We hoped our December column about the sense of entitlement among younger firefighters would spark some discussion. We’ve received feedback from readers so we know that this sentiment among newer firefighters is an issue. So, how do chiefs and officers handle the challenges and frustrations that come with this generational divide between young go-getters and experienced firefighters?
Most senior firefighters have considerable life and on-the-job experience while today’s younger firefighters possess more theoretical education. Problems occur when younger firefighters who have knowledge, skills and abilities gained through formal education – which the senior firefighters may not possess – think their degrees or diplomas outweigh the life and work experience of the senior firefighters. The younger firefighters fail to respect the veterans and their years of on-the-job training. This can lead to situations in which younger firefighters discount the advice and instruction given to them by senior staff, which can result in safety concerns during training and on the fire ground. In fact, this creates tension and disharmony in the station.
Issues such as communication, compensation, reward systems, work hours and work-place expectations are often viewed differently by different generations. The solution to the challenges that arise from these differences of opinion is not a one-step process, rather it may be a lengthy exercise in which all parties must work together to get the desired results.
All department members can influence change, so getting everyone on side is crucial to repair the us-versus-them mentality that may exist between senior staff and younger members. First, chiefs need to work with officers and veteran firefighters to help them understand the perspective of the younger firefighters. A common value among all generations is the desire for respect but each generation defines respect differently. For example, an officer asks a firefighter to carry out a station duty and is asked why. Sometimes, the hidden message from the younger firefighter is “why the hell should I do that”; other times the message isn’t hidden at all but is a straightforward question with merit.
But when officers are constantly asked why, frustration grows and productivity slows. That’s the point at which the chief needs to meet with officers and veteran firefighters to solicit ideas about how to get the message across to the younger firefighters that there are methods and valid reasons behind department policies and procedures. This will let senior officers and firefighters know that you respect their experience and want to work with them to solve problems.
Younger firefighters have been programmed to challenge the status quo and ask why things are done a certain way. The standard answer – because that’s the way it’s always been done – doesn’t work for this younger generation. Sometimes, explaining the history behind a method or practice, or explaining the sacrifices made by others to establish various practices and procedures, can make a difference. For some of our predecessors, PPE consisted of hand-me-downs and boots two sizes too big. Today’s firefighters need to value the efforts required to fight for the funding to buy PPE; a simple history lesson might help to alleviate the entitlement principle.
Ignoring advice from a senior firefighter can lead to serious consequences or injury. Senior firefighters understand the hierarchical structure of the fire service. Some younger members tend to view senior staff as old soldiers who need to retire. These situations are great opportunities to link senior officers with younger members for coaching and mentoring. Senior firefighters are the foundation on which chiefs can build a high-performance culture; they understand how our business is conducted according to solid principles and values.
The challenge is to convince the younger members of the values that our profession holds in high esteem. One way to eliminate these barriers to success is to create committees with a mandate to increase communication, harmony and relationships within the station. Giving senior firefighters formal leadership roles provides them with an opportunity to facilitate and guide discussions. Younger firefighters can be given formal recording roles on those committees. The second time the committee meets, reverse the roles and have the younger member lead the discussion. The intent is to give both generations a chance to lead. The fire chief must identify the scope of the committee but should not take any leadership role.
In the first few paragraphs of this column we noted that initiating this change and adopting the positive culture can be a lengthy process, but the alternative is stagnation, conflict and low morale and that’s unacceptable. We will offer further insight and recommendations in future columns.
Les Karpluk is the fire chief of the Prince Albert Fire Department in Saskatchewan. Lyle Quan is the fire chief of the Waterloo Fire Department in Ontario. Both are graduates of the Lakeland College Bachelor of Business in Emergency Services program and Dalhousie University’s Fire Administration program.