Millennials entering the fire service is quite a hot topic in many apparatus bays and on numerous Facebook pages these days. It is also a topic I find quite interesting. This is certainly not the last generational friction that will impact our occupation as every generation thinks the next will be the downfall of civilization. The old guard claims that these new additions to the work force just don’t get it. They are lazy, coddled, and don’t know what work is. Most claim the latest installment of recruits and probationary members have no business in “our” fire service.
A Millennial is simplistically defined as someone who entered adulthood around the turn of the century. The generation is characterized by individuals who are coddled, over-confident, politically correct, and entitled. Knowing a trade or hands on skill is fairly uncommon for this generation. Most have never operated a chainsaw or learned how to make their own bed. They were raised in relatively sheltered lives and typically lack life skills. There aren’t any participation trophies in the fire department so how will these pampered young employees survive? The consensus seems to be that these new additions are going to be the death of the traditional fire service as we know it. While these attributes may require new tactics for training, the real question is whether or not this is a generational problem or a leadership problem which is drawing a bad reputation to our newest members.
On the other hand you have the young guns claiming they have no guidance, no instruction, and no mentors. Their older bosses have made their mind up about them and don’t seem terribly motivated to help them fit in. In many cases the older members will taunt them for what they don’t know rather than teach them the correct way. There seems to be apprehension when it comes to helping the new generation find their way. Fires are down making it damn near impossible to earn your keep on the fire ground. Therefore the historical write of passage for earning a place on the crew is difficult to say the least. It also provides fewer opportunities to demonstrate and hone firefighting skills. So are the concerns about this new generation their fault or ours?
As an early 80’s baby I am technically a Millennial, although anyone who knows me or reads my work would probably not lump me in that category. I learned work ethic from my parents who allowed me to do anything as long as I had a job and did my chores. Sure, they helped me along the way which is perhaps the biggest Millennial trait I have. I also had some strong leadership examples as I started my fire service career in my hometown districts. In a lot of ways I walk both sides of the aisle on this debate and I am here to tell you both sides are wrong. However, I believe leadership takes the majority of the blame.
Everything the new generation fails to do or does not know how to do is the root of the discussion.
Whose fault is that? I believe management takes the responsibility here. Education has changed, technology has changed, and right or wrong children are being raised differently. Things which were common sense 20 years ago may not be today. We are too quick to assume and take for granted that everyone knows the things we do. Also keep in mind it is extremely important to determine early on your members knowledge level, both on the job and in life. What you think they should know is irrelevant to everyone but you. You cannot be upset with an employee for not knowing something you did not teach them. Being unable to operate a chainsaw does not make a new employee a bad one; it makes them an employee that will require a little more training. It is the officer’s responsibility to teach the probie what he or she does not know.
Another significant portion of this debate is discipline and accountability. When I came into the fire service there was a definitive expectation of how things operated and where I fit into that system. My first assignment before being voted into the department was to read the SOPs in their entirety and know them before I came back for my first drill. I was told when drill was, how often I needed to attend, the procedure for responding to alarms, etc. If I strayed from these expectations a disciplinary process was laid out and well known. More importantly, the system was used when members failed to meet standards. Today I see many officers who simply welcome a new crew member and fail to provide them with expectations. It is very difficult to perform if there are no official expectations laid out in advance. It is even more difficult to discipline without them.
Discipline is yet another area I see dysfunction among the current group of officers and administrators. Many are nervous they may offend someone or receive a complaint should they impose discipline. I have even heard of chiefs telling their officers not to address issues because they might offend someone. Some officers would rather be friends or “cool” bosses which leads them to avoid discipline. Still in other instances officers and chiefs are too quick to discipline, sometimes even terminate, before all the facts are collected. All of these practices are all unacceptable. Perhaps if the current generation of officers stopped frowning on education and took some management classes many of these issues would resolve themselves.
Finally, many of the current generation of officers are horrible about having a “do as I say, not as I do” mentality. I refer to this mindset and entitlement leadership. Now I am sure I am not the first to coin this phrase, it just seems to fit well for what I am discussing. This type of “leader” feels their position entitles them to do or not do certain things. You can often find these officers and chiefs sitting on the sidelines during chores, training, or other non-response company functions. They are quick to find deficiencies with their crews while offering no guidance on how to fix them. They are also the officers who so grossly misinterpret the term delegation that those under their supervision are likely completing all their officer tasks as well. This basically leaves the entitled leader with nothing to do all day but be in charge, also known as doing nothing.
Perhaps the reason the younger members are lazy is because they see their officers sitting around all day. The officers are too busy identifying what they are no longer responsible for and delegating away all their responsibilities to develop their Millennial members. In turn, the already entitled Millennials grow tired of being the only ones working and stop putting in the effort or take shortcuts. I can assure you this will bleed over to fire ground operations as well. Your influence as the officer is what effects how productive your younger members will be. They are constantly watching and learning from you whether it is good or bad. The reason being an officer comes with a pay increase is because of the additional responsibilities the position requires. The term additional implies you will still be responsible for all the things you did in your previous rank and then some. If you are lucky enough to promote a few times then the responsibilities are compounded. Should the Captain be the first one to grab a mop? No. Does that mean the Captain will never push a mop? No, what it means is officers should never neglect a task because of their position and if they set a positive example their crews will make sure they rarely have to do tasks normally accomplished by lower ranking members.While the newest generation of firefighters entering our ranks does come with some entitlement, the current generation of officers and chiefs seem to be just as entitled. In turn, these entitled leaders are doing a horrible job of transitioning new members into our profession. Officers must provide a clear set of expectations along with proper training, mentoring, and discipline to set the right example. So before you point the finger at your new Millennial member’s sense of entitlement and lackluster work ethic, take a hard look in the mirror at your leadership. You just might be the one that needs the improvement!