FDIC Session: Schmittendorf emphasizes understanding when it comes to the newest generation of firefighters

FDIC Session: “They Are It!” Schmittendorf emphasizes understanding when it comes to the newest generation of firefighters
By Janelle Foskett

Parallel universes may exist on the TV drama LOST, but as Tiger Schmittendorf explained in his FDIC session “From the X-Box to the Box Alarm: Leadership in Today’s Firehouse,” the harsh reality is that there’s no parallel universe with some other generation of firefighters who are going to swoop in and save the fire service. “They are it!” Schmittendorf exclaimed, referring to the new generation of firefighters currently coming up through the ranks—a generation that many more seasoned firefighters simply don’t understand.

Schmittendorf—deputy fire coordinator for the Erie County (N.Y.) Department of Emergency Services and an expert in volunteer recruitment efforts—reminded attendees that although they may have an idea of what constitutes a “perfect” firefighter, we can’t just go to the store and pick one off a shelf. And members of this new “X-Box Generation” who are contemplating a fire service career (or those already in the ranks) may not quite fit into this “perfect” mold, so we need to be open to working with what we’ve got—or what we’re going to get in the future.

With that in mind, Schmittendorf emphasized getting to know this generation, as this is really the only way to attract them to the fire service (and keep them in it!), foster a good working relationship with them and better prepare them for what they will face in the fire service—a responsibility shared by every generation.

When Schmittendorf asked the audience why we should care about this generation, someone said, “Because someone cared about us.” Schmittendorf then reminded attendees that our people are our greatest assets, adding that, “We need to build our bench strength. After all, they’re the next fire service leaders.”

Getting to Know You
So what do you need to know about the X-Box Generation—also referred to as Gen Y, Gen “Why,” WebGen or Gen “I” (for individual)? What makes them unique? They’re:
• Opportunity-driven
• Future-oriented
• Confident despite the dismal economic environment
• Eagerly engaged in society via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, etc.
• Technologically savvy
• Quick studies
• Taught to collaborate and work with teams

Attendees also offered some thoughts about this up and coming generation of firefighters: “They want to know ‘what’s in it for me?’”; “They want everything now”; “They’re multi-taskers”; and “They want to know ‘why?’ before doing anything.”

Schmittendorf was quick to point out that these certainly aren’t bad qualities—just different qualities than we’re used to. He then added some additional—and illuminating—observations about this generation. To echo an attendee’s point, Schmittendorf noted that this generation asks “Why?” before doing anything. “Things need to make sense to them,” he said. “We have to sell it to them first.”

Additionally, “flexibility is huge to them,” he said. They value balance in life and, therefore, it may be difficult to get them interested in working overtime. “Dare I say that they’re smarter than we are?” Schmittendorf asked. On this point, Schmittendorf added that although they may not have the same non-stop work ethic as many more-seasoned fire personnel, we need to engage those who are “on the fringe” of this work ethic and who could be encouraged to step it up a bit.

Schmittendorf also reminded attendees that “it’s not their fault” that this generation is like this—they were raised with these values and that doesn’t mean they’re wrong. “If we don’t understand them, it’s our responsibility to get to know them. And who better to instill these values than us?”

Finally, perhaps the most important thing to know about this generation of newcomers is that they are ready to contribute—now! “They’re full of fresh insight on how to best reach peers in the consumer market,” he said.

Appealing to the X-Box Generation
So how do we pull them away from the X-Box long enough to answer the box alarm? It’s going to take patience, time and commitment to motivate this group of recruits, Schmittendorf said.

Some things to keep in mind: They communicate differently. They’re tied into social media, so it’s important to consider Facebook, Twitter, blogs and similar application in the recruitment process. Schmittendorf played a recruitment video from www.rollwithit.com that targeted future EMTs and paramedics. The video, part of a Pennsylvania Department of Health recruitment campaign from 2005, served as an example of the type of message that appeals to younger folks—it has action, music, graphics and, most importantly, a message that says, “EMS has it all.”

Additionally, we should consider creative marketing efforts, like running joint recruitment efforts with the National Guard, for example.

Training Challenges & Storytelling
Schmittendorf noted that one big difference between the generations is what they face on the fireground. For one, he said, we’re winning the fire prevention battle and, as a result, the number of fires has decreased. The result: Fewer actual fires on which to gain experience.

So what can we do? Schmittendorf suggested that we first increase the quantity and quality of training. Second, we must surround ourselves with these younger members and get to know and understand them. A component of this: storytelling. It may sound silly, but as Schmittendorf explains, these firefighters can learn greatly from hearing stories of more experienced firefighters. “They learn through osmosis,” he said. In this effort, Schmittendorf has created the Web site www.runtothecurb.com where firefighters can tell stories about their experiences in the fire service. Another benefit: Storytelling instills excitement and reminds folks why they got involved in the fire service in the first place, Schmittendorf said.

Final Thoughts
Schmittendorf warned that organizations that don’t take advantage of the promise of collaboration with this new generation risk becoming obsolete and irrelevant. He also reiterated that we have a responsibility to invest in this generation “so when they get to positions of authority, they can be good followers and leaders.”

Tiger Schmittendorf can be reached at www.tigerschmittendorf.com.

Janelle Foskett is the managing editor of FireRescue magazine.

Additional Resources

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