Features, Leadership, Volunteer Fire Service

Embracing the Future of the Fire Service

National Volunteer Fire Council

By Sheri Nickel

Writing for the NVFC

I am discouraged as anyone when I hear stories of departments falling apart. But it is time to face the fact that the way things were done in 1979 doesn’t work in 2020. Gone are the days of being able to hang out at the fire department and drink beer or ride on a brush truck in shorts and a T-shirt. Many volunteer agencies haven’t kept up with the needs, growth, and changes of their community, and yet we are accountable to our people who pay taxes and expect us to be professional on scene. Given people’s time these days, they barely have time for their families, not to mention time for volunteering.

Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers account for the majority of the leadership in our departments, and they often blame Millennials for the decline in volunteerism. They claim that this group represents the “me” generation who doesn’t want to do anything for free. But perhaps the older generation needs to look at what they are doing to the Millennials who want to help their communities.

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This new generation understand budgets, elections, certifications, and especially safety. After all, we are the ones who taught them fire safety in elementary schools. They have been raised in today’s society, where us older folks regularly question as to whether or not it is even safe to leave the house. They were taught that seat belts save lives and to work smarter, not harder. They understand that technology makes our lives easier. Their way of learning is methodical. They are rules driven and they are taught to pass tests. They were raised by us, the ones who carried pagers and left their birthday parties if the tones dropped.

Now that they are grown-ups and want to come in and do their part to help, they are being told that they don’t need to go to training, that they will get all they need on the job. But then while on scene they are told to stand by the truck and watch. Or else they get left behind at the station because they took too long putting on their bunker gear, a safety measure that a lot of firefighters overlook when hurrying up to jump a call. The Millennials are respectable young men and women who have been taught not to “take their problems out back and fight it out” unless they want a week suspension from school taking them out of their school activities. Thus they aren’t confronting fire department leaders and are instead deciding this isn’t their “jam” and resigning.

We have heard numerous times that “fire behavior has changed.” But the behavior of the people expected to put out the fire hasn’t. Our leaders must stop hiding behind tough-guy mentalities and share their institutional knowledge. Our departments aren’t going to implode because we have Millennial firefighters. By not allowing these so called “kids” on your department, you aren’t helping your communities. The time is getting near that us older people can’t keep doing what we have done for 30 years. Who are the firefighters that are going to save us someday?    

Internal strife caused by personalities is one of the largest problems with retention on a volunteer fire department. If you truly want your fire departments to flourish, it is time to open your minds and realize that these kids are the beasts that youhelped create. Times are changing, fire is changing, training is available, and funding is obtainable. Volunteer fire departments can succeed in 2020. It is up to you to take a long look at yourselfand see if you can change.

Sheri Nickel is the administrative director for the Oklahoma State Firefighters Association (OSFA) and Oklahoma director to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Prior to her position with the OSFA, she served as a fire chief. She is currently with the Orlando (OK) Volunteer Fire Department.

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