Changing hands: Making the firefighter generational transition

We must learn from and rely on a new generation of firefighters if our profession is to progress

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Many fine articles have been written about the challenges of transferring fire department organizations from peer group to peer group, from Traditionalists (1935-1945) to Baby Boomers (1946-1964) to Gen Xers (1965-1981) to Millennials and beyond.

Regardless of these generational descriptions, the challenge is not so much defining a person’s era, as it is the environmental and performance demands made upon each and every firefighter and how such stresses are communicated and interpreted.

Collectively summarizing every firefighter into an era-driven category while diminishing an individual’s ability to change and grow is a critical mistake the fire service cannot make. As difficult as it may be for some, given today’s ever increasing technology and the enduring and omnipresent media exposure, we must learn from and rely on a new generation of firefighters if our profession is to progress and, more importantly, endure.

The changing firehouse culture

As is true for any family growing up, today’s fire service is experiencing a widening gulf in attitude by generation. This current generational discrepancy has become a critical mass of misinterpretations and weakened opportunities. As one captain put it, “These rookies think respect is a given. I expect it to be earned.”

The substantial constancy of service by Baby Boomers is diminishing with their inevitable departure. At the same time, bereft of social baggage, a new generation of firefighters is gaining a necessary foothold in today’s firehouse. As swing music is to rock and roll, is to rap, there is the predictable breach in generational crossover messaging.

Early on, firefighters came from a working background. These were the folks that worked for a living and worked even harder in their spare time. After World War II and Korea, it was an easy transition from blue collar to a full uniform of the same hue.

Whether these firefighters were previously electricians, plumbers, construction workers, welders or soldiers, their knowledge and physicality were completely compatible with the skills needed to negotiate structure fires, vehicles extrications and EMS calls. For this generation, strength, honor and the dedicated work ethic of public service became the functional definition of firefighter.

Continuing in this blue collar tradition, the next generation sustained the skills competence of the working class and the confidence to use them. This made for great, if not socially cultured, firefighters. Defined by Father Time, the generational relevance of these firefighters was limited only by the ability to solve the physical challenges of the job: advancing hose, moving ladders and holding their breath as they moved toward the dragon while wearing rubber lined coats and thigh-high, felt-lined rubber boots.

For both of these generations, the fireground was much like a military campaign or construction site, but with the necessary sense of urgency needed to save lives and property. These leather lung lads provided for their families, questioned all authority except theirs and became reluctant members of the establishment.

With the advent of the SCBA and the increased protection of vapor barriers in full bunkers, the last of the Baby Boomers advanced the need for more education into the ranks of firefighting. Reluctantly accepted into the service and accompanied by new-fangled equipment and required training, these fresh firefighters heralded a new age in firefighting, accompanied by the unquestioned authority and traditions of their elders. The International Fire Service Training Association’s “Fundamentals of Fire Fighting Skills” went from a pamphlet to a book of over 700 pages.

Post-Boomer and Gen-Xers, new recruits bring fresh perspectives

As the 21st century begins, a complex and severely consequential society expects their fire service personnel to be a combination of skill, knowledge and education commensurate with all other public services and in sync with the rest of civilization’s advancements. What was once missing or hiding is now displayed on walls throughout the fire service – associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degrees – even Ph.Ds – in fire science and administration.

Enter today’s firefighters. Direct and to the point with blind allegiance to no one, with a work ethic balancing performance with challenge, and the ability to multi-task without any predisposition, this new generation is not dependent on the past for approval or guidance. Given the responsibility of doing the work they were educated and trained for, they fully intend to succeed.

Past generations still in service must realize that every generation has a different response environment defined by their unique influences. While fire departments have gone from call boxes to circuit board zones to computers analyzing alarms like magic boxes, many of us were still born before television.

The key to the new generation of firefighters is guidance by reason and a clear understanding of their insatiable need for explanation. Asking why is not disrespectful of authority but a learning opportunity to increase the ever-growing knowledge base of the job.

Conversely, valuing time away is not lacking dedication but allowing for a necessary life-work balance. Their self-motivation may not always be in a comprehendible direction, but the outcome will always serve the greater good, in and out of the firehouse.

We must recognize and accept the language of a new generation of firefighters if we are to give them the knowledge and skills they need to succeed. They, in turn, must understand our history of values and acknowledge their importance to the overall strategy and tactics of the fire service.

Accepting the next generation of firefighters is crucial

While generalization is the death knell of all inquiry, there is one constant in the fire service: we are generational. Like law enforcement, sports and the military, the fire service is family, both real and imagined. When it comes to generational identification, children following parents, and cousins following aunts and uncles make our professional household very real.

On the other hand, those making the independent choice to follow the traditions and values of our legendary band of brothers and sisters are definitely related. Whether factual or fictional, like the song says, “We are family.”

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