Millennials, those born anywhere from the mid to late-80’s to the early to mid-90’s, get a bad rap some times. Whether it’s a story on the nightly news about soon to be or recent college graduates whining about not finding their dream jobs, or a young co-worker who just doesn’t seem to have that work ethic that you may have had when you stared. This new generation cannot seem to get out of their (our) own way sometimes. This is evidently true in today’s fire service. The days of rugged, leather lunged, soot covered mustache men are coming to an end. Rapidly being replaced by a new generation of firefighters, eager to prove themselves as equals to these seasoned veterans. Educated in college classrooms and concrete burn buildings rather than smoky hallways and searing fires. This new generation could stand to learn a lot from previous generations, and by using their mouths a lot less than their eyes and ears.
‘Too New’ Guys
Joining the fire service, whether volunteer or career, is a very exciting time. Becoming a member of a department full of history, pride and respect makes you feel as though you have earned these traits just by putting on the tee-shirt. Make no mistake; you haven’t. Those traits where earned by those “old guys” who hang around the firehouse. Those traits are the invisible medals that those “old guys” earned by doing what needed to be done and not asking for anything in return, especially attention for doing so. Too often do I see a new firefighter looking for an accolade for doing a good job, or for doing something without having to be told. This is where that bad rap stems from. Those “dinosaurs” have already done every job there is to do in the fire service and they never asked for a high-five or pat on the back. They certainly will not be handing them out either. I’ve often found that doing a good job and getting praise without looking for any, feels much better than searching and receiving that praise. Millennials need to understand that the fire service is not a daycare. It is a place of business where work gets handed out and gets completed, simple as that. That is not to say that a new guy cannot go above and beyond, or simply do a good job and get recognized for doing so. This is what builds the trust and respect from others, and confidence within one’s own self. Finding the balance between doing your job and doing your absolute best is the key.
Two Eyes, Two Ears…
It does not matter whether you start your very first day in the fire service or whether you transfer to a new house or a new rig. You know nothing. It does not matter if you know a better way to force a door or to pump the truck, you still know nothing. Your job is to be a dry sponge. To be the first to ask questions, to be the first engage in trainings, and the first one to help out. Nothing is worse than having that new guy who is a twenty-year veteran with twenty days on the job. Don’t be that person. You may think the department or the shift is all messed up - and it may be - but it is not your job to fix it. Your job is to be that sponge that is soaking up everything you can. And if there is something that you think you can fix or do better, the only way you will get to that point is by earning the respect of your crew. Every day you walk into the firehouse, look to learn something. Look to help out and show that you are a person who is willing to do those less glamorous tasks. You’d be surprised how fast the senior guys who haven’t talked to you yet will start to engage you.
Not Your Father’s Fire Service
Perhaps the best thing that young firefighters can do to gain respect and to succeed so to stop being so young. Young firefighters are guilty of it, myself included. We walk around staring at the screens of our phones, waiting for the latest updates. This is the effect of growing up with technology all around us. Perhaps you are learning a new tactic or have found a new way to pack your crosslays. You need to imagine how you look to the veterans sipping coffee and reading the newspaper though. This is where we millennials could afford to act more like our fathers and grandfathers even. Show up early for your shift, check your apparatus thoroughly, and engage other members in person rather than through text message. My grandfather was a very stoic man. He was never a member of any fire department, but still taught me many lessons that I use today. Show up to work ready to work not ready to leave, treat your tools well and they will treat you well, and always respect someone unless they give you a reason not to. Perhaps these are lessons that your father or grandfather taught you. For some, they could have gotten lost in a generational gap somewhere. Maybe it’s actually better to act like an old man sometimes rather than a new kid.
Nothing will gain you more respect in a department than gaining the respect of the senior member. There have been many articles written recently on the importance of the “senior man”. They don’t need to be the lieutenant or captain on your shift, often they will be the one who had turned down a promotion or who never put in for one. This senior man or senior woman is a special position that has grown out of having a seniority structure, often they are the ones who know the ins and outs of every piece or equipment, current and past, as well as every building in their district. Here’s two suggestions, #1. Find them. #2. Follow them like you are their new dog. This person has probably spent more time in the bathroom stall than you will in the department. They are your key to a successful career. As mentioned before it could take a while to prove to them that you are worth their time. This goes back to being that sponge and being an old man. Once you have established a relationship with them, your path is established to becoming a true member of your shift and department and not just another name in the room.
Nothing Can Replace the Real Thing
One of the biggest turn offs about a new guy entering the department is that idea that they are not ready. They do not know what they do not know and they should have a few more fires under their belt before they think they can hang with their new counterparts. This unfortunately is not possible for most in this age of better fire prevention education, stronger building codes and fire detection and suppression systems. The men of the 70’s and 80’s cut their teeth on multiple fires per month and per week which taught real life lessons in real life situations. Today’s newer generation of firefighter will simply not see this fire volume. For the most part, it is out of their control. What is in their control is training and education. The lessons of a past generation are being made up for within the classroom and on the training grounds. Many will say that live burns cannot replace actual fire behavior and that is true. But the second-best thing is to commit one’s self to be ready for when an actual fire is in front of them. This requires an understanding of what is happening and why, and the best way to explain this - outside of the real thing - is a combination of instruction via an experienced instructor using both cognitive and psychomotor lessons to put these ideas and theories to the test. While nothing can replace the numbers of fires a member has in a career, committing yourself to the craft and showing an all-in interest to the job by attending trainings, classes and seminars whenever possible will insure that you are doing everything in your power to better yourself for that next call.
The Extra Mile
One of my favorite sayings is “little things over a long time become big things”. The idea that small actions carried out over a period of time can grow to have a large impact is something that we should all remember when it comes to our everyday life. For instance, imagine setting away even a few dollars per week into an account for a year. Those couple of dollars per week can grow to be a respectful amount of money you could use on a needed vacation. The idea is, small things grow into big things over time. This is where the new guy can flourish. Going the extra mile each shift by doing the simplest of tasks will grow into the perception others have about you. If you are the guy who is always first to hook up the exhaust vent after a call, who is always the one who can be found sweeping dirt up off of the floor even after the house chores are done, or the one who volunteers to make the coffee run, people will notice. Alone these simple acts are not difficult and will not qualify anyone for a Nobel Peace Prize, but tasks such as these done each shift over the first six months or a year will go a long way to winning the respect of those you work with. Not to mention you will be bettering your department at the same time. The shift will be much more apt to trust you crawling behind them during a search if they trust that you have the decency to replace the toilet paper roll.
Be the New Guy
There is nothing we Millennials can do about looking young and being inexperienced. The reality is that when this new generation becomes the department leadership and senior members in their own firehouses, they will say the same about the next generation. New guys can do us all a favor however by simply being the new guy. By remembering that those who came before them know much more than they do and have seen more than they will in their careers. They can set the example for other younger firefighter who are up and coming by devoting themselves to the job and to be willing to learn anything and everything they can. Never forget what drove you to be where you are and never take your eyes off of your future goals.