“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