Volunteer Vision: Understanding generation divide
For almost 10 years I have been a formal and avid observer of the generational divide in the ranks of our fire departments. Being in a leadership role, I have always looked for methods to gain a better understanding of group behaviour. Whether that is in the stress of an emergency scene, or just casually socializing and interacting in the fire station, I observe personalities under various situations. You could say that I am a consummate people watcher as I believe that to be a better leader, you have to study people.
I have written and presented seminars on my observations of the generational gap in the fire service for almost a decade now, sharing tips on generational characteristics and how it affects the fire department culture as a tool to enhance your leadership. Because characteristics of newer generations are shifting so fast, fire service leaders can be taken by surprise if they are not observing and adjusting in their department. This pandemic has afforded us a few new observations.
During this pandemic, society has been dealing with different measures to manage virus spread. The fire service has had to adapt and be able to still answer the call and keep our departments resilient to the virus that threatens us all. Some volunteer departments had to abandon assembling for weekly training and members have been cooped up in social isolation at home in various parts of the country.
There are several labeled generation groups in the fire service as it relates to pandemic resilience: Baby Boomers (born up 1965), Generation X (1965 to 1979), Generation Y/ millennials (1979 to 1996) and Gen Z/iGen (born 1997 onward). The next generation, Gen Alpha, is still too young to be in fire departments yet.
The pandemic crisis, isolation measures and the need to ensure our fire departments continue to effectively operate has highlighted some of the traits associated with generational upbringing. During this COVID-19 crisis, lack of weekly training, scaled response, lack of social activities and social distancing measures have changed the atmosphere in fire stations. Being forced to live our lives in much more solitude and less physical interaction with each other and the public has had effects on everyone’s mental well-being.
Our generational traits are an important factor to good camaraderie and team building as firefighters work together, but our various age groups and traits can also lead to misunderstandings and conflict.
There is not enough space in this column to describe all the named generations, but I encourage you to look them up. My generation, Generation X, seems to have been raised to adapt to isolation a little easier. I belong at the very front of Gen X, bordering on Baby Boomer. I, along with many of my generation, went from elementary to high school typically coming home to an empty house while both parents worked full-time jobs. As latchkey kids, we all learned the independence and the ability to keep ourselves occupied in solitude as a normal daily routine without the aid of the internet.
Back then we were just considered the rebel generation, independent and somewhat reclusive in our own basements and garages, never really drawing much attention as we silently sat between the boomers and millennials. But many of us enjoyed our time alone without constant electronic communication. Video games were very new and basic, and a lot of us still find retreat in reading a book, listening to our stereo music, or just being alone to recharge. For the other generations where social interaction is a mainstay, greater anxiety seems to exist.
I am not one to put people in stigma or classify in silos, but it must be recognized that our upbringing during our life and times translates into our culture at the fire station. I am not implying that one generation is better than the other when it comes to resilience either because each generation, and indeed individual, has strengths and weaknesses in their traits. My point is that generational traits play an important role in volunteer fire department life. It is important we understand them as a tool to strengthen our organizations. The pandemic has shown that understanding generational traits is important. The best place to understand them is when we prepare for recruitment of new young volunteer firefighters. Understanding all our generations make life a little easier for fire departments and their future.
Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, Nfld. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.