The fire service is a very unique subculture of our modern society. Although tradition will forever remain an important aspect of the fire service, the firefighters who work within the service are ever changing. Much like your grandfather complaining about your parent’s generation and your parents complaining about your generation, the fire service generation continues to change as well. And the way we lead as fire officers in this modern day fire service needs to adapt and change to accommodate those generational changes.
Generational changes are not limited to knowledge and technologies as many would think. Don’t get me wrong: I am much more computer savvy than my parents, and my children are on pace to begin teaching me the newest apps on my cell phone before they leave elementary school. But generational changes more important than technology advances are attitude changes. Understanding the attitude of the younger generation will provide the fire officer with the ability to motivate and mold the probationary firefighter into the senior crew member-and eventually the fire officer.
The Newer Generation
A quick look the newest generation of young firefighters, those born in the 1990s, yields some basic initial impressions. Technology is important to many of the younger generation firefighters. The use of smartphones and social media is a multiple times per day occurrence. Additionally, unlike our older generations who were able to learn skills from the verbal berating from superior officers during their stint in the academy, the younger generation tends to withdraw and become introverted, afraid to attempt any skills or complete anything that is above the bare minimum standards. Another, and quite possibly the most important, change in the younger generation is the length of time it takes to reach maturity.
Now this is not meant to be an insult to any young firefighter graduating from the fire academy who might be reading this. Rather, it is a generality about the generation that you are a part of. If we take a brief look at the number of young people who are living with their parents far into their 20s and even 30s, we see that somewhere along the line the inspiration to succeed and mature has dissipated.
Taking on Responsibility
My grandfathers on both my mother’s and father’s sides were World War II veterans. Both were selected for service in their teenage years and forced to mature and be responsible to survive. My parents both attended college and started their careers shortly after with the motivation to succeed and start a family of their own.
We now have laws that allow children to remain on their parents’ insurance until they are 26 years old. We have large groups of people who have made a career at entry-level positions at fast food restaurants. The motivation to succeed has changed. Between my grandparents’ generation and my children’s generation, something has changed. As the work ethic decreased, it was passed on farther and farther down the line.
Learning by Imitation
Children learn many of the most basic things in life from watching their parents. Monkey see, monkey do. Children learn to walk watching their older siblings and parents walk. Children learn to speak imitating the language of their parents. This is all common knowledge.
Now let us look at the fire service as this very same family, albeit a bit more dysfunctional. Each station makes up your typical family dynamic. The company officer assumes the role of parent, senior firefighters are the older siblings, and the rookie firefighters are the adolescent children eager to learn. So when the probationary firefighter enters the station and begins to learn the ins and outs of the fire service, where does he look? Just as a child does, the probationary firefighter looks to his “parents” for guidance, and the company officer will hopefully teach the firefighter and explain the rules of the house. Monkey see, monkey do. Our probationary firefighters will eventual become firefighters and then senior firefighters. How we mold them now while they are impressionable is key.
Now back to the family dynamic of where things went wrong. Somewhere along the line, the child learned that work ethic was less important in the hierarchy of behavior among his parents. It is difficult to tell someone to go to school and earn an education or to spend hours on and off duty training if the person preaching has not walked the walk. What our children (probationary firefighters) see us as fire officers working toward establishes the importance of this same route throughout their career. The fire officer needs to instill the values of right and wrong, good and bad, by setting the example. This work ethic and motivation to succeed will help new firefighters become competent firefighters and better “older siblings” and eventually take over the lead of the household.
Anyone in the fire service knows that social acceptance within the department can be as important as the skill level of the firefighters on the crew for a successful operation. Being a firefighter is a very stressful job in which personnel tend to cling together both on and off shift for emotional support.
Take our young probationary firefighter in the harmonious family noted above, now a full-fledged firefighter. The firefighter has learned the ropes and is able to operate at the station and on scene independently. He has now entered into the teenage years of his fire career. The importance of being accepted by his “siblings” has now set in, as the fundamentals learned from the “parents” are already established. This is the point that we would assume creates issues and conflict, rebellion, poor attitude, etc. Understanding the younger generation, we know that this group tends to mature more slowly, which means they remain impressionable for a longer period of time. We have taken the potential negative trait and turned it into a very positive advantage for us as fire officers.
The probie has grown from an impressionable child to a respectful teenager and now to a resourceful older sibling. What’s next? It is time for him to become the parent and lead his very own company. The transition from sibling to parent is a very delicate change in the family dynamic. The teenager/older sibling has worked hard to gain acceptance from his peers and be part of the team. Now he is going to progress to the next level and lead the very people who were once his siblings. Outside of the fire service, no other family dynamic has this ability to change roles. In our very own families, the sibling remains the sibling, the parent remains the parent, and the child remains the child. There is no potential for the same person to achieve a different role, only to gain additional roles with new members in the family.
In the fire service, this unique aspect requires a unique approach. One should tread very lightly in this transition so as to not disrupt the family dynamic that has already been established. If the new fire officer rules with an iron fist, the crew will revolt with animosity toward the officer at the station and poor team performance on calls. If the same officer attempts to remain the buddy and act as the sibling, the crew will begin to push the limits and undermine the authority of the fire officer, both in the station and on calls when leadership is key. A few simple steps and ideas can help the transition of sibling to parent proceed a bit more smoothly.
The first step is to reestablish the rules of the household. Have a tabletop meeting with the crew and present your expectations of them both on calls and in the station. Additionally, request a list of the crew’s expectations for you as their fire officer. You may be surprised to learn where the crew’s current priorities lie and what aspects of the job they value the most.
The next step in a smooth transition is to create a common goal. Many CEOs in the business world change the company’s goals and objectives with a change in leadership to instill the current function of the company. The same should be done with a change in company leadership. Create a fire company goal and set objectives, and draw a road map to achieve this goal. The goal should be one that is in line with the goals set forth by the organization as a whole but can be monitored at the company level.
An example would be to perform a specific fireground task more efficiently. Each goal should have individual objectives used to meet this goal. Examples of potential goals include training on proper hose loading for quicker deployments, strength training to be able to pull the line to the door more easily, and training on bunking out quicker. All of the objectives are individual but, when combined, will meet the goal of reducing the time it takes to pull a preconnect to the front door of a structure. During these tasks, the officer needs to take on the leadership role, which allows the crew to begin viewing the person in this new position. This not only trains the crew for the task at hand but also trains the crew’s perception of the new company officer so that the officer is able to lead on calls.
The third and most important step is to treat the entire crew fairly. The fact that the officer was once a sibling can make this step difficult, but it is absolutely necessary. Just because an officer has established relationships with some of his crew off duty does not mean they should receive special privileges on duty. The entire crew must be treated fairly and be given opportunities based on on-duty merits and achievements only. The quickest way to lose the respect of your crew is to let them see you punishing members for one behavior and rewarding other members for the very same behavior.
The family dynamic of the fire service remains constant in the roles that exist. The members who occupy these roles will continue to change. Understanding not only the roles and functions but also the behaviors of the members in these roles will help the fire officer continue to lead efficiently. If we want change and growth within our fire service, we must be willing to set the example ourselves through every role we occupy. Monkey see, monkey do.