“Who is riding the seat?” This common question is routine language at firehouses across the nation. Riding the seat is a term that has been around for ages, far longer than I have been in the fire service. The term is associated with the company officer or acting officer, as the officer traditionally “rides” in the right seat or passenger seat of the apparatus. Recently, I have begun to think about this phrase and how it translates into today’s ever-changing fire service and the generations coming into the service and how they may view the position or perceive that terminology.
Today, more than ever, people take words literally. There is little deviance in a message, and its content is taken to the most real aspect. For example, what was once firehouse bantering among the crew can know be taken out of context or misconstrued. We must choose our words wisely, understand their impact, and recognize our changing work environment. With that, we likely should review common phrases such as “riding the seat,” as riding implies comfort and ease, and anyone who has spent a tour as the company officer knows that the position is anything but an easy ride.
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As we look at this phrase and today’s fire service, it is critical that we understand who we are working with, what drives them, and what their core values are. Although there are numerous generational names and groups, three make up the current fire service workforce: Baby Boomers, Generation Xers, and Millennials. With Baby Boomers beginning to retire and exit the service, Generation Xers taking on high-level leadership roles, and Millennials entering the service, it is time to take a hard look at who we are, why the phrase “riding the seat” may no longer be appropriate, and what else we may need to change.
The Millennial generation is traditionally thought of as those members of the workforce born between 1982 and 1994. This generation grew up in an era of technology and connectivity from smartphones, social media, and data at their fingertips. This has led them away from traditional trade jobs such as carpentry and labor and into technology driven jobs. Many see this generation as narcissistic; often referred to as the ME generation, they are often seen as lacking motivation and lazy. They are ready to lead the workforce and believe their education and “dedication/contribution” should dictate their success; they often undervalue experience and time on the job. This generation values community, personal life, and family. As it relates to their work, they believe in positive reinforcement and adding value. They are not driven by money but rather personal time and job success. This is a reason many departments are seeing a rise in mandatory overtime and workers requesting schedules that afford more consecutive days off rather than pay raises or bonuses.
Although many might be ready to write this generation off and see gloom and doom for the future, it is important to look at their strengths. With our technology and social media-driven society, these members are fluent in the language and can aid us in connecting with our community. Likewise, they want to succeed; with positive reinforcement and clear direction, these employees can be driven and molded into the firefighters, fire officers, and chief officers the fire service needs. However, the current leaders must invest time and energy.
Generation Xers are those workers born between 1965 and 1982, often referred to as the “lost generation” because of the high rate of divorce, single-parent households, or dual working parents. Because of this style of household, this generation is very independent, can organize time and tasks, and values completion. This generation is less likely to be forward with trust; rather, the employer/boss will have to earn and maintain trust. This generation values hard work and dedication; they are often referred to as the “educated” generation because of the high number of college graduates. These employees understand balance; they value equitable treatment, experience, and education as well as time on the job. They can be some of the best employees and leaders; however, they, too, want to be challenged, and if they find themselves in an organization with no future, they will pursue new opportunities to be challenged.
As stated above, this generation is moving from the firefighter into the senior position, company officer, or chief officer. They have experience with real incidents, have likely seen a major change in the fire service, and often have weathered a “storm” or two within their own organization. This generation is key to maintaining the traditions and culture of the organization and must be called on to “guide” the new employees and cultivate the future of the fire service.
The Baby Boomers are those employees born between 1946 and 1964. They grew up in an era with the threat of nuclear war, civil right protests, and illicit drug use as normal daily activities. Today’s generation practices for tornadoes and earthquakes; this generation went to school and practiced for nuclear fallout. Technology for this generation included vinyl records and eight-tracks, phones were still mounted to the wall, and households had one television. This generation values experience and time on the job. Many of these employees have worked in trade unions or some form of manual labor; they understand and value an “honest eight” hours of work. They value their employer and understand the relationship between their job and quality of life.
Yes, this generation is retiring from the fire service, but they must not leave the fire service. I am a firm believer in retirees stopping at the station and sharing their memories. Connecting these current employees and retirees with our newest employees will instill the foundational roots of the organization and again drive home the culture, showing where the organization started and its progression into its current state. The value of these members is priceless and cannot be discounted. Even though they may no longer be on the payroll or may be beginning to count the days to retirement, they must be tapped as cultural continuers for the fire service future.
Why is this important, and how does it relate to the original question? Understanding people is one of the most critical functions of leadership. As our service evolves and the faces/values change, we must understand and adapt. As it relates to the abovementioned phrase, I know many will likely argue that this term is “fire service tradition” and we are already losing too much of that on a daily basis. I agree; however, we must also ensure that those individuals who take on the role of company officer understand the responsibility. We must ensure they have adequately prepared themselves for the position through training, education, and a proper amount of experience so as to not only pass the test but more importantly be effective and safe in the position. They must know that the position of company officer is anything but a ride; it is truly “driving” through leadership.
I am a realist. I highly doubt that next year I am going to walk into the station and hear, “Who is leading at a high level and taking responsibility for this crew?” I know that it is going to remain, “Who is riding the seat?” As current company and chief officers, we owe it to the next generation and the fire service to instill what exactly that “seat” means. Take the time to understand the people in your command, instill the values that made your organization great, leave it better than you found it, and pass everything on.
Brian Zaitz is a 20-year veteran of the fire service and assistant chief of operations and training at the Kirkwood (MO) Fire Department. He is a safety officer for Missouri Task Force 1. He is also second vice president for the International Society of Fire Service Instructors as well as a member of the Missouri Fire Safety and Education Commission. He has several credentials and degrees including Executive Fire Officer, Chief Fire Officer, Chief Training Officer, and a master’s degree in human resource development.