FRI 2019 Quick Take: How to deal with an 8-second attention span

Fire departments need a new approach for recruiting and retaining Gen Z recruits


Imagine teaching your next class in 8-second vignettes. By the time you get done reading this sentence, you’re already on to your second lesson.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute – and one of FireRescue1’s newly appointed editorial advisory board members – presented on generational differences during the Fire-Rescue International General Session. The presentation gives a tremendous amount of food for thought for fire chiefs charged with finding and retaining firefighters, including the fact that, as Moore-Merrell explained, the newest generation coming into the workforce – Generation Z – tends to think and learn in 8-second bursts. She added that the fire service needs to adapt if they want to successfully employ members of Generation Z.

Key takeaways

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute – and one of FireRescue1’s newly appointed editorial advisory board members – presented on generational differences during the Fire-Rescue International General Session. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)
Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute – and one of FireRescue1’s newly appointed editorial advisory board members – presented on generational differences during the Fire-Rescue International General Session. (Photo/Marc Bashoor)

Following are several key takeaways from Dr. Moore-Merrell’s Chief Chat about generations and Gen Z in particular:

Generations identified: Dr. Moore-Merrell started by delineating several generations:

  • Traditionalists – 1900-1945
  • Baby boomers – 1946-1964
  • Gen X-ers – 1965-1980
  • Millennials/Generation Y – 1981-2000
  • Generation Z (Zeds) – 2001-Present

She explained that the current fire service workforce is mostly made up of Baby boomers, Gen Xers and millennials, highlighting that by 2025, 75% of the workforce will be millennials. The digital age was just beginning to boom when millennials were born, so they’ve always had access to technology and are therefore very tech-savvy and connected to social media. Millennials learn differently, more than any other generation before; they were the first to really put down the books in favor of the keyboard.

“And just when we got use to the millennials, there’s something new coming,” she said, asking “Who will [the millennials] be leading?”

Understanding Zeds: Driving home the gap between generations, it is important to note that the many of the millennials and almost all of the Zeds you are likely beginning to hire or find as volunteers represent the first generation that have been “global” their entire life. With the advent of Facebook and the proliferation of social media platforms since, the millennials and Zeds have access to broad information at their fingertips and digital relationships around the world. Contrary to the millennials, the Zeds may not have ever read a physical book – textbooks are not “their thing”!

Dr. Moore-Merrell explained that Zeds are early-adopters, brand influencers and social media drivers. Zeds were born into crisis, with terrorism, global recessions and climate change – and important factor to consider as it relates to their perception of the world. Some other interesting notes about Gen Z: They are very socially aware, entrepreneurial, tolerant and community-oriented – the last trait being particularly important to the fire service, Moore-Merrell noted.  Although certainly up for individual debate, Dr. Moore-Merrell also described Zeds as “smarter than the boomers, and way more ambitious than the millennials.”

Navigating Gen Z: Dr. Moore-Merrell offered useful tips for how to navigate a firehouse of Zeds.

  • Less focused – Zeds are less focused and have shorter attention spans – of 8 seconds! – so training and education will need to be adapted accordingly.
  • Feedback – Zeds will require frequent feedback from superiors.
  • Purpose – Zeds want to understand the overall vision and purpose for the fire department.
  • Communication – Because Zeds have are accustomed to sharing so much on social media, it’s important that supervisors actively seek out opportunities to talk to them before they potentially air grievances on social media.
  • Visual – Zeds respond more to visual tactics (infographics, video), which should help inform training and education efforts.

Reflecting on Zeds

It was interesting to listen to some testimonials from Zeds, who said, “We’re not interested in the wisdom of the gray hairs, we’d rather find it on Google.” Yes, this may be kind of a shock to your system, but this is the reality we’re facing today, with the youngest Zed at 24 – likely already applying to your fire department.

The presentation challenged chiefs to look at their training paradigms and understand how generational differences require different training and leadership approaches. Be a coach and a mentor, be accessible, and provide clear information on the mission. Zeds want to be challenged – so challenge them just remember, you don’t have much time!

Read more Fire-Rescue International 2019 coverage here.

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