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New firefighters require new approaches

Fire departments will need to take a lesson from corporate America’s playbook for getting the most from millennial employees


We are about to face the biggest transition in personnel in the past 25 years.

Photo/City of Alexandria


The two areas of greatest impact on the fire service are going to come in personnel management and professional development.

We are about to face the biggest transition in personnel in the past 25 years. As we all know, firefighters retire in bunches; the difference now is in the type of employees our officers will be tasked with managing.

I am no expert on so called millennials, but I know enough to realize they do not see the world or learn the same way my generation did. I am sure the generation of firefighters who came before me, primarily veterans from WWII, Korea and Vietnam, thought the fire service was going to meet its doom with our ilk stepping in.

But, as it always does, it survived and we have made our contributions to the evolution of the service. The difference this time is the learning styles, the way these folks view the world and their place in it that are going to challenge the fire service.

The term millennials usually applies to individuals who reached adulthood around the turn of the 21st century. The precise delineation varies from one source to another, however.

Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the 1991 book Generations: The History of America’s Future, 1584 to 2069, are often credited with coining the term. Howe and Strauss define the millennial cohort as consisting of individuals born between 1982 and 2004.

What makes them tick

Millennials grew up in an electronics-filled and increasingly online and socially networked world. They are the generation that has received the most marketing attention. As the most ethnically diverse generation, millennials tend to be tolerant of difference.

Having been raised under the mantra “follow your dreams” and being told they were special, they tend to be confident. While largely a positive trait, the millennial generation’s confidence has been argued to spill over into entitlement and narcissism.

They are often seen as slightly more optimistic about the future of America than other generations — despite that they are the first generation since the silent generation that is expected to be less economically successful than their parents.

One reported result of millennial optimism is entering adulthood with unrealistic expectations, which sometimes leads to disillusionment. Many early millennials went through post-secondary education only to find themselves employed in unrelated fields or underemployed and job hopping more frequently than previous generations.

Their expectations may have resulted from the very encouraging, involved and almost ever-present group of parents that became known as helicopter parents.

Here’s a look at some telling millennial statistics from Pew Research.

  • 50 percent of millennials consider themselves politically unaffiliated.
  • 29 percent consider themselves religiously unaffiliated.
  • They have the highest average number of Facebook friends, with an average of 250 friends vs. Generations Xers 200.
  • 55 percent have posted a selfie or more to social media sites versus 20 percent of Generation X.
  • They send a median of 50 texts a day.
  • As of 2012, only 19 percent of millennials said that, generally, others can be trusted.
  • There are about 76 million millennials in the United States (based on research using the years 1978-2000).
  • Millennials are the last generation born in the 20th century.
  • Twenty percent have at least one immigrant parent.

Adapt to the new firefighter

So what does all this mean to the fire service? It means we are going to have to develop new expectations (not lesser ones, just different).

It means we are going to have to adapt our teaching styles. We are going to have to incorporate technology to our teaching. Sitting a bunch down in a room and killing them with PowerPoint will not cut it anymore.

The way we communicate with our people has to change as well. Social media is their preferred method of communicating. We have to adapt and employ social media strategies when delivering everything from policy to training.

It also means we must be open to new ideas about how we conduct our business. A human resource manager friend describes as the black-line and blue-line methodology.

The black line represents the end goal — advancing the proper hose line into a building from the unburned side of the structure to extinguish the fire. The blue line represents the freedom of the crew to attack the problem in unconventional ways to achieve the same end goal.

We have to be open to try new things, even though over 150 years of history is tearing at our old brains screaming, “But we have always done it the other way!”

Some things will not change, and rightfully so. The chain of command, science-based tactics and hands-on training along with discipline and accountability are hallmarks of our profession.

We just have to be willing to look at the world through a different lens.

Chief Rob Wylie is a 29-year fire service veteran who retired as fire chief of the Cottleville FPD in St. Charles County, Missouri. Wylie has served as a tactical medic and TEMS team leader with the St. Charles Regional SWAT team for the past 19 years. He is a certified instructor and teaches at the state, local and national level on leadership, counter-terrorism and TEMS operations. Wylie graduated from Lindenwood University, the University of Maryland Staff and Command School and the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Connect with Wylie on LinkedIn.

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