The challenges of managing millennials in the fire service
Succession management for the new generations of firefighters as baby boomers retire
As baby boomer firefighters retire and the millennial generation increasingly moves into the workforce, the overriding concern is how to successfully manage incoming millennial firefighters. While many people think of succession management only as training and education, much more than that is involved.
The generational change process will involve engaging all stakeholders in conversations about what positions, traits, behaviors, skills and abilities will ensure the highest level of success in the fire services field.
Retiring firefighters have witnessed major changes in firefighting
Retiring baby boomer firefighters have witnessed the biggest and quickest changes in the fire service. Many of these firefighters began their careers when self-contained breathing apparatuses (SCBAs) were not widely used. While many departments owned SCBAs, they often stored the devices in compartments.
Today, keeping that equipment in storage is passé. We are in an age when nearly all fire and overhaul operations are conducted in an SCBA outfit, due to the known link between combustion products and cancer.
Another major change that occurred during the baby boomer era of firefighting was the introduction of formalized training and education programs. The Fire and Emergency Higher Education groups, along with the National Fire Academy and the National Fire Protection Association, created a standardized firefighter certification curriculum. That curriculum replaced a haphazard system of individual departments giving the thumbs-up to certification of statewide curricula and testing.
Time in grade and experience most valued by baby boomer firefighters
On the education front, a national curriculum in fire science was born through the Degrees at a Distance program, which allowed firefighters to attend college while working their 24- to 48-hour shifts. Nevertheless, baby boomer firefighters still regard experience and time in grade as important elements of the profession. That time and experience have contributed to a highly varied and well-rounded group of professional firefighters.
While each individual is unique, the incoming generation has some traits in common with the baby boomer generation that fire service executives must understand to ensure the success of the incoming millennial firefighters. For one, we have all moved from an industrial age into the information age.
Experienced firefighters and commanders must lead changes in firefighting
Much has been written about the millennials and their characteristics. As I explained at a recent command staff meeting at my fire department, this newest generation is coming to fill the boots of our retirees because we can’t hire 50-year-olds and expect them to jump off a fire truck for the next 25 years.
We also won’t ask the newest firefighters to design our long-term vision and training programs to ensure that their values and actions align with the needs of our organization. As the command staff, we have to be the ones to lead the changes that will occur with the millennials’ arrival.
Generational differences between baby boomer and millennial firefighters
The millennial generation has a few key characteristics that will affect our profession the most. The first is their upbringing on technology rather than on mechanics. In the past 20 years, our occupation has been staffed by men and women who are highly skilled in mechanics, including HVAC, plumbing and other skilled trades.
Because of the growth of technology and the decline of skilled trades education, we have an incoming generation that can program a computer system, fix software and also access social media from any of several devices.
But they will not be able to diagnose a standard furnace smoking call or figure out an electrical problem inside a home. As a result, we will need to update our initial and ongoing training programs to deliver the skilled trade information the millennials lack.
Millennials will need more patience to succeed in firefighting
The second trait of millennials is their need for instant gratification. They can watch TV and skip the commercials, and access anything on the internet they want at any time.
This situation has created one of the toughest issues that fire service managers will encounter. We are – and will likely remain – a paramilitary organization with a rank and structural organization based on tenure.
Career progress is based on advancing through the ranks on the way to the top. This type of career advancement is drastically different from instant gratification.
In addition, millennials grew up consistently being told by their parents that they were the best and received trophies for everything, whether or not their actual performance met the standards of excellence. That glorification has produced a generation of workers who will experience culture shock when they arrive at our doorstep.
We need to think about how we will handle these millennials when they start arriving in our field. Employees are most excited and most impressionable in the first six months of their employment. What will we do to capture this excitement and instill in these employees the correct values that match our organization?
The last thing we want to do is be unorganized during this onboarding process. If we are disorganized, new employees’ first impression will be that we don’t have the ability to bring new firefighters through the door, much less ensure their success once they are inside.
A good deal of this process will require collaboration with our human resources departments to ensure that new employees enroll in the pension or other retirement system. These new firefighters will also need to comply with all local rules and ordinances or civil service requirements.
Once you have an official hire in your department, spell out your expectations. People often do not mind rules; they just want to clearly know them.
Orientation should train new firefighters on values, parameters and beliefs
Orientation should not include reading the rule book aloud to new firefighters. Orientation should instill our values and decision-making parameters and organizational beliefs. This will help these millennial firefighters to make the right decisions when there is no rule to cover an unusual situation.
Orientation should also include introducing all of the staff. This might be one of the only times new employees will see those staff members, but there is an important connection and respect that each group should have for the other.
New employees should understand staff positions, what those staff positions mean to the organization and who is in those jobs. At the same time, staff officers should understand that the new employees are the future of the organization whose success they have worked hard to achieve.
If your new employees are not successful, all the hard work staff officers put in will be lost. Be sure to spend time in the early stages to ensure new firefighters will excel and further enhance your organization’s great reputation.
About the Author
Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control.
Randall serves as the executive chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the vice-chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a fire officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. He can be reached at IPSauthor@apus.edu.
For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.