Dinosaurs and Kids These Days - Generational Differences in the Fire Service

“I don’t know what to do,” said the senior officer. “My firefighter talks on his personal cell phone on the way to emergency calls and texts during group meals. When told to do something around the station, the first thing he says is, ‘Why?’ or ‘Right now?’ The kid is strong and smart, and you couldn’t ask for a better firefighter on emergency scenes. But this other stuff is a real problem.”

“I don’t get it,” responds the younger firefighter. “How can you become a leader in the 21st century fire service and not know how to use e-mail or the Internet? We’re still using books and techniques from the 1970s. Seniority is everything, and if a young guy tries to get ahead, he’s called arrogant or pushy. These older guys are great, but some of them gave up on learning anything new 15 years ago. And it seems the system only rewards them for it.”

Does this sound familiar? As I work with fire departments around the country, I find that more than the usual issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, generational differences are often the first diversity challenge mentioned.

Generational differences are nothing new in the fire service, but unique challenges exist today. First, the pace of change has accelerated in just about every aspect of the job: strategy and tactics, leadership methods, legal mandates, equipment and technology, community demographics, scope of service, and the need to do more—often much more—with less.

Second, the current state of the economy is a big disincentive for anyone considering retirement from the fire service. As a result, many older firefighters are postponing retirement indefinitely. This can lead to stagnation in promotions, a sense of stasis in organizational culture, and resentment by younger members toward older firefighters. Departments may become polarized along generational lines, and this division can contribute to damaged communication, unresolved conflict, and poor team performance.

What can you do, as an individual and as a departmental leader, to diminish conflict and make generational diversity an asset to your organization rather than a threat? Consider the following:

- Set clear standards for the use of personal electronics during work shifts.
- Provide technical training and support for older or less tech-savvy firefighters, without publicly singling them out.
- Make conflict resolution training a priority for all department members.
- Create alternate paths for professional development in addition to rank promotion. These might include membership on special teams or committees, representation of the department with other agencies, or other special assignments.
-Foster a culture of mentoring within the organization. More important than any formal mentoring program is a commonly held value that giving and receiving help is a good thing, no matter what position you hold.
-Discuss the real effect of electronic dissemination of inappropriate material, such as videos on YouTube or department-related information on a personal web page. Make consequences clear when standards are violated.
-Revisit your organizational mission statement to make sure that inclusion of all diverse members is a guiding principle.

Generational differences are a natural part of change within any culture or organization. The key is to see them not as a problem but instead as an untapped resource for dealing with the challenges your department will be facing in years to come.
For more on this topic, attend Linda Willing’s session at Fire-Resuce International (FRI), “Dinosaurs and Kids These Days: Generational Challenges in the Fire Service” on Tuesday, August 25th at 1 pm. This session is a part of the Company Officer Leadership Symposium, Level II

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Comment by Tracy Nornhold on May 15, 2009 at 5:34pm
As a volunteer EMT holding down a full time job as an occupational therapist I can tell you that this is not only a fire/EMS problem. I have younger co-workers who think nothing of carrying their cell phones when working with patients or sitting in the office on their cells when they are supposed to be treating! Its very annoying and leaves me and some of the other "dinosaurs" baffled. What happened to the work ethic? They are also disrespectful to the senior members of the staff...I personally don't put up with this from a senior doctor let alone a new graduate. I pull them aside and have a little discussion about giving and receiving respect!

My take on this is that we all have something to teach each other. The older ones need to teach the younger ones our wisdom and experience from actually seeing the tough calls (or tough patients) where as the younger ones need to bring in and teach the older ones the new technology out there. This should be the case no matter what you do for a living! Chiefs and line officers saying "because I said so" just alienates the younger crew. Sharing your critical reasoning and scientific evidence behind the decision is the key bringing up good fire fighters and EMTs. One of the stategies we use with our interns is that we expect them to share what they have learned in school in an in-service presentation and discuss the science and theory behind it. The staff then share their experiences (war stories per se) and ask questions to further their critical thinking skills. We also don't always give them the answers. They like the new technology, so we ask them to look things up on the computer AND go to the library the old-fashioned way and then come back to us with their answer. This teaches them self-reliance and everyone may learn something new because the expectation is that they share the answer. Seems to me that this would work in fire/EMS also.
Comment by Stephen Delisle Miller on May 13, 2009 at 2:50am
Very interesting, a common situation-nothing new, same as 1985 when I joined! Examine their potential, use their strenghts, improve their weaknesses. Remember, it is the dept. and not me/you. They are now where we were then, some day they will be there (here) also, welcome - nuture - support - respect -encourage them, when we leave who will take over?
Comment by ashfire on May 12, 2009 at 7:48pm
In my own fire company most of the membership knows their around a computer but our chief won't have anything to do with one. He told someone if you want me to know something call me on the phone or send it by mail or courier I don't do computers I am too old for them.
Now the thing is most of our state and county training is now going on line and to be a officer you have to take the classes to stay a officer.
I don't know what he is going to do if you can't get a classroom for the required training.
Comment by Shanna Davis on May 12, 2009 at 5:50pm
Well, I for one simply cannot fit anything else into my day and routine. I'm already on overload so all this new technology, text messaging, twittering, facebook, etc are all too much. I don't know how the younger ones do it all because I simply can't do it all without neglecting more important things in life.:)
It also really annoys me that text messaging is taking the place of someone talking to you face to face. The younger members of our department sit and text each other back and forth during trainings and meetings. Personally, I think its rude.

Recently, my department prohibited the use of cell phones on apparatus for anything but dept. business. No personal calling or texting. Drivers of apparatus cannot use a cell phone at all while driving. So far most everyone is ignoring this and doing it anyway.
Comment by RLFD213 on May 12, 2009 at 11:04am
Here is my take and I speak this way because this is how I was taught and brought up in the fire service. First let me say that I am a Gen X'er so now you know my era but here goes. In the academy we were drilled into the ground everyday and there were no hugs. This was done to show everyone that yes you may have experience as a firefighter but you are brand new here and that's all that counts. Once out of the academy and with your company you were once again drilled into the ground this time by the company or companies depending on the house you are at. After that when we had "downtime" you were at the table or in an office studying anything you could because being a candidate you are an at will employee. We did this while also doing watches and of course doing all the house work while the officers and senior guys did what they should be doing nothing. Today 12 years into my career I have not regretted one day of this and feel that it has helped me out tremendously because it has taught me discapline and structure and I know were I rank in the firehouse. As far as the Gen Y'er's we treat them the same way no cuddling but one thing I realized is that they have no mechanical aptitude so they are behind us already. If they want to learn on the computer that's ok just try to put what they have into your own drill so that it looks like they have helped with this and that will help them feel like they're with the group. The biggest thing like I said is no cuddling and be patient.
Comment by Pat Murphy on May 12, 2009 at 10:02am
So many times it has to do with a lack of understanding...between all. The old guys I have been around a long time and demand respect, because they have already had to prove themselves. The young guys are hungry for a chance to prove themselves, and often get shut down when they try, many times when their intentions are sincere and well meant.

Here is the the thing though, the young guys are often a product of their environment. If the seniot mentors, officers, chiefs, etc, don;t stand up to this kind of behavior and stop it, and just complain about it, nothing will happen. It's not just the "Kids" these dyas on the cell phones...I see just as many "dinosaurs" answering phones and making calls in the middle of drills to their 401K managers, real estate agents etc. Its everyone. Younger members are just a convenient target.

We all need to step up, realize we are at work and be professionals. The "dinosaurs" set the example.
Comment by Michael Butts on May 12, 2009 at 5:03am
As our training officer I find the techno savey of the younger guys and girls a great help to me. Although the cell phone thing is a bit different, on my department we have BANNED the use of cell phones while on apparatusm going to or returning from ANY incident or Department function, training, inspections etc. As for the why or now questions as an Officer my answer was always,"because I told or asked you to!"
Comment by Paul E. Swaggerty on May 12, 2009 at 1:38am
All our young firefighters are great to be around and work with. They show me respect, because I show them respect. Our younger members are doing the lions share of the work load. They are all medics and work on the bucket. EMS is what we do now. These kids are very good at it, but we are wearing them out. There are no promotions for them because the city can't aford to fill the vacancies and up the manning level.
Our generational gap is the medic vs the engine house. The youngest get off probation and go to the first run medic where they are making Captain level choices everyday making the lowest pay in the department. The older fire medics are on engine companies. I hope that one day soon we create an ems officers position for these guys. They work hard and the calls we get are so different today than 15 years ago. They run all nite long and commonly do not have one real emergency. When I was on the medic most of the calls were legit. We hire the best medics and buy the best equipment only wear them out on public assists. Don't get me wrong, the engine of that district is there too, but there are fewer buckets than engines.
The best thing we could do for all our members is EMS prevention. Prevent half of the BS calls and give EMS a promotional ladder.
We old farts need to help these young kids or they are gona burn out and turn away from the fire service.
Comment by David McPherson on May 12, 2009 at 12:14am
I remember in the '70's being taunted by the "old guys" for wearing a scott bottle and even for wearing a turnout coat as they would wear their denim work jacket while chomping on a 3 day old cigar humping the line into the building. No self respecting FIREFIGHTER would be an EMT! Firefighters fought fires! Time are changing and "we" are the old farts. My son tells me now; "Dad that's not how we do it now ..." Many a tradition and "the right way" are falling by the wayside, just as they did when I would argue with my grandpop in the station ...... waaayyy back then. It is important for us to remember that our generation brought about many great changes to the Fire/EMS/Emergency Services field and now we must open our minds and allow changes brought about by a generation who were kids on 9/11/01.

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