in a peer coaching relationship.

7 During coaching sessions, keep these in mind:

Listen actively. When it is the other person’s turn to talk, maintain silence but show engagement through nonverbal cues like nodding; eye contact; and maintaining an open, relaxed posture. Occasionally, it helps to paraphrase your peer’s words to ensure that he is being understood.

Ask open-ended questions. To further explore topics, avoid asking questions that could be answered with only a “yes” or “no.” The goal is not to probe but to encourage the other person to expand on what he is saying.

Maintain a nonjudgmental attitude. Keep an open mind and ensure that the tone of the coaching session is positive. Be sincere, and use simple and expressive words.

Give constructive feedback. When asked for feedback, keep in mind that you are only offering suggestions or helping each other explore alternatives. The choice on which steps to take next, however, is purely a personal decision.

Benefits of Peer Coaching

As a complement to the formal training process, RPC is an effective way to constantly improve individuals and organizations. It is flexible enough to be used with the existing resources and can be implemented at almost no cost. RPC can be done informally in the beginning, to allow for experimentation and to build confidence in the knowledge-sharing process. Eventually, the coaching sessions can evolve into more structured formats, if the team finds these helpful. Another benefit is the experiential learning that takes place and the opportunity for team members to improve more quickly as they listen to the “real-time” observations of their peers. In addition, peer coaching helps reduce the sense of isolation firefighters may feel as an effect of their demanding, dangerous, and high-stress job.

A Collaborative Model of Learning

Reciprocal peer coaching is an adaptable model that encourages knowledge sharing and, at the same time, gives individuals more control over their continued professional development. This collaborative learning approach has helped many occupations refine and expand their knowledge, and it is certainly worth exploring the model’s potential within the realm of fire rescue training. RPC is a way for firefighters to help one another improve a wide range of skills throughout their careers. After all, it is fellow firefighters who are in the best position to understand the unique challenges of their work.

Further Reading

Costa, A. L., Garmston, R. J., Cognitive coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners (3rd ed.), Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016.

Robbins, P., Peer Coaching to Enrich Professional Practice, School Culture, and Student Learning. Alexandria, VA: ACSD, 2015.

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November 2017
Volume 12, Issue 11