By William Johnson
As I sit here in my office at the same station I began my career nearly 13 years ago, it is almost baffling to think I am writing an article about the “next generation” we are welcoming into the fire service. In 2007, I walked through the door at 19 years old and was as naïve as I was eager to impress someone. I soon learned the world I had entered was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Fast forward to 2020 and I am the captain on the only tower company in a city of more than 50,000 people. Time has flown for me, and often I think back on the beginning and realize I may not have had any business in a profession so serious at such a young age. At that time, we had a senior generation in the department that included a dozen or more captains with 20-plus years of experience. You didn’t have to walk far to hear a war story from the ‘80s about the days of multiple fires each shift and hard men who were fighting them while dragging on Marlboro Reds.
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Since that time, we have lost an entire generation to retirement. This is a common story in the fire service. We see flows of generations come and go. The newest generation is always an adventure, and the outgoing one is always taking something that we cannot replace. In the last three or four years I have been involved in hour after hour of supervisor and leadership training. Sometimes these sessions are with other fire departments, internal classes, and even classes with other departments in our city. There is one common theme throughout this training. In almost every session I sit in on, it is inevitable that a supervisor speaks up about how terrible this new generation is. They ask “why?” all the time instead of just doing work, they are lazy, all they care about is their phones, they never pay attention…Listen to this list of complaints, and you can only assume the fire service, along with the world we live in, is destined to fail. When this subject comes up; its usually one of the older supervisors in the room with more experience and lessons to teach than I could ever hope to have. These men and women are valuable to the fire service and every other functioning area of our city. I always try to remind these folks that, at some point, they were the “next generation” and I guarantee the ones who came before them had the same things to say about them.
“What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders; they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?” Sound familiar? The author of that quote is the Greek philosopher Plato who died in 347 B.C. It would seem that Plato was also having a hard time with the new generation. Here is a lesson to be learned from the ones who came before us. There is value in the next generation and we have to maximize their potential. We as a fire service must realize that the times are changing; we are in an age of social media, endless technology, and instant gratification. We also must realize that our new firefighters are as smart as they have ever been, they are educated, and they are coming to us with an array of life experiences at very young ages. The new generation insists on asking “why” and knowing the reasons behind the methods that we teach. It is then our responsibility as the leaders in the fire service to be capable of answering those questions. Jocko Willink, a Navy SEAL leader and veteran of the Iraq war, stated: “We owe the people we lead to always provide the ‘Why’ of the decisions we make, the objectives we reach, and the methods by which we do it. If we can’t provide that ‘Why’ we are failing as leaders.” If as a leader you feel intimidated by the questions of your new firefighter or you find yourself irritated by the need for information, It may be possible that it is your problem and not the new firefighter’s problem. Leaders must always possess the information to make sure everyone on our crew understands the mission and how it fits into the overall mission of the organization. As a leader it is up to us to ask our superiors for as much information as possible. We cannot expect our crews to respect us and follow us blindly without the proper information. This new generation is one that feeds on information. Everything in modern life centers around information. It is our responsibility to get the information and make sure it is passed along in a way that our followers understand the decisions we make.
Whether you agree with the values this generation offers or believe that the fire service is surely doomed because of Facebook and the new iPhone, it is up to us as firefighters to pass on our traditions and values. No matter how frustrating it is for our officers, this fact must be accepted. The fire service is only doomed if we let it be. Understand that the next 20-year-old who walks through your office door is smart, adaptable, open-minded, and eager. Be confident as a leader that you are doing the right thing and double-check your methods. Anything taught can be instantly fact-checked for accuracy. Take comfort in the fact that your mentors were just as nervous about you and wondered what would ever become of the fire service with you in charge. Things turned out great and will continue to do so. Embrace our young members, teach them an old school trick or two, and never forget they have plenty to teach you. All you have to do is listen.
William “Bill” Johnson is a captain with Wilson (NC) Fire/Rescue Services and assigned to Tower 1 at Station 1. He has been a career firefighter since 2007. He has a bachelor’s degree from North Carolina State University in leadership in the public sector.