Social media and the Gen Z junior firefighter
Getting inside the teenage brain to engage new recruits
By Ellen Yarborough
In one manner or another, your fire department engages teenagers. But what do you know about teens, other than having been one yourself, once upon a time? Do you lament that they seem more interested in their phones than engaged in “real life”?
In their defense, teens’ lives have been saturated by social media. Near-constant visual inputs impact their sense of self, expectations of future experiences, attention span and, most importantly to your firehouse, interpretation of who YOU are and how they may or may not fit in to your department’s culture.
A basic understanding of Gen Z – those born roughly between 1997 and 2012 – may help you design or edit your own social media to attract the members you want. It will also enable you to consider your department’s social media policy so that you can present the best version of the department to your audience.
Social media addiction
Like every generation, our youngest members and recruits are impacted by political, economic and cultural trends of the era, but today’s adolescents are the first to come of age in a society with 24-hour news cycle. Their phones hum with news from the four corners of the world, all of it primed for their immediate attention. As one of my students lamented a couple of years ago, “I wasn’t born thinking that I would become reliant on this rectangle of metal,” noting instead that it was adults who placed those devices in teens’ hands, and created the algorithms to ensure that Gen Z became addicted to excitatory content. Much like a cigarette is to nicotine, the cell phone is a delivery device for boundless brain candy content, and teens are taking every hit.
In 2022, the non-partisan think tank Pew Research Center quantified that Gen Zs spends more than six hours a day online, with over 40% of those teens online most of any given day. That leaves teens NOT doing what most of us spent our teen years doing – engaging others face to face and going out in friend groups to, as my father called it, “ram around town.”
According to psychologist Erik Erikson, the psycho-social model of human development assigns defining an identity of self, normally within the context of others, as the critical task for the teen years. The pandemic is the culprit in the corner that exacerbated Gen Z’s tendency to participate in life via social media, rather than in the company of others. What that resulted in, according to any high school teacher you chance to ask, is delayed life skills, like resiliency, self-advocacy and problem-solving. Further, for many adults, particularly the introverts among us, distancing might have been exactly what we needed to simplify our busy lives, if only for a moment. But when teens emerged from their bedrooms where most of them chose to isolate, they did so with an even greater reliance on social media influencers to navigate their world. Perhaps, they even spent some time navigating to your social media, or at least accounts of some of your members – yes, including those accounts that may make the chief’s eyes roll into the back of his head.
Ready to contribute
Interestingly, and importantly, Gen Z teens show strong interest in the well-being of others. Some departments found recruitment through school districts to be the best way to assist students in demonstrating their altruistic nature. As Dr. Mary Jo Yannacone, superintendent of Springfield Township Schools in Pennsylvania, shared: “In my experience, students are always willing to put aside personal interests, such as their phones and social media contacts, for a purpose that is meaningful and serves others. Just this year, we have students volunteering at Oreland Firehouse, and several students are serving on a Township Planning Committee to develop walking, running and biking trails in Springfield Township."
During the pandemic, when many volunteer organizations were shuttering doors, forward-thinking departments found themselves running introductory training in open parking lots and other social-distance-friendly venues to more teens than they had ever had. Now that opportunities have opened up again, and teens have a full menu of service options from which to choose and in order to set their resume apart in college, service academy, trade and employment post-graduation, department recruiters are likely trying to catch their attention on social media as the dominant recruitment and retention strategy. Gen Z won’t be visiting your department website or scrolling Facebook and Twitter. Rather, they’ll be on YouTube, TikTok and SnapChat, at least until the next great app catches their attention.
Fortunately for us, much of what our teens in the firehouse are researching is fire related. Recently, Aston Township Fire Department (Delaware County, Pennsylvania) Firefighter Tyler Pelligrino shared that while he’s often deep into social media, he’s most likely to be influenced by content from “FDIC, Nick Martin, and Live Rescue.” That’s solid research! Keep scrolling!
Additionally, ATFD Firefighter and Department President Sean Joyce commented that he was initially frustrated by one group of teens in the station, only to be surprised by their response. “All three of them standing in silence on their phones. I told them they should spend time going over the apparatus and learning where everything is,” he said. “I was quickly corrected and shown that they had made a Quizlet study guide on their phones that listed each compartment on our engine and what was stored inside.”
Social media aside, brain development is not complete until the frontal lobe matures when a person is in their mid-20s. This prefrontal cortex is commonly referred to as the “area of sober second thoughts” and is the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning skills like sustaining attention, interpreting information, and contextualizing emotions. Lacking that, adolescents rely heavily on their limbic system, a part of the brain responsible for emotions and memory. What does this mean? They have an emotional memory for everything, and a maturing ability to think things through logically. Plus, they are more likely to be impulsive, reactive, easily excited, and hard to keep focused.
Whatever is presented online is experienced by that adolescent brain with the tools at disposal. In some ways, this is ideal. They are ready for a challenge, looking for a rush of adrenaline, the chance to be a hero, and an opportunity to prove themselves as belonging, deserving of a seat at the kitchen table. Despite any assumptions we may have of Gen Z, at heart they are like those that came before them – ready to work.
As Montanan author Norman Maclean accounts in his text “Young Men and Fire,” about the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire that claimed the lives of 13 young smokejumpers, “they referred affectionately to all fires they jumped as ‘ten o’clock fires’ as if they already had them under control before they jumped. They were still so young they hadn’t learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.” What teens are not always capable of considering are outcomes and consequences of their behavior.
Welcome Gen Z
So, what should fire department leadership understand about their youngest recruits and members? First, attention should be paid to the simple fact that they are susceptible to influence, both positive and negative. To center teens, and keep them engaged in learning skills, they need face-to-face interaction with adults and peers as much to learn the skills as to learn about themselves and their competencies. Noting that they come to the firehouse with the expectation that training will be meaningful and relevant, it is imperative that leadership holds their attention through dynamic activities that provide them opportunity to work directly and in partnership with others; verbalize their knowledge and ask questions both one on one and in larger group settings; and receive feedback that is constructive and guided so that they are able to grow in order to meet your expectations and earn that spot on the truck.
Remember, they are at the key stage in life for developing that sense of self. Why shouldn’t it be within the context of the fire service? If Gen Z shows up at the firehouse doors, consider your department fortunate. They have elected to fight their social media addiction in pursuit of something bigger than themselves. Let them in and, to keep them there, commit to meeting teens where they are. There is simply no video game or Reel that adequately replicates the feel of the pure power of spreaders in your hands, the smell of a saw at work, or the touch of a victim rescued. Better yet, post their work on your social media, as you will certainly attract who your department is, and who it wants to be.
About the author
Ellen Yarborough is a volunteer deputy chief at South Media Fire Co. with the Nether Providence Fire Department in Delaware County, Pennsylvania. She works as a high school psychology teacher, a state-level fire instructor, and the owner of a consulting company, Schoolhouse To Firehouse. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.