Managing Fire Department Millennials: Five Mistakes to Avoid

How many of us have been frustrated by the newer firefighters who have been hired over the past several years? How many feel that they just don’t get it? These new men and women just don’t know what it was like for us. We label them: Entitled. Arrogant. Lazy. For them, this is just a job, not a calling, right? But what were the veterans saying about us when we started on the job? Let that marinate for a moment.

Generational differences are nothing new. Generation Xers do things a different way from the baby boomers. The baby boomers did and do things differently than the silent generation (the generation preceding the baby boomers), and so on. You can be sure that millennials will do things differently than we do now. Is that a bad thing? Despite what our egos are telling us, the answer is no. Remember, at one time, there was a group of firefighters who complained that the new generation didn’t know what it was like to be a real firefighter and use buckets. “The kids today have fancy hollowed-out logs to get water to the fire!”

Now that we have determined that the fire service is not doomed, it would be detrimental if we didn’t address the commonalities and differences present with the influx of millennial firefighters. Millennials are roughly defined as those born between 1982 and 1999; the exact years vary slightly, depending on whom you ask. As experienced chiefs and shift officers, it would be regrettably easy for us to force them to conform to “the way we do things.” They are, after all, new and certainly should be taught the history of the fire service, station life, and tactics that can be best taught with the authentic voice of experience. More times than not, though, we will end up frustrated and may be tempted to write off potentially good employees because they don’t do things the way we expect them to while never acknowledging that they are, in fact, different.

Science tells us their brains are not the same as even the next closest generation. The millennial brain, compared with previous generations, processes information differently. They have a different motivation and reward system. Their brains have a high multisensing processing capacity, which lends itself to having the ability to process rapidly incoming information at dynamic emergency scenes better than any generation before.

Multitaskers

It has often been argued that humans are incapable of multitasking, that we can concentrate on only one thing at a time. We are finding out, though, that younger brains have a high multisensory capacity. They are able to take in, process, and remember information better than previous generations.

That critically impacts the fire service. Let’s discuss that for a moment if for no other reason than that by some estimates, 75 percent of the workforce will be millennials by 2025; they ARE the future of the fire service. This will affect our occupation in every conceivable area, from hiring through retirement. The initial draw and benefits of the fire service may be attractive, but retention could become an issue. Millennials have a strong need to feel challenged and appreciated, so recognition programs and defined advancement paths should be implemented if they are not already in place.

Firefighting tactics will evolve as millennials promote into shift officer and chief roles. Current supervisors should ensure there is a solid foundation of safe and effective tactics as well as a good understanding of fire behavior while embracing technology and exploiting the millennials’ mastery of it.

Although I make some generalizations about those born in the 1980s and 1990s, I will also try to remain as equitable as possible when lumping roughly 83 million people under the same label.

Five Common Mistakes

1. Stereotyping

Many of us are guilty of age profiling and quickly dismiss those who assign to us the negative attributes of our respective generations, but we are quick to characterize those of other generations. When people in their early to mid-20s join the department, we often have preconceived ideas of what that means. Unfortunately, it is a no-win situation for them. If they aren’t as motivated as we want them to be, they are lazy. If they are driven, they are entitled.

Kyle Owens, who is a 27-year-old first-year firefighter, says, “I do feel that there are specific labels my generation (millennials) gets. The two that I hear the most are privileged and lazy. While I personally do not ever want to be labeled lazy or privileged, it is a brand that I must manage.” Those born in the 1980s and 1990s are beginning to flood fire department recruit classes; it is all too common to designate them as lazy, entitled, immature, and even narcissistic.

A quick and easy jab is that they are addicted to their smartphones. Although their lives are certainly hyperconnected in ways that no previous generation has experienced, being addicted to their Internet connection can easily be allocated among previous generations as well. Regardless of generation, the smartphone plugs us into a staggering amount of information. Again, that does not have to be a detriment. Dozens, even hundreds, of cell phone apps give us quick access to volumes of information through a device that fits conveniently in our front pocket. The technology that the millennials are supposedly dependent on should be embraced and used, not villainized.

2. Overstating Differences

We tend to cling to the labels we have assigned to millennials, in part, because we are judging from a skewed perspective. Are they different? Yes. But are millennials substantially different? In some ways, yes. But the differences aren’t as vast or, more importantly, as negative as we perceive them to be.

Training Officer Kevin Joles states, “I think the millennial stereotype has bled into every generation. The use of technology is being blamed on the younger generation. Teaching anyone now is more productive when it’s done in a tech-savvy way regardless of age. Using apps or interactive games on smart devices leads to better participation in the classroom setting.” Because society is changing as millennials permeate the workforce, the differences are becoming less pronounced.

In addition, the loyalty of millennials is often called into question, and they are labeled as “job hoppers.” The perception is that they aren’t in it for a career but rather until they get bored or a better opportunity comes along. Much of that reputation stems from a 2014 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which states that millennials hold an average of 6.2 jobs between the ages of 18 and 26. This is an attention-getting statistic, especially for a firefighter—a job that requires so much money to outfit and train a new employee plus the time investment to ensure members are ready to perform a variety of critical tasks. What many fail to acknowledge, though, is that on average, four of those 6.2 jobs were internships and part-time employment. In reality, millennials have an average of two jobs in the same time frame, which is less than the baby boomers had at the same age.

3. Overstating Similarities

Many of those coming into the fire department ranks now are roughly the same age as we were when we came on the job. We make the uneducated assumption that they should have a similar mindset, thought process, and motivators. That is incorrect. They are not the same. Previous generations are more apt to “climb the ladder.” The millennials’ career path does not need to be a straight line. It is too early to tell definitively, but they seem to be more apt to move around within an organization and advance that way rather than the more traditional path of rising directly through the ranks.

There can also be a definite feeling of parity from millennial firefighters. In my formative years, there was a necessary line between me and my officers—a respect and a healthy fear were ever present. Many millennials have an inborn feeling of equality that can blur the lines of rank, which is vastly different than a traditional fire department hierarchy.

Many people from an older generation may see texting and social media as necessary evils or even distractions. For millennials, it is not necessarily an attention issue as much as it is a chemical issue. Because they associate self-worth with social interaction, when they receive a text or social media “likes,” dopamine is released into their system. Dopamine is called the “feel-good chemical” and is intimately involved with the brain’s reward system. It is the same chemical that hits the decision-making area of the brain as during sex, eating chocolate cake, and ingesting cocaine. So, while those born pre-1980 may not associate social media with cerebral pleasure, those born after are inclined to do so. It is ingrained.

4. Undercommunicating

It may be an oversimplification to say that you really don’t need to look beyond the popularity of Twitter and its 140-character limit to assume that millennials prefer short, concise communication. Although there is truth to that, don’t make the mistake of thinking that they don’t appreciate detail or elaboration. Millennials are adept at many communication channels.

Feedback is important across generational lines, but millennials are the first to insist that receiving positive and negative observations during an annual performance review does little to motivate. A much more responsive feedback system garners a better outcome. They prefer an ongoing conversation rather than an annual checkup. Keep in mind, this generation is also labeled the “participation ribbon” generation. They were told they are special in everything they do. As they enter the workforce, they quickly realize they may not be as “special” as they believe. Jobs and promotions are not handed over to them, particularly in the extremely competitive fire department promotional process. This creates self-esteem and confidence issues. Consistent feedback helps to remedy the societal hurdles created for them.

5. Work May Not Be Their Life

We tend to romanticize the history of the brotherhood, but we must remember that not everyone felt the same calling. My father’s generation saw many firefighters who had joined the fire service after leaving the military. They wanted to serve their communities but didn’t really fit in anywhere. These men and women weren’t a good fit for college and had heard the fire department was hiring, which could provide a respectable job with benefits.

As difficult as it may be for some to admit, not everyone feels an inborn call to serve. Some who enlist in our line of work do so because it is mentally and physically challenging and typically provides a steady paycheck and health insurance. This is often regarded as negative, and those people are quickly discounted and sometimes alienated, even if they meet and often exceed expectations.

This is especially true with millennials. Their identity is not necessarily tied to their occupation, as has been the case throughout history. “When people ask me what I do, I’m proud to say I’m a firefighter,” says 25-year-old Firefighter Jake Staatz. “It’s my occupation that I love to do, but it’s not what identifies me as a person. I would say that it is a very important and big part of my life, but I also have many other interests and hobbies that I enjoy as much as I enjoy reporting for duty in the morning.”

My intention is not to reinforce an “us-vs.-them” attitude but to identify and acknowledge differences, understand that “different” doesn’t mean “worse,” and embrace what the next generation is bringing to the fire service. It is a challenge to avoid pitfalls and exploit the things that they bring that previous generations may not have been able to bring. As we work to improve our service to the public while simultaneously reducing firefighter injuries and fatalities, now, maybe more than ever, it is imperative that we embrace the cultural change, encourage communication, and promote the evolution of our perpetually changing profession.


SCOTT FINAZZO is a 19-year veteran of and a captain/EMT with the Overland Park (KS) Fire Department. He has an associate degree in fire service administration and a bachelor’s degree in management and human relations. He is an instructor and has authored five books, including The Neighborhood Emergency Response Handbook and The Prepper’s Workbook.

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