Are we doomed? Is the fire service as we know it, or think we know it, over? I entered the fire service as a young man, as in still a teenager. I was hired as a career firefighter at the age of 21. In my early years as a volunteer, I was obviously mentored by older members. When I became a career firefighter this mentoring continued as I worked with veteran firefighters and officers, they â€˜showed me the ropesâ€™. They taught me new things, shared their experiences, and thankfully showed me a great deal of patience. My question is, are we still doing those things today?
The young firefighters entering public service today are certainly a mixed bag of personalities and backgrounds. These unique traits will require those of you in leadership roles, both formal and informal, to face a host of issues you may not have experienced yourself.
No labor experience
Iâ€™m not talking about organized labor, I mean manual labor. Many young firefighters I see in the training academies, or getting hired on to the job often have very little experience performing manual labor. Swinging a hammer, carrying loads, working a shovel;Â several young firefighters were never exposed to this these types of activities. You see it in complaints about working in the heat or the cold we alsoÂ see it in failure to work until the work is done and I noticed it in their lack of mechanical ability.
I once had a captain assign a new firefighter to mow the grass in front of the station. In the process of mowing, the firefighter ran over the cast iron street key shut-off sticking up in the yard, and caused major damage to the mower. I interrupted the Captain as he was painfully critiquing the firefighterâ€™s performance and asked, â€œHave you operated a riding lawn mower before?â€ His response, â€œNo sir.â€ This young man had grown up in an apartment complex and had never been exposed to such a thing. How many young men and women on your department have never operated equipment before they came on? How many kids are growing up today that have never mowed the grass, painted the house, pulled weeds, and the list goes onâ€¦. A famous fire chief once wrote, â€œWe are hiring kids today that donâ€™t know the difference between and monkey wrench and a petuniaâ€
The burden of technology
Some of us joke about having to write reports in pen. I know so of you â€˜seasonedâ€™ members out there probably scratched them out on stone tablets. Firefighters coming on the job today have always been surrounded by technology. A 21-year-old firefighter today was born in 1994. By that time we already had the internet, email, digital video and photos, and cell phones. When they began high school in 2009,smart phonesÂ had video conferencing, video games that look like movies, and texting was the new norm. They grew up in a time of instant communication and a constant feed of information.
How does this new wave of firefighters different from the past? Communication has certainly changed in the last 10 years. I find that they expect instantÂ information or feedback. Remember writing a memo on actual paper and submitting up to the Chief via the chain of command? Your response was not instant. Remember reading actual magazines from actual publishers? Much different from today where anyone can have a blog or record a video on a new topic. More and more of the information new firefighters are being exposed to have not been reviewed for content or merit.
And what about smart phones? I admit that I am probably addicted to my iPhone but, what about this new generation? Texting at work, snapchatting, twittering, Facebooking, playing games. Come on!
So where are we headed? Are we doomed? I feel the company officer of today certainly has some challenges with this next generation of firefighters. They need more guidance. They need more mentoring. They require officers and leaders to step up and do their job. We must engage these new firefighters and teach them our craft.
Educate and Lead!
This new generation is very smart. Competition is for these jobs is tougher than ever, the cream should have risen to the top. They are prone to asking questions, they deserve good answers. These firefighters grew up asking â€˜whyâ€™Â more than previous generations. They will find the information out there, make sure it is the version you want them to learn.
We must teach them our expectations. Show them what we mean by service before self. Show them company pride and pride in their work. The officer and the senior firefighter need to set a great example every day of what it means to take care of business.Â Leaders must practice what they preach.
Talk to them, find their strengths and weaknesses and build on them. Young men and women today have more problems communicating face to face; they have grown up in the realm of digital communication. Do not take their silence as understanding what you are explaining.
Officers and informal leaders must help these new firefighters with their interpersonal skills. Show them how to solve problems and how to get along with others in the firehouse. Teach them our culture and show them how brotherhood is a responsibility of each and every one of us.
Use their talents!
They are tech savvy, utilize their skills in that area. Is it time to refresh your PowerPoint presentations used in training? Let them work their magic. Need to tune up your PR presentations? They knowÂ the tricks with editing and graphics. At the same time, emphasize to them that this is still a hands on job that requires manual labor. We get dirty, we train outside in our gear. Not all training can be done on a computer where you print a certificate at the end.
I have found that if you are going to show them something in training you had better make it exciting. This new generation likes to see facts and data but they also need to see application. Today we are flooded with videos on the internet, we watch them, share them, and love to critique them. I like to use the â€˜video of the dayâ€™ in training. Do not teach them to second guess what others have done; but ask them, â€œHow would we handle this?â€Â They are a great tool to provide new firefighters a glimpse of fire ground operations where they can learn from the actions of others.
Make them put their phones away during training time. They will live without their phones. They may die if they do not ingest your information. This generation grew up when they didnâ€™t keep score in sports and everyone got a ribbon. They were taught in school that everyone is a leader and as long as you try that is good enough. We know that is not how it is in the fire service. Our leaders, be it officers or senior firefighters, need to lead and mentor these new firefighters in the ways that made this job great. We are not doomed, but we must actively lead the way.
Sr. Staff Correspondent