How different generations see the fire service

At times the generation gap in the fire service can seem as wide as the Grand Canyon, here's a look at why it is so wide and how to narrow it

By Chief Paul Stein

The combination of several generations working together along with the influx of women, minorities, people with different sexual orientations have made things interesting for today's supervisors. This especially applies to the historically conservative culture in fire departments.

You've heard these terms: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, Millennials, X-Boxers. However you want to label them, the wave in the population born between 1940 and 2000 have more names than a typical phone book, and they don't always get along.

I once heard a very experienced fire captain talking about the new breed of firefighters. His comments went like this: "I don't understand them. How can they think that way? They have no work ethic. I just don't like them."

Today's fire service workforce can be made up of four generations. Each generation has its own values, beliefs and priorities. This is why when a person of one generation is relating an experience to a person of another generation, it often results in misconceptions and a lot of eye rolling.

The older supervisor
Many older supervisors don't buy into the values and work ethic of today's employees. Some even feel that the younger generation's commitment and work ethic are seriously lacking.

Another challenge for today's supervisor is dealing with the simple and non-threatening things such as tattoos, earrings, body piercings, different hairstyles and facial hair.

On the other side of the coin, many new workers believe the boss is stuck in the Great Depression mentality they learned from their parents. They describe these supervisors as stubborn, inflexible, an obstacle to change, and having an "it's my way or the highway" attitude.

They don't understand the need for the semi-military rank and structure concept employed by the fire service. Many of the new team members have more formal education than their supervisors, which sometimes manifests itself as a lack of respect for the boss.

Origins of values
People from one generation develop their values and orientation from their environment. It has been said that a person's value system is in place by the teenage years, while other experts believe that value systems are in place by age 10. Regardless of age, people are influenced by their environment.

The value system and life's orientation environmental components are the political system, socio-economic climate, parental influence, home life and peers. Whether it's listening to the news or to Huey Lewis and the News, our environment shapes who we are.

My parents were impacted by the depression of the 1930s. I grew up in a single-parent home. We were on welfare and often didn't know if dinner was going to be a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a frozen dinner.

During the day, we watched a test pattern on a round black-and-white TV screen because they did not broadcast 24 hours a day. Today you can watch TV while checking out at the local super market. Local and world news only lasted 15 minutes. Today there are entire channels devoted to 24-hour news.

Was it harder than today? Not really. It was just very different, hence the gap in understanding different generational values — it is similar to the gap in understanding between my generation and our parents.

The work ethic of the Traditionalist, born between 1935 and 1945, and the Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1965, drives them to spend more time at the job, socializing at the fire station and getting involved through volunteering.

Dave Hubert is a good friend of mine. He and his CSFA Steamer Team are recognized throughout California and the Western states and his great cartoons about the fire service appear monthly in the CSFA magazine.

The Traditionalist
"I am a Traditionalist and proud of it," Hubert said. "My generation built the standard and character of the fire service. Most real men (and women too, I guess) want to be part of it because it offers: community, family, discipline, team, action, excitement and a performance standard that can be found nowhere else.

"We face the realities of the fireground that are true — life and death issues that are real. We, as practical people, understand what makes a good firefighter. When an H.R. manager requires fire departments to hire only those with academic degrees, this is, in my opinion, just wrong.

"The fire service of today still needs the practical persons with a good work ethic. We want to start with a firefighter-type person (not fire chiefs as new hires) and allow that person to progress up through the ranks, based on their abilities. That's the truth of the fire service.

"I know there are limitations to all of us. That's also why we have an issue with the city managers who manage our fire departments. They keep us to a standard, yet allow such standards to be diluted with new hiring practices.

"I am glad I am retired now — I really don't have to face these issues anymore. Also, I am not naive enough to know things don't change. Things can change, but not the standard of performance, work ethics, or devotion to the cause — they shouldn't change.

"In my opinion one has to be in 100 percent or you're not in. Show up on time, in uniform, ready to devote yourself to the profession and the folks you are sworn to serve. If you present yourself in a professional, neat manner and do the best you can, you will never have questions about yourself and you can rest assured that no one else will.

"My wife says I'm a hard liner, but where does one draw the line when it comes to a standard?"

Do you think the new generation of firefighter will agree with Dave? It appears that the newer generations of firefighters believe that family and life style has a higher priority than spending additional time at work. Their saying is: "Happiness is seeing the fire station in my rear view mirror."

What are your thoughts about Dave's comments? Let us know.


Paul Stein was fire chief of the Santa Monica (Calif.) Fire Department.

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