Fire Fighting in Canada

Captain Boomer and the Company of Ys


Captain Boomer and the Company of Ys
Lou Wilde, the assistant chief in Kelowna, B.C., looks at the generation gap between Baby Boomers and the Gen Y (or Why!) and how officers can build bridges.

August 6, 2008 
By Lou Wilde

I taught a fire officer class for some
25-plus year veterans a while back and while discussing the
generation gap between officers and junior firefighters, a 28-year
officer told me it was my job as a fire administrator to hire
generation Y firefighters who think
like baby boomers. Clearly, this exemplifies how some boomers are not
particularly willing to adapt or change at this stage
of their lives. Where on Earth are we going to find 20-somethings who
think like baby boomers?

Our department is probably
similar to most with about the top 20 per cent of staff in the boomer category
(born between 1943 and 1960). The rest are split about 60 per cent generation X
and 20 per cent Y (or Why?) generation. 

During this class
discussion, another officer with similar tenure recalled how one of his younger
guys helped him with an Excel spread sheet that automatically filled in and
cross referenced information for his shift’s vacation schedule but this young
firefighter didn’t know how to start a chainsaw because he didn’t know what the
choke was for. Capt. Boomer expressed disbelief at his rookie’s inability to
start the saw but I assume the rookie felt the same about his captain when it
came to using Excel. 

This is just one stereotypical
example of the differences between Capt. Boomer and his 20-something
firefighters. A paramedic friend was telling me how his new 26-year-old partner
was driving him nuts because he was always asking why things are  done a certain way. I had a similar
experience. Firefighter Y came to me asking for my car keys so he could do the
vehicle check on Tuesday afternoon. He was gone for about 10 minutes. When he
returned my keys he informed me that I was almost out of washer fluid and, with
a smile, turned and walked out of the office. I sat there sort of stunned,
smiling back at him until it sunk in. He was the same young guy who checked the
SCBA bottles that morning during truck inventory checks. His job was to check
my vehicle and that is exactly what he did. I sat in on this kid’s interview
when he applied for the job and he was outstanding. He isn’t dumb but he is one
of those Y generation types and these kind of responses maybe more widespread
than we think.


I asked a group of senior
firefighters and officers recently how they would describe the Y generation
firefighter. They responded with: “They’re lazy”; “They don’t know nothing”;
and “You have to tell them how to do everything and why”. So, I asked them to
compare the pros and cons of the veteran boomer to the rookie Y and this is
what they came up with:

Veteran boomer                                      Rookie Y

Pros:                                                           Pros:

Experienced (job and life)                         Enthusiastic

Team oriented                                           Open
book/ blank page

Service oriented                                        Techno

Cons:                                                          Cons:

Set in their ways                                       Limited

Less willing to learn new methods            Assume they know more than
 they really do.                                        

So what is the fix to get
Capt. Boomer and firefighter Y on the same page philosophically and operationally?
Maybe there is no “fix”, rather we can work toward better intergenerational
relations by attempting to understand what makes the other generation tick.
Let’s look at some of the life influences that have helped to make both
generations what they are.


Boomers expect to work very
hard to get ahead. They were new-home buyers as young couples with 18-per-cent
mortgage rates. They invented the 60-hour work week.

Ys expect to be rewarded.
They expect their boss or employer to constantly show appreciation. They expect
to be led well and have little tolerance for incompetence. They expect to be accurately
informed at all times.


Boomers were primarily
influenced in their limited exposure to the beliefs and opinions of their
parents and co-workers whereas the Y generation has a wide spectrum of

The Ys watched MTV featuring
young men who are successful with money, women and cars.

Boomers borrowed money to
buy a home or the family car; Ys borrow their disposable income.


When boomers grew up they had favourites like Keon
and Cournoyer and their teams were the Maple Leafs or the Canadiens. Remember
when Bobby Orr went to
Chicago in the mid 70s and when Gretzky was traded to L.A? Canada lost
the best player to ever play the game to an American team.

Professional sports heroes now seem to go where the
money is. Now the admiration is primarily for the individual and the personal
records they hold rather than for team. 


Capt. Boomer was lectured to and he was expected to
memorize formulas and times tables. He may have received corporal punishment if
he failed to do so or if he talked in class.

Firefighter Y, on the other hand, has a options for
learning from public school, home school, Waldorf, Montessori, church-affiliated
schooling or private schooling. Many of these were around when boomer went to
school but Y has more exposure to the options. When firefighter Y went to
school, his teacher was more of a guiding facilitator than an authority figure and
he was expected to debate the subject rather than being told what to think.

Home life 

Boomer was expected to be seen but not heard. He
listened to dad simply because he was dad and if he didn’t he was going to get
“it”. Boomer’s mom stayed home and maintained the house and when Boomer and his
siblings got home from school Boomer did chores through which he learned how to
start the lawnmower or chainsaw (and what the choke actually did).

Today, more mothers work outside the home, the
weekend is family time and we are more interested in entertaining ourselves as
a family unit than maintaining our yards and homes when not at our jobs. We
sometimes hire these jobs out and maybe because of this, young people are less
apt to learn a lot of the hands-on chores/ skills that Boomer did as a
youngster. Boomer was excited about his birthday because mom made a special
afternoon out of it with a cake and some backyard games for his friends. Y’s
mom might drop $100 on laser tag for Y and his buddies.

Career advancement

Boomers are loyal to their departments and they
accept the fact that they must put their time in before advancement.

My generation (the Xers) may feel they need to leave
their fire department to pursue career advancement and the Ys may leave the
fire service for other career challenges. Don’t be surprised when this happens. 

So, what’s the secret? Sorry to lead you through
all this only to find that I don’t have the magic formula. I’m thankful for
Boomer and his generation because on our job, they’re the ones who get things
done. They take on the extra projects that make the difference whether it’s
building a room to store old bunker gear or teach the newbie how to march. In a
lot of ways the new members of today are better, smarter, stronger and faster.
They’re better prepared for the street out of boot camp because boomers are
usually the ones who train them, but they do lack one thing and its something
unique to emergency services. We exist in a paramilitary structure with rank
and chain of command. Our duties are in some ways primitive – we put out fire
and help people who are sick and injured and we protect our neighbour’s homes
and property from disaster. Boomer must teach Y about the paramilitary service
we’re in, its history, how we rely on each other as a team and that the chain
of command is how we must operate. The work can be tough and great things are
expected of Y, on and off duty. Capt. Boomer has to come to grips with the fact
that Y has different motivations, goals and expectations. Capt. Boomer needs to
listen to the young people – they have good ideas.  If Y asks why Boomer is so anal about how the
preconnects are loaded, Boomer needs explain why, so that everyone on every
shift in every fire station knows exactly how the hose will deploy in an
emergency. If Y has a better idea for loading the hose, Boomer needs to get his
crew to try it and, if it works better, then Boomer (as the officer) needs  to talk to somebody to make it happen and improve
the way business is done. Firefighter Y will respect Capt. Boomer more for his
willingness to listen to his opinion and push a good idea up the chain. 

Capt. Boomer has his work cut out for him when
trying to understand firefighter Y at times, so communicating ideas and
expectations is a good place to start. 
Firefighter Y will appreciate and want to follow an officer who takes
time to explain what is expected, show how to do things, to be kept in the loop
on what’s going on and for Boomer to give him feedback on how he’s doing once
in a while. 

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