Q&A: Leading across generations: How fire chiefs can connect with their entire membership

Chief Trisha Wolford tackles differences between learning styles, deference to authority and why millennials get a bad rap


This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 Fire Chief newsletter. Read the full briefing here and sign up for the Fire Chief newsletter to stay in the loop on leadership topics.

Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell – president and CEO of the International Public Safety Data Institute and a FireRescue1 editorial advisory board member – has spoken about the impact of the “8-second attention span” attributed to the newest generation entering the ranks – Generation Z, aka Zeds.

Knowing how to connect with members in such short bursts of information certainly provides challenges for fire service leaders looking to impart knowledge on new recruits. But it’s impossible to tackle generational differences in the fire service without acknowledging that the challenges are not limited to Gen Z. There are five generations currently serving in the U.S. fire service – Traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X, millennials and Gen Z. And while some might see five generations as five sets of challenges, perhaps it’s time to see this as five times the opportunity.

I spoke with Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Fire Chief Trisha Wolford, a Gen Xer herself and chair of the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee, about embracing the excitement of the “fresh blood” coming into the profession, plus the unique learning approaches exhibited by a diverse group of generations, differences among members’ deference to authority and, of course, why millennials get such a bad rap.

Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Fire Chief Trisha Wolford is the chair of the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee. (Courtesy photo)
Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Fire Chief Trisha Wolford is the chair of the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee. (Courtesy photo)

What do you see as the primary opportunities when it comes to having such a wide variety of ages and generations in the fire service?

The biggest opportunity I see is that our customer base, our community base, is a wide range of ages. There’s definitely something positive to be said for the diversity of generations. Normally, we talk about gender, ethnicity, religion, and color, but age is also a big one.

It also shows that the fire service is a long-term profession; it's not something you tend to get into for 5 or 10 years and then move on to something else. You can have a fulfilling, long-term career if you stay healthy.

The other thing is institutional knowledge. Like many other professions, the turnover happens so rapidly that you lose some of that institutional knowledge and history. Not necessarily culture or tradition, but history that teaches us a lot about where we’re headed.

How does social media play into the generational discussions, particularly in a culture where firefighters once told stories at the kitchen table, but now they can tell them on TikTok or other social media platforms?

When I visit the fire stations, I see both forms of storytelling, which is always heart-warming. It's very reassuring that they still consider themselves family. Whether you’re older or younger, there’s still jabs and jokes about the older person who can’t figure out how to get on social media or the younger person who can’t figure out how to check the oil on the engine because they’ve never seen a dipstick in their life.

When it comes to social media, I feel like it's kind of where the two roads have an opportunity to meet, because you can see so much fire service history. There are so many people sharing fire stories from the past – and then the training opportunities that come with it! For example, here we sit in Annapolis, Maryland, and we’re watching a 6-alarm fire live in Philly, and they’re recording it so they can use it for training the next day. Things like that have really advanced the conversation.

Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Fire Chief Trisha Wolford, a Gen Xer herself and chair of the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee. 
Anne Arundel County, Maryland, Fire Chief Trisha Wolford, a Gen Xer herself and chair of the IAFC’s Professional Development Committee. 

I’ve also seen situations at the kitchen table where the officer says, “Alright, phones off the table, it's dinner, nobody can be on their phones.” And they all put them in their pocket and nobody touches them, and they have a meal together, with great conversations.”

How can leaders best connect with members outside their own generation?

First and foremost, communication and leadership style.

If you look at Traditionalists (born before 1945), it's very much a polite, professional communication. That’s what that generation grew up with – very structured, very regimented; it’s family, its work.

If you look at millennials, they don’t want to be talked down to, but they also want to be motivated. They absolutely want to know the “why”: What am I going to get out of it, why am I doing it, what’s in it for me?

I’m at the tail end of Generation X, and that generation typically prefers very direct, straight-forward conversation. We don’t really need the fluff for the most part, just tell us what it is and we’ll get it done.

I talk to my company officers a lot about different personalities in the firehouse. They are the ones that have to deal with five or 10 people in the firehouse and manage them for 24 hours. This is really where the challenge lies because you’re trying to make a happy household with 10 people – and they’re all very different.

Barking an order at a 40-year-old is different than barking an order at an 18-year-old. They just respond differently. Traditionalists and baby boomers respond to the hierarchy – that paramilitary organizational model. Millennials and Zeds are OK with that, but that can’t be the end-all be-all. They still want to see that you have worked to earn that spot and that you’ve actually achieved something. They want a little of the “show me”, and that’s OK. It’s just different from what we have experienced in the past. Different doesn’t mean bad.

A lot of it really comes down to understanding the people you work with and you have to understand more than just their work style; you have to understand their personal beliefs. It’s a big investment of time. You have to be able to understand people and who they are, inside of work and outside, because, for the most part, we get them for eight days a month. Clearly, we’re not the main influencer. Most of it comes down to family and how they were raised.

If you had a sentence to describe what communication style motivates each group of individuals, what would it be?

For the Traditionalist, you would say, “Your experience or your work is respected.” That to them is satisfying and motivating. But for the baby boomers, we’re starting this little shift, so it’s, “You are valued, we need you.”

Getting to Gen X, it's, “You can do it your way, it's OK if you forget some of the rules.” Now we start seeing the shift a little bit more toward wanting to do it my way.

Then we get to the Millennials and it’s, “You are bright and creative and you will work with creative people.” We have to address them and encourage them, but then also make sure they understand that while we’re trying to motivate them, they still have to work with other people.

With the Zeds, we don’t really have that sentence yet. We think they’re going to be this great combination of Gen X and the Traditionalist – very diverse, very fiscally responsible, well educated. They’ll probably be the first generation that the majority of their parents have gone to college, underscoring that education value, that professional development piece. That’s what I’m seeing from my new recruits who come in from that age range; that’s what they want to know when I go talk to them: “Are we going to be able to get an education? What’s tuition reimbursement? What classes can I go to?”

I’m really excited for the fire service, and I love the differences in all of the generations. The Zeds are supposed to be an incredibly hard-working, focused, inclusive, diverse group of people. I’m so excited for them to get in our industry and see what they offer.

Are there specific tips or tricks that you recommend for fire chiefs and other fire service leaders in terms of how to learn the different learning styles amongst the crewmembers or just even the department membership?

With learning styles, millennials and Zeds coming in are highly educated. It's very normal to bring in an entry-level firefighter who’s 24 years old and has their master’s degree. We are already starting with a different caliber of a learner then we were with the baby boomers.

Entry-level tests are mainly geared toward a high school education or maybe a first year of college. We know that when you come in and start teaching, you can’t begin by teaching down. But you also know that not everybody has that opportunity, so you have to find a balance. Everybody learns in different ways. We try and rotate who’s leading. After all, there are six people on the crew. It doesn’t always have to be the officer who’s teaching; everyone has something to offer. Allow the members to teach how they want. Some people are still printing out paper handouts, somebody’s up doing a Prezi, somebody’s using a YouTube video. Chiefs need to remind their officers, “Just wait, just listen, give them a chance.” It doesn’t always have to be in the same format.

There are definitely some very specific work-type things that go along with generations. Millennials and Zeds are excellent multi-taskers. Traditionalists are hard-working, stable, loyal. Baby boomers are detail-oriented, always mission-focused. If you start learning those traits, then you can formulate that training. I know I can’t do the same presentation with baby boomers that I do with millennials. I will keep their attention. But with baby boomers and Traditionalists, you can say, “We’re going to have an eight-hour class today,” and they will settle in. Make sure they have something to eat and hot coffee, and they’re good to go. How can you not love that about a generation of hard workers?

What do you see as a difference among the generations with regard to how they show deference to authority or how they work with their managers, bosses, supervisors?

My experience has been unique because the majority of my command staff is older than me, but I believe in everyone having an equal voice. I particularly seek out younger, newer firefighters to keep me “connected” to the field because I don't want to get disconnected.

For example, if I'm going to the station, I want to sit at that kitchen table with the new recruits. That’s not the model I saw coming through the fire department; the officers talk to the chief, not the rookies. There is so much value in these conversations. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk to the officers. It means I have to make time for both.

Millennials know I am in the position of authority, but I think they want to know that I earned it and I’m doing the work to keep it. I think what they want to feel is that they're contributing to something greater. When you talk about some of the other generations, they just respect the authority, no questions asked: “You're the fire chief for a reason, I don't need to question that.” I always appreciate that approach, and I try not to take it for granted, but I’m also not offended if the tone is something different. As long as it is done respectfully, I’m good.

Why do you think millennials have gotten such a bad rap in the fire service, and do you think it’s fair?

I think they get a bad rap everywhere, not just the fire service. I think they get a bad rap because they question authority, and that's just not something we are used to in our industry, and at times it can be quite problematic.

This comes back to the emergent vs. non-emergent. In an emergent situation, it is still inappropriate to push back on authority. That’s very difficult for a millennial to understand – that they can't always have the why in the moment they want it. And then, there are times we give the why and the generation does not like the answer. Well, whether you like it or not, sometimes it is the answer. Many of them haven't had to swallow the no because that's just not how they were raised.

On the other hand, if they ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” and the answer is, “I don't know, that's just how we've done that.” That’s a horrible answer. I hate that answer for anything. But now you actually have to research it, and you have to find the answer, and then maybe you have to change the process. I think that's frustrating to non-millennials – but there can be something to learn there.

That just another thing they can learn – that it's OK to ask questions. Not necessarily challenge authority in a negative way, but ask the right questions.

Yes, the right question with the proper delivery.

How can embracing new generations advance the fire service? 

Anybody in a leadership role in our industry doesn’t want to see our industry go away. If you’re not willing to be open-minding and to accept the next generation, then, for me, what that really says is you’re not willing to see our profession progress and grow. If we’re not progressing, then we’re falling behind.

There is such a great opportunity with understanding the next generation – and the one that comes after that – and really embracing it because it can be exciting. I mean, this is fresh ideas coming into our profession. There are so many people wanting to do what we do.

Whether you're career or volunteer, we have to be open-minded as leaders to say, “OK, this is the type of person that’s going to move us into the future, so how do I make them successful?” Ultimately, that is our job. If we are successful, it is because they are successful.

Editor’s Note: How do you work to ensure the success of members of all generations? Share in the comments below.

[Read more: Fire service generational differences]

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