Entitlement in the Fire Service

Firefighter and fire officer at scene of structure fire
Photo by Bailey Goodall, Public Information Officer, Duenweg Fire Department.

By Conner Cooper

In recent years, there has been an ongoing look at entitlement in the fire service. Many fire departments have different views on entitlement and the ways that it is affecting their agencies, but what is entitlement? Entitlement is the fact of having a right to something or the amount to which a person has a right. So how does this factor into the fire service? Fire departments look at different aspects of entitlement including generational changes, culture differences, and learning curves so that they can better prepare for the next age of firefighting.

The fire service has many different atmospheres that some firefighters define as a culture or that they may call their traditions. Looking into the culture of the fire service, you can start to see how it plays a big part in the recruitment aspect of the job. The fire service typically attracts a younger population of recruits, which leaves the older generation of firefighters outnumbered in some cases. One of the problems that the older generation of firefighters is starting to see is what they refer to as an “entitled” firefighter or recruit. Almost anything today can be pointed toward a generational problem, but it might not be that easy. Have you ever wondered why firefighters similar in age share much of the same qualities? Perhaps the coincidence is based off the shared experiences and attitudes they were exposed to during their culture in time. Firefighters share many different ideals dating all the way back to signing up for the academy. Recruits want to serve their constituents with a since of pride while feeling accomplished, needed, and respected in their communities. This could be related to why firefighters share so many of the same qualities.

One trend that has become more frequent in the fire service is the recruitment of younger firefighters. Being a young firefighter is great considering the resilience and flexibility that comes with it, but the recruitment of a younger fire service can also pose a risk to the older firefighters. The seasoned firefighters will tend to stay longer on the job than is needed by pushing back their retirement dates in an effort to safeguard their fire service. As younger recruitment is conducted and retirements are postponed, the fire departments will start to see a cultural vacuum that creates different perspective, beliefs, and methodology of task completion.

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The older generation of firefighters including Baby Boomers is on the path to retirement. The “boomer” generation is made up of task-oriented individuals who work well together and stay away from confrontation by facing their problems directly.

The group following the Baby Boomer generation is the Generation Xers. These Generation X firefighters are usually up next for promotion and may already act in new leadership roles. Gen Xers created a whole new way of thinking through independency and self-reliance to become more of an asset to their organizations. The Gen X firefighters respect their superiors and follow direction without hesitation.

Following Generation X comes the Millennials. The Millennials make up the new group of recruits that are just starting in their careers. These are the firefighters who have had access to technology all their lives and tend to question the status quo of things by asking “Why?” Millennials are the pace cars of instant gratification and tend to want things now. The older leadership within an organization mistakes this way of thinking for entitlement.

Firefighters no matter what their ages will always have their own individuality and life experience that comes with them into the service. These character traits are some of the main drivers in changing fire service culture. Millennials, like the Gen Xers and the Baby Boomers before them, have a unique set of qualities and skill that embodies a different approach to problem solving. The younger generation firefighters are seen as being entitled because they want to take what they know or what they have learned and use it right away without putting in the time or without following the leadership of a more experienced mentor. Newer members often slip into a pattern of comfortability. This feeling of comfortability has been viewed as entitlement because of how quickly they tend to stop putting in the work. Younger firefighters rely on gratitude and encouragement, which is why they want to feel as if they are a part of the team. When they finally get on the same page as their predecessors, they seem to quit working as hard and lack the drive instilled in the previous leadership.

Firefighting is an ever-changing profession, and all the members of the job must be trained accordingly. There is no exception for age because the fire service does not discriminate on age or any other individual features outside of being able to perform the duties required of them. The Millennials are expected to perform the same duties as the firefighters who served before them and the firefighters who serve over them. Millennials are too often referred to as the generation who would receive participation trophies for simply showing up. In the fire service, the question of entitlement is found in how firefighters approach the tasks they complete. Firefighters are full of pride, and they all have different ways of processing information. Nobody is special in the fire service, and the sooner that it is made clear to newer recruits, the better. The younger “entitled” firefighters have a hard time coping with the fact that there is not always an easy way out of doing things. The recruit rank in the fire service is dedicated to learning all aspects of the job, which includes the hard way of doing things as well.

These issues that surround the entitled recruits are nothing more than a learning curve. Fire service mentors are in place to correct these generational gaps so that the fire service keeps moving forward and the older people can finally retire, knowing that their cities are in good hands. To correct these entitled behaviors, the leadership needs to adapt as well. Current leadership should follow basic department policy on discipline to help train younger firefighters. The attention span of a first-year firefighter is short and will require repetitive explanation of instruction. Firefighters should know expectations and be evaluated to ensure adequate performance. If there is hesitation or a lack of understanding from the firefighters when performing tasks, they will need to follow the proper steps to correct it or it could result in disciplinary action.

Generational change is unavoidable. People get older and the job stays the same. This could be why the answer to solving the problem of the “entitled” firefighter is improving interaction through communication. The change process includes engagement within an organization. All members share involvement in the process no matter what age, generation, or rank. These engagements should be focused on success for the fire department and the community it serves. Change is just around the corner for many departments, and the fire service has already undergone a number of them. The Baby Boomers alone have probably seen the most changes throughout the fire service including equipment like self-contained breathing apparatus. This generation was also responsible for introducing educational programs that lead to community outreach and risk reduction. These firefighters were able to shape their profession with their involvement over the years and the next generation of firefighters should be given the same opportunities.

Millennials are products of their own generation simply because they were born and raised in a different time. This generational upbringing was focused heavily on technology while other generations relied on the basic principles of mechanics. This cultural change created a great decline in the many skill sets such as preventive and corrective maintenance on equipment and vehicles. Younger firefighters were raised in a time where it was more important to program a computer than it was to change out an oil filter on a vehicle. The generational gap in the fire service should be treated as a learning curve. Fire departments can overcome this false since of entitlement through effective trainings that delivers the skill sets their firefighters need.

Entitlement could be quite good for the profession. Firefighters are entitled to many things, not just because they were born at a certain time or raised in a particular way. Firefighters are entitled to equipment that works, standards that are relevant, training that is practical, effective leadership, and the organizational support to do their jobs. This is not what most firefighters are viewing as entitlement, but this outlook on entitlement is a push in developing a solution to the generational gap problem. Firefighters develop this since of entitlement by doing their jobs correctly and spending time on mastering their crafts. This approach to fire service entitlement is how fire service leaders can train the next generation of recruits.

Leadership that buys into entitlement and supports firefighter mastery could shape an organization that will operate without hesitation when they are long gone and retired. Finding qualified firefighters to fill the seats of a truck is an ongoing issue in the fire service and is a big problem that needs to be addressed as well. The younger generation of firefighters deserves the same training, opportunity, and entitlement that every other member was given. If departments can solve their generational gap and retention problems by hiring young firefighters and developing a training plan that suits their needs to efficiently do what is needed of them as firefighters, then the profession will be able to adapt and overcome these struggles.

Conner Cooper has been part of fire and emergency medical services for the past eight years. He is a career firefighter/EMT and works with various organizations in the fire service on training development and education.

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