Training a Different Generation
By David Rhodes
The fire service continues to see generational differences play havoc on our expectations of the firefighter candidate pool. Some will say that these “new recruits” just don’t get it. This is the same thing our bosses, officers, and senior members said about us. My thoughts on this have varied over the past two decades, but what I want to share here is more complex than just “the new recruits are the problem.”
As society evolves because of advances in technology, changing priorities, and a supply and demand of specific skill sets, a natural evolution of circumstances occurs. What was essential and valued in one generation can easily become less essential, devalued, or extinct in the next. However, we seem to always place a high value on those things (skills) that were highly valued in our “heyday”-in other words, when we were the closest to the work (as opposed to the management of the work). The results of these natural evolutions are the cause of much of our strife when we look at the “new generation.”
Several years ago, I noticed a majority of a recruit class struggling with simple mechanical skills in assembling and disassembling, hooking up and disconnecting components of the breathing apparatus. I asked the class of 60-plus recruits, “How many of you have ever started a lawnmower and cut grass?” Only two recruits raised their hands. So, instead of considering the candidates “worthless new recruits who can’t do anything,” I had to reassess my expectations and adapt my training method based on their current skill level and previous life experiences (or lack thereof) that I had assumed they had.
Differing Skill Sets
As simple as this sounds, it is a very complex and underemphasized reality that we are all faced with. When we look at the candidate pool for the fire service, we see that we hire individuals who are more educated than the previous generations; they have a higher aptitude for using and understanding technology. Most of our training outlines, lesson plans, and practical skill drills at the entry level were designed for individuals who came to us with a different skill set. Twenty to 30 years ago, most everyone we hired came from the trades. We were mechanical and somewhat adaptable based on our experiences and life skills. We didn’t have to teach candidates how to crank a saw, hook up a tank, or change a spark plug because they came (with the exception of few) with those skills already. We only had to teach and train them how and why the equipment was used in our business.
When I say change my expectations, this is not a lowering of standards or change in what I expect as a final outcome. What I am saying here is that I had to erase my assumptions about what level of skill and mechanical aptitude these candidates brought to the table. Instead of just barking out the order to disconnect the high-pressure hose from the cylinder valve, I had to start with the basics of how the various connections work. Threaded couplings, quick connect couplings, twist and lock, I felt as if I was headed toward the Marine Corps methodology of “This is my rifle, there are many like it” and, in fact, that is exactly what I had to do.
Adapt and Change
A changing candidate pool with different life experiences requires us to adapt and change our training delivery methods. This could require more time on a given task or subject, but the payoff will be tremendous. After a lesson in the various couplings and how they operate, I followed up with a simple drill of repetition. “OK, connect your high-pressure hose to the cylinder.” “Now disconnect your high-pressure hose from the cylinder.” Verify that everyone is lining things up correctly and turning the coupling the right way. Recruit some instructor monitors to spread out and supervise and coach smaller groups. “OK, I want each of you to connect and disconnect that coupling 10 times.” Once everyone has it, we move on to connecting the regulator to the mask, following the same methodology.
It is easy to allow the generational differences to frustrate us to the point of taking a condescending approach to these “new people who don’t know anything.” Understanding that there are automatic communication barriers is a must. This generation didn’t grow up watching “Emergency” and “The Towering Inferno”; they grew up watching “Rescue Me” and “Ladder 49.” They didn’t grow up walking or riding a bike to the ball field for baseball practice; they were part of a minivan carpool to soccer practice. These are all similar but very different experiences that require an understanding and adjustment in our approach.
If you’re old school and working to train the new people, make sure you have a good assistant who is younger than you and has more in common from a life experience standpoint but who has also mastered the skills you want the new generation to acquire. Think of him as your generational interpreter. This person can go hang out with the crew on break and hear their unfiltered assessments and questions and might be able to put a new and enlightening perspective on some of the new experiences for those who are the future of our service.