Firelines: Embracing a new generation of firefighters
By Dave Balding
By Dave Balding
Are some of us of doing a disservice to one of our greatest resources – young firefighters? I’m fortunate to connect with many leaders at conferences, while presenting or attending training. Despite the uniqueness of every department, common themes often arise.
A frequent comment revolves around the new generation of firefighters. Interestingly, comments such as: “These new kids just don’t get it,” come from several demographics, not only seasoned veterans.
Baby boomers, gen X-ers, and millennials are all part of the make up of our fire services. A quick online search provides endless definitions and traits of each of these generations – should you wish to pigeonhole your members that way. However, I believe very firmly in getting to know those we lead, not only by their generational traits, but also by their personalities.
Our fire services continue to change – at an ever-increasing rate. Most leaders are embracing new methods and strategies to better our response abilities. The same should be true for our firefighters. While I have yet to meet a fire officer who joined the service to manage, leadership is the most important thing we, as senior members of fire services, do. Sure, today’s firefighters want to know all the whys and wherefores before they carry out their assigned tasks – a concept that wasn’t around when I joined the fire department. When told to jump we simply asked “How high?” While there may not always be the opportunity to give an in-depth explanation for each question, taking the time to answer when available reaps great rewards.
I see today’s fire services as respect-based systems, as opposed to the model many of us know from years ago, which relied mostly on negative discipline – a tool that is still occasionally required. The increasing emergence of positive discipline (reinforcing and rewarding good behaviour and performance) has fostered, in my view, a better environment both on the fire ground and in the fire stations. Thankfully, the dictatorial, inflexible fire officer is becoming a character of the past. My leadership style leans toward the other end of the spectrum and I believe we can be firm and strong leaders without being too laissez-faire.
The traits of the many generations working alongside you may differ from your own. I argue that was the case when I, and many others my age, joined the fire department.
I also believe that sweeping generalizations about young firefighters have become common. I have heard countless complaints about young firefighters’ lack of work ethic and ambition, but this is simply inaccurate. Yes, these fresh new members have high expectations; some may argue there’s a sense of entitlement as well.
I have been in two departments that have offered junior firefighter programs, and they have been quite successful. The junior firefighters, for the most part, have been ambitious, polite and an inspiration to other members. Yes, they pitch in – with great energy and enthusiasm. This was initially a surprise to me. Training, both theoretical and hands on, comes easily to these new members. Many of the juniors advanced to be become full members with their departments. Invariably, they are excellent firefighters. One of the sharpest officers with whom I had the pleasure of working is still in his twenties – one of those dreaded millennials.
Am I more apprehensive when applicants in their late teens or early twenties walk into my office, as opposed to candidates in their thirties or forties? In short: no. Belonging to an older generation is no guarantee of a great work ethic any more than being young is an indication of lack of ambition or discipline. This assumption speaks, in part, to the importance of an effective hiring process. We need ambitious, committed and vibrant firefighters – regardless of age.
As leaders, it’s up to us to inspire and remain relevant to all our members. Spend time developing bonds with all your members and cross those generational boundaries. At the same time, it’s critical to model the department’s expected behaviours; we must still recognize problematic behaviours and correct them. It will ultimately be your decision what is acceptable in your department or jurisdiction.
Generational differences exist in many work environments. In fact, the paramilitary nature of fire departments may highlight these differences. Young firefighters are much more than the future of our fire services: while they may be our subordinates, they are also our colleagues. As such, we must continue to garner respect among all department members, regardless of age.
Dave Balding joined the fire service in 1985 and is the chief in Golden, B.C. Contact Dave at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FireChiefDaveB