Training the Next Generation: Millennials and Gen Z

National Volunteer Fire Council

By Tom Miller

Writing for the NVFC

As a fire service instructor, I have seen many of my colleagues struggle with adapting to the learning styles of today’s younger firefighters. I have heard the grumblings of frustration as they are challenged with providing the different modalities our new recruits need to learn. They raise concerns about the validity of “blended learning” versus traditional classes, students’ perceived attention spans, and the seeming barrage of “why” and “how” questions from students. All of these are hurdles that must be overcome if we are to continue to attract and train the recruits of today and tomorrow.

Just what is a “millennial,” and who belongs in that designation? According to Pew Research Center, this generation was born between 1981 and 1996. Millennials are now ranging from ages 24 to 39 and it’s estimated this population numbered 73 million in the U.S. in 2019. Those born from 1997 forward are commonly referred to as “Gen Z.” Members of this group are also reaching adulthood, with the oldest of this generation between 18-23.



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Today’s recruits have access to more information on their phone than I ever had when I was in school. Google is their card catalog and has made the availability of information almost instantaneous. Traditionalists counter with, “There is no app for firefighting!” and “It still boils down to sweat and blood.” I have seen the back-channel resistance to online classes, including Firefighter I & II. With the ever-increasing problems with recruitment and retention, we must either adapt or face extinction, much like the “dinosaurs” we are so often associated with.

Many of today’s young adults went through school without textbooks – they used iPads or laptops and completed much of their work in a virtual environment. They are unfamiliar with the concepts of rote learning, “muscle memory,” or strict demonstration of “practical skills.” They are used to collaborative, multimodal learning, not authoritarian, didactic classrooms. Gen Z learners thrive in experiential learning environments with adaptive instruction. They tend to focus more on outcomes as opposed to techniques. Frequently, members of this generation have been allowed to work at their own pace with minimal outside prompting. To validate this point, all one has to do is look at the proliferation of online colleges and universities offering undergraduate and postgraduate degrees. They are not impressed with and may in fact be offended by a three-inch-thick Firefighter I & II textbook.

In addition, many school districts have taken out the “physical” part of Phys Ed and have switched to a broader holistic health and wellness approach. Your demands of strenuous physical activity may be their first physical challenge.

Students are one with their phones and even their smart watches. One respected author stated, “Don’t get mad at the phone.” I have been teaching and seen students apparently “playing” on their phones when in fact they were looking up the incident I referenced or the topic and instantly sharing it with their friends or classmates. Today’s recruits get very frustrated if they are disconnected, and they update their base of information on an almost constant basis. Let them do so, unless it becomes a problem for the class. When many of us trained, we saw videos that showed incidents that were sometimes eight or 10 years old. To do so now loses the millennial and Gen Z audience – they want to learn about what happened yesterday, or last week…last year is ancient history. They challenge the “why?” of the event or incident. As instructors, we are now responsible for answering that, and not just with “because,” or, “that is the way it has always been.” We need to know the science, etiology, and the mechanics, as well as the history.

We must know the technology of today’s fire service. What were once the “nice-to-haves” are now standard equipment, i.e. heads-up displays in self-contained breathing apparatus, thermal imagers, integrated communications, etc. As instructors, we need to connect with our students similarly to how they connect with the world by using a combination of technology, information, video, CGI, social media, interface, and tempo of learning. Of course, we must teach students how to operate in dangerous environs, but we have to change our means of communication to meet their values while still implanting the core safety messages and demonstrations of practical skills. We must be able to adapt and improvise quickly while still being true to the curriculum.

As curriculum developers, we must look at the meaningful use of the exercise and skills. Are we just creating busy work? Are we requiring skills that are not applicable in today’s environment? Imagine my surprise when a student whipped out a drone and did a real-time, three-dimensional, 360° survey of an incident scenario in the time it took most of the other students to get dressed. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so his video was worth a thick textbook.

Many of us are very proud of the lore and traditions of the fire service. It is what made us who we are and drives us to continue. Although there are yet those who pursue the fire service with the same ardor as many of us did, such enthusiasm may not be as common. Younger recruits tend to view the world in a broader sense. They are not so invested in the job as a whole part of their life. They value the work-life balance more. They are very diverse in their interests and hobbies, and less focused on obsessions. This may be misinterpreted by older generations as a lack of commitment.

Unfortunately, many fire training centers struggle with funding to keep up with the trends in technology. They lack Sim Labs or virtual reality training resources. There are many virtual reality training software applications, but their use is not widespread. We as instructors just haven’t made it the same level of priority across the country. Some jurisdictions have embraced the use of these advanced technologies and have shown great success in their training programs.

We can’t continue to bemoan the recruitment and retention issue and not be willing to look in the mirror at ourselves and how we have failed to make changes with the times, especially when it comes to training the future of the fire service. The future of the fire service starts with us, not them. They come to us with a desire to learn and many times we disappoint and under perform. We must meet them where they are and, for the most part, on their terms. If not, our classes will continue to be half filled, our ranks will lessen, and the public will suffer.

Tom Miller is a 35-year fire service veteran. He holds a master’s degree and is a Pro Board Fire Instructor III, Firefighter II, and Hazardous Materials Technician. Tom has been an adjunct instructor with West Virginia University Fire Service Extension since 1990 and has written and delivered numerous curricula on specialized topics in the fire service. He is a principal on the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 470 Technical Committee and chairs the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC’s) HazMat Response Committee. Tom is the NVFC director from West Virginia and also serves on their Homeland Security and Health, Safety, and Training committees.


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