By Tiger Schmittendorf
I originally wrote “From the Xbox to the Box Alarm” more than five years ago as I stumbled upon what I saw as a direct correlation between Generation Y and the influence of video games on virtually every aspect of their lives.
Based on my reading of some formal research conducted by those a lot smarter than I am, I started to introduce my audiences to a new breed of firefighter–a group of people who, at least on the surface, appeared to be the polar opposite of the values and characteristics embodied and passed on by us and our predecessors–a group others have labeled the “Why?” or “I” generation. I have dubbed it the “Xbox Generation.”
As I look back on it now, my true understanding of this generation was all but in its infancy. For as I started to practice what I preached about surrounding myself with the gamer generation to gain a better understanding of this new set of society members, I gained an even greater appreciation for not only their uniqueness, but their potential to make all the good things about previous generations even greater. By virtue of increased demand for my “Xbox Live” conversation, I’ve been invited into a number of firehouses around the country to explore a variety of service delivery, leadership, and organizational models to conduct what I call my “observational research.”
While most folks focus on how technology is accelerating the gaps between the generations, in my Xbox conversation, we explore how properly applied technology can increase the opportunities for connections between the more experienced (notice I didn’t say “older”) firefighters and those who haven’t gained their own experiences yet. We direct this focus by first bringing all parties to consensus on three key points:
- 95 percent of the fires we fight are in the firehouse–not on the fireground; yet we invest our time, energy, and especially our money in the exact opposite proportion on all the things that are 100 percent useless without the proper quantity and quality of people to make them work.
- All firefighters have an obligation to be “technologically sound”–not just the WebGens of today but also the firefighters who once thought quadraphonic and high fidelity were “state of the art” too.
- Not only are most of the solutions to today’s fire service challenges within our reach, but many of those solutions can be found among the participants in the Xbox Live conversation, provided that they demonstrate the will and determination to share their ideas freely and productively.
Once consensus is built, we hold each other accountable to these ideals whenever either party throws up a red flag, an obstacle to why we can’t change. From this jumping-off point, we set out to divert my generation from the perspective that today’s Xbox generation of firefighters are all “unmotivated slackers” to the reality that most of them, at least as I’ve discovered in my observational research, are young people who are truly starved for strong, effective leadership. In many cases, they haven’t experienced this definitive leadership style yet because, at home, they had ‘friends’ instead of parents. They didn’t get it at school because we’ve stripped teachers and administrators of virtually every right and authority to impart discipline and respect. Thus, when they arrive at the firehouse door of our paramilitary organizations, it’s not only a rude awakening for us–but for them, too.
For example, one of the chief complaints I receive about today’s generation is that they need to have their hands held while doing everything. How long have we known that? If that’s the challenge, then what is the solution?
I’ll share a story that demonstrates this challenge and solution: A few months ago I was putting a new glow-in-the-dark helmet band on my fire helmet. To do that, I had to remove the front leather shield. I asked a 20-something female member of my department to bring me a Phillips-head screwdriver. I could tell by the zombie-like look on her face that she had no idea of what I was asking for. I apologized, saying that it was presumptuous of me to think that she understood what I thought was a simple request.
I hit the reset button and started over by offering her clear directions: “Please go to the officer’s-side rear compartment of Squad 1 and bring me the yellow toolbox from the bottom shelf.” She readily brought me the requested toolkit. I turned it upside down and emptied its contents on to the apparatus floor. One by one, we reviewed the basic function and application of each tool, including the Phillips-head screwdriver, which I had her use to remove and replace my leather front. In full disclosure, I started to fall into the trap of doing it myself until she asked, “Can I try?”
When we were done, she thanked me, stating that she had two older brothers and a father who never took the time to show her the difference between a straight blade and a Phillips-head screwdriver or how to use them. That’s a pretty sad statement, if you ask me.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know the difference between these two tools; she just didn’t know that members of the department expected her to understand the simple differences. She failed to meet our expectations, at least initially. Armed with new knowledge and understanding, she exceeded my expectations in putting my helmet back together, probably faster than I could have done it myself. All I had to do was “hold her hand” to get her started with creating the solution on her own.
I tell the participants in my facilitated conversation that if they remember nothing else about our discussion, remember, “The greatest expectation of this Xbox generation is to be given clear expectations.” That starts with recognizing that “Because I told you so!” doesn’t work anymore and includes giving them clear direction in your application and onboarding process; in your job descriptions; and in training, education, and career pathways.
To most folks, the “I-Generation” tag means “What’s in it for me?” My definition is, “I” stands for the fact that they are truly individuals. Therefore, pigeon-holing them into a stereotype becomes more difficult, and broad-brush, one-size-fits-all solutions, incentives, and motivators don’t work.
In reality, they’re much more like us than we care to admit. We want clear expectations and want to know the benchmarks we have to achieve for meeting those expectations. They want that, too. What makes them somewhat different is that they want to see a third column next to expectations and benchmarks on the chart: benefits. They ask, “What is the benefit to me for meeting your expectation and achieving the benchmark you set for me?” We tend to get caught up in thinking that these benefits have to be tangible instead of focusing on whether our benefits are appropriate and meaningful to the individual. And, wanting benefits doesn’t make them bad people; in fact, one could argue that it makes them smarter people than we are.
Historically, my M.O. for meeting expectations and achieving the benchmarks others set for me is to answer, “Yes sir, may I have another?” I’m keenly aware of my personality type and thrive on additional responsibility as my reward for a job well done, sometimes to a fault. Through my observational research in firehouses around the country, I’ve come to learn that not everyone is like me and, more importantly, they do not have to be. Although they are labeled as the most education-focused generation ever, this generation definitely doesn’t learn the same way we do. It was actually a participant in one of my Xbox conversations who discovered this cord between how they play an Xbox game and the wireless way they learn.
Ask any gamer how they play an Xbox game. They will tell you that it is exactly how the previous generations traditionally learned: They start by tearing open the box and reading the instruction manual from cover to cover. Not! They learn, or that is to say they are most adept at learning, in a fashion very similar to how they play an Xbox game:
- Open the package.
- Insert the game into the console.
- Set the personal preferences according to how you would like to play the game.
- Start playing the game.
- Hit “Restart.”
- Continue to play until you complete the first mission (meet the expectation and achieve the benchmark) of the game.
- Go to the next level (benchmark to benefit).
- Continue completing missions (or fail enough to make you quit) until you …
- Beat the game!
What can we learn from this?
- They are very visual, interactive, and first-person learners.
- There is a tremendous need and opportunity for us to help them understand some key differences between the gaming environment and real-world experiences:
ü Firefighting is a multiuser—not a single-player—environment. We call the latter “freelancing.”
ü Although it’s okay to fail in training, there is rarely a ‘reset’ button on the fireground.
ü “Beating the game” means you get to go home at the end of the call or the shift with the benefit of coming back to play another day.
Actor Michael J. Fox is credited with saying, “If children can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.” Instead of our traditional teaching method of putting a bunch of skills and knowledge into one big package with just intermediate or endgame validation of their learning process, perhaps we need to break the information we’re sharing into smaller bites, giving them just enough to understand the problem and potential solutions. Then, we should allow them to practice and fail at the associated skills with their peers until they are ready to advance to the next level. Repeat the sequence until they’ve mastered all the levels and can put it all together to beat the “training game.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
More Realistic Operations and Better “Connections”
Operationally, that means we need to observe and evaluate new thinking and methods already in play by other instructors, and it means we need to embrace new technologies that make the training more relevant and realistic to the learner. More hands-on training; blended learning that includes remote online work and virtual interaction with the instructor coupled with intensified hands-on training in a group environment; fire training simulation systems; formal and informal online training are what today’s learners have available to them and that’s what many of them want. Your challenge is to discover which learning method is right for each of them.
But to really get today’s learner’s head in the game requires us to have more than just effective communication skills; we need to have effective connection skills.
As I share on TrainYourReplacement.com, my formula for success in connecting with today’s student starts with great storytelling, hiding relevant application of the lessons within the context of the story, and a genuine interest in the student.
Remove the relevant application and you’re left with boring war stories. Eliminate the storytelling, and the student has nothing to connect to. Lose your genuine interest in the student, and no story or instructional aid is going to save you as an instructor. Their “garbage” sensor is a well-tuned detector.
Applying this formula effectively will take the average instructor to the next level–from informative to interesting to inspiring—and, eventually, to winning the game of creating lifelong learners by being innovative. To be truly innovative requires every instructor to embrace the information, learning methodologies and technologies available in and outside the classroom and to bring them all together for the student.
There is no limitation on the volume of available training information or access to it for today’s Xbox generation student. They can watch more videos about reading smoke than I’ve been to working fires in my career. But, what they lack is the relevant experience to correlate and validate the information shared. Just like as some of them lack a filter in what personal information they should share online, they also lack the ability to filter out the noise from the nuggets of good training information.
That’s where we come in. The challenge is ours to be the leaders, mentors, coaches (and filters) we’ve always wanted to be but never had the audience for. That audience is here now, and its members desperately need us to be all those things for them.
Once I feel I’ve beat the game of diverting my generation’s perspective that today’s Xbox generation of firefighters are all “unmotivated slackers” to the reality that most of them are just young people who are truly starved for strong, effective leadership, then we discuss how and where to find these hungry, thirsty learners of the craft of firefighting. My suggestion is to find the first “exception to the rule” individual that blows up the stereotype of their genre. Then, arm that standout with the support and resources to find more peers just like him–more exceptions to the rule.
They’re out there; you just have to go looking for them. Or better yet, create an environment that doesn’t just focus on whether the individual is meeting the needs of the organization but instead focuses on whether the organization is meeting the needs of its individuals. Only then will you realize true and lasting success. To decline this mission means that your fire department is headed for sure irrelevance, obsolescence, and even extinction.
As I wrote five years ago, the harsh reality is that there is no alternate generation hanging out in a parallel universe waiting to swoop down and save the fire service. That generation is already here and has many of the answers to our challenges in connecting with it. It’s time we got over it and got on with the business of training our replacements.
Tiger Schmittendorf is an author; an instructor; an emergency manager; and a frequent presenter on the subjects of leadership, safety, command, and recruitment and retention. He serves the County of Erie (Buffalo, NY) Department of Emergency Services as deputy fire coordinator, managing three training academies and 45 fire instructors in coordinating the training of 97 fire departments and 5,000+ firefighters. He created a recruitment effort that doubled his fire department’s membership and helped net 525+ new volunteers countywide. He is a nationally certified fire instructor and has been a firefighter since 1980.