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What motivates new firefighters?

As generations change, so do our motivations and our methods of learning and training


Frankly, it’s fun to see eager young firefighters absorb new experiences in the field and around the fire stations.


I read fire service articles from several different web sites and periodicals. Why? Because there are great fire service leaders who publish in other venues as well as ours. Recently, on the exact same day, I came across two different articles about motivating firefighters in the 21st century.

The first was actually more a one-sided critique of our newest generation of firefighters, where the author lamented a change in attitude in these new firefighters and voiced a fear that we in the fire service could soon lose our credibility with the public that we serve. He stressed that the newest recruits not only have to be taught to be firefighters, but also, in most cases, how to be adults as well.

By contrast, on that same day, an article by Jennifer Kirkland entitled, “Engaged Supervisors Set the Tone for Employee Retention” provided four suggestions for fire service leaders to increase engagement and retention of their newest members:

  1. Learn. Build real relationships with your team
  2. Eat with your team. Create your culture
  3. Appreciate. Create growth opportunities for your people
  4. Decisions. Involve your team

Having read both of these articles, I was struck that motivating new firefighters to learn and grow is not a new issue. In fact, it has been a part of leadership training since I was a young officer under the direction of my first career chief, Chief Cloyce “Corky” Snyder, who stressed that learning and motivation is tied as much to how a generation processes information as it is to how individuals learn and retain that information.

A product of our generation

Chief Snyder had been born in the early 1930s, when the nation was undergoing the dregs of the Great Depression. He was part of the “Silent Generation” who found ways to overcome difficulties such as food and gasoline rationing, while winning WWII. Although he only had a high school education, Chief Snyder was a continual learner who strived to discover something new each day. He understood people better than anyone I ever knew, and – more importantly – he taught those of us who’d listen the importance of relating to people on their own level.

By contrast, I was a post-war Baby Boomer, a product of parents who had lived and sacrificed through that same depression and war. Chief Snyder knew that most of my generation were goal oriented, seeking opportunities for professional development, while giving back loyalty and respect to the organization and its leaders.

When Generation X (those born roughly between 1965 and 1980) began to arrive in the fire service, both their learning process and motivation differed from my own. I was in the last group of fire personnel that had been subject to military conscription, commonly referred to as the draft. I had voluntarily chosen to go into the Air Force rather than wait and be drafted. My parents, having contributed to the WWII effort, instilled a sense of duty in both my brother and me. I subsequently served in Vietnam, and believed that my military training had given me a sense of discipline and an appreciation of the fire service command structure that gave me an advantage that most Gen Xers were missing.

Wisely, Chief Snyder introduced his officers to the teachings of Dr. Morris Massey via a video entitled “What you are is where you were when” first introduced in the 1980s, and subsequently updated. Dr. Massey explained that each generation has its own methods of learning and motivations that supervisors or, in this case, fire officers, need to learn to better understand the new generation and – equally as important – to help assimilate them into the fire service culture. Dr. Massey stated that we are all indeed a product of our times, and what worked to motivate me didn’t begin to relate to the methods and needs of today’s Millennials or our newest generation, the Centennials.

Applying Dr. Massey’s premise to both the articles that I had read, I realized that the first author wanted all firefighters to learn and be motivated as he had, not taking into account, as generations change, so do our motivations and our methods of learning, while the second author was indirectly giving advice based on Dr. Massey’s earlier works.

How to foster future fire service leaders

From the continuing inter-generational surveys conducted by social psychologists, we generally know the following.

Generation X personnel remain in vocations that offer them:

  • Opportunities to make choices within their career field
  • An opportunity to grow
  • When older staff members mentor them to avoid obvious mistakes and pitfalls

Millennials seek:

  • Multi-tasking
  • Technology
  • Collaboration and communications between supervisors and subordinates that result in positive reinforcement

Centennials, who will soon be among us in the fire service, favor:

  • Constant feedback
  • Online training
  • Flexible schedules
  • Multi-tasking on steroids

So how in general should we as fire officers proceed? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Promote collaboration. For example, when it’s time to purchase new PPE, add several younger members to the selection committee and have them be a part of field testing. I guarantee that these younger members will have researched every aspect of the equipment to give you the pros and cons of each manufacturer being tested.
  2. Share a common purpose. Create a culture that shares a common purpose and values individual and collective contributions toward bettering the department.
  3. Foster future leaders. Develop individuals’ strengths through mentorship and career guidance. They will become your future leaders and senior officers.
  4. Invest in outside training. Provide opportunities and experiences for these individuals to grow and network, perhaps through classes at the National Fire Academy. This investment in time will expose them to new ideas and new ways to solve problems that will make them, over time, more valuable to the department.

By no means am I an expert on handling multiple generations within my department, but I am also willing to learn a little more about them each day.

Frankly, it’s fun to see eager young firefighters absorb new experiences in the field and around the fire stations. I’m also not afraid to learn a thing or two from any of them as we talk, train and work together toward the common goal of making ours a safer community.

Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.