Volunteer Vision: August 2015
By Vince MacKenzie
My daughter graduated high school in June and, like most parents, I was a proud member of the audience for the ceremony.
By Vince MacKenzie
As I observed all her fellow graduates and heard their accomplishments, my thoughts wandered to the future of my community’s fire service. I thought about the next generation of firefighter candidates hitting the streets and hopefully volunteering in their communities or seeking fire-service careers.
Some of the graduates at the ceremony mentioned in their bios that they had completed the youth firefighter program. As the fire chief, I was proud to hear the name of my fire department at their graduation. At the moment, 25 per cent of my department’s roster is made up of former youth firefighter program participants.
For 25 years our fire department has operated a high-school program in which we offer students 14 weeks of basic firefighter training to expose them to the inner workings of our fire department and the emergency services. The program is a staple of our fire-prevention and recruitment plans.
Sitting there at the graduation, I thought about how fortunate our department is to have 25 years of experience watching generational change. Every year we invite young people into our fire station to learn about us, but in the end we learn more about them and how students have changed over the years; I think that observation has given our department an edge in understanding and recruiting youth.
I have spoken at a few conferences about the challenges of the generation gap in the fire service and everywhere I go I hear the same comments and complaints about youth and the future of the fire service. “Our young people are not like us. Our young people don’t have community spirit. Our young people have a major sense of entitlement. Our young people look out only for themselves because they all think they are special.”
I see what everyone is talking about, but I disagree with the idea that the fire service is doomed. I have learned that youth do have community spirit when they can show it as a group; they do have high expectations, and it is up to fire departments to ensure those expectations are fulfilled. Our young people think they are special because everyone has told them so since they were infants. We market firefighters as special breed in the community. If you as a fire-service mentor make the young people in your department feel special, they will commit to the service like no others.
I believe understanding today’s youth is critical for the survival of volunteer fire service. A generation ago many of us were following in our parents footsteps and volunteering to answer the call. As experienced firefighters age, we must rely on our youth to voluntarily carry on the missions of Canada’s fire services.
My observations on today’s youth might seem more optimistic than most because I believe young firefighters are great team players and that teamwork is at their core. The school system promotes collaborative work over individual assignments, which means youth are more mature in their critical thinking and not afraid to state what they hope to get out of their involvement. The challenge for fire-department managers is to ensure youth train in groups and are kept informed as to why they are training. Telling youth to do it just because you’re the officer and you said so does not register well in younger minds. Our youth were taught to question and understand everything they do, so don’t expect any different when they join your fire department.
The challenge for departments is to set up their organizations in way that appeals to younger generations. Challenge young minds but explain what you are doing and, most importantly, why it needs to be done. Above all, ensure you give youth lots of praise and recognition. Youth today respond very well to positive comments. The old-school way of commanding does not work well, so be prepared to feel a little awkward telling your troops they are special more often.
Keep in mind that fire doesn’t negotiate well, so it is our duty to train future firefighters to do what the fire scene dictates. Today’s fires require more skill and teamwork than ever before. As with high school graduates, we can’t hold their hands forever, but hopefully we have taught them the skills to stay safe and effective in their jobs, and to continue volunteering for years to come.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service and an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince