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“I just don’t understand the kids being hired these days.” How many times have we all heard this? I am sure too many times to count. Chances are that it is usually being said by an officer who is trying to lead these newly hired firefighters. There is a fairly good chance that the same thing was said when that person entered the fire service as well. In this article, I will discuss a few areas that officers seem to struggle to connect with their newer firefighters.
Let us examine this thought a little closer. It seems that no matter when one enters the fire service, someone somewhere is having difficulty connecting with the newest person in the fire house. This lack of understanding may show up in a multitude of areas. I must admit, that when I was a Lieutenant, I too uttered this statement about the rookie firefighters passing through my fire house. Now, as a Chief Officer, I see an opportunity when I hear that statement; an opportunity to help this officer learn ways to connect with their new firefighter.

Following is a short list of areas of misunderstandings and ‘opportunities’ to bridge the gap to maximize the effectiveness of the fire company:

1. Learning style – . Everyone learns via one of three ways: auditory, visual, or kinesthetic. Some people, known as global learners, learn equally well with any of those. Many of the newer firefighters coming on the job are visual, possibly internet-based learners. Meaning that they may not be used to having a manual in their hands. Internet resources give a more interactive experience, with auditory input and real time demonstration of how to complete a task. They do not necessarily have to process only written instructions and hope that in the end they have completed all the steps correctly. Some videos give caution on what not to do, thus there is less trial and error when attempting a new skill. It is up to us as leaders and teachers to take measures to figure out how our firefighters learn best. If the overall goal is to teach, then we must be willing to meet those we are teaching halfway.

2. Lack of knowledge of hand tools – This seems to be a big source of frustration for officers when getting to know their new firefighter. Yes, the fire service relies heavily on knowing how to use the many tools that are assigned to the apparatus. Whether the newer firefighter knows what all of the tools are or how they are used or not, and regardless of the reason if they don’t, it is still our job to teach and develop them. We cannot simply throw them back into the bunch and grab another one off the shelf. After all, they are now ours, part of our crew. At any moment we could find ourselves relying on them to come through in a tough situation; one that we are supposed to prepare them for. So, it’s in our own best interest to set aside our frustration with what they don’t know, and teach them what we do know.

3. Goals and ambitions – This one seems to provoke a lot of discussion amongst the officers. What appears to get in the way is the misconception that the newer generation of firefighters do not have goals and/or ambitions. I would argue that this is not necessarily true. One should stop and consider that perhaps their goals and ambitions are different than their predecessors’. Without getting into a big talk about generational differences (that’s a different article), our newer firefighters have been known to look for different forms of job satisfaction. In previous years success was defined purely by promotion, making rank. Lately there seems to have been a shift in mindset. Success for some of the newer firefighters is found in being a part of programs that make an impact, finding things that give them a sense of purpose, and feeling appreciated.
Now, let’s not get lost in the issues of the generational gap in the fire service. The point that I want to make here is that each of us are different, no matter when we were hired into the fire service. Those before us probably did not understand us either. Nor were they understood by those before them.

But as leaders we can not let it end with just not understanding. As leaders we must decide to try to understand those that are looking to us for guidance and support. Our new firefighters may be different than us, but they are still firefighters, our firefighters. Different does not mean worse. Our communities need us to be different from one another. Those differences are what drive our personnel to specialty training. Those differences create Hazardous Materials technicians, Rescue technicians, Paramedics and so many other specialists that allow us to provide the absolute best overall service that we can to the communities that we serve. Different firefighters are drawn to different divisions of the fire department for different reasons. As leaders we are charged with cultivating those differences and interests. Our job is to help those in our charge to find the fulfillment that they desire. Their career path is not ours to choose. What our subordinates need is to be heard and given a chance to flourish in their own respect. The onus is upon us as leaders to learn, hear, and try to understand who we are leading. As leaders, it is expected of us to get the most out of our personnel , to make them the best they can be, to maximize their potential.

In the end the, as leaders we need to recognize that different members are going to see the job in different ways. Our personnel will take different paths than those that we have chosen for ourselves. What we must do is remember to hold true to one of our most basic duties; develop our personnel. It is unfair of us to project our own agendas onto those coming up behind us. We need to embrace, learn from, and capitalize upon the differences of those coming behind us. That is where the innovation, fresh ideas, and out of the box thinking is derived. Remember, they are not you, and that is ok.

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