Who's Going to Perform Our Critical Functions in the Future?
There are two extremely critical questions that more people in the fire service should be asking: Who is going to perform our critical emergency service functions in the future? Where is the next generation going to come from? These are questions that I worked to address in an earlier commentary which came into my mind at the Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) annual dinner back in April. I have discussed this issue in a number of other places.
At many of the major fire service events I attend each year, the number of younger people unfortunately is quite small. Perhaps this is because society in general has gotten very busy. People have many different activities to consume their time. Perhaps we are just a bit too difficult for most people to fit into their datebooks. After all, there are many different parts to the fire service and each takes a great deal of time. How do you add another time-consuming activity to an already-busy life?
There is another problem, however, that makes this creation of a new generation a bit more difficult. There are those who believe that the senior members are the ones with all of the knowledge and experience. These people believe that anyone with less than 30 years of service has not yet earned his or her way in the department. These folks believe that senior members should call the shots and run the show.
I have a problem with using seniority as a determining factor in any aspect of life. As a practical matter, when people become more senior, they also become older. At least that is what I have seen as I have gained seniority in life. The older people hang on for so long and fail to share so much that younger people lose interest and move on. We hog the spotlight for such a long time that others who should have been trained as our replacements fall by the wayside.
Perhaps that is why my friend Jack Peltier and I worry so much about sharing what we know. We are worried that our fire service is losing the many fine hues and tones that have made it a colorful and productive part of American culture for the past 3½ centuries. I have to stress that I am making reference to every aspect of the fire service where a giving and participative spirit is needed.
Perhaps our society has evolved away from the concept of voluntary service. I do know that the volunteer fire service in many places is struggling to fill the positions so necessary to protecting our smaller communities. I have studied this issue in depth for many years and worry that people are not taking me seriously. We need to develop the next generation of volunteer fire personnel. On the other hand, there appears to be a long line of people who want to become members of the career fire service. There is nothing wrong with this. I cannot deny that this is a fabulous way to spend a working career. I earned my way in the world as a member of the career fire service for over 30 years in a variety of venues, both civilian and military. However, these new-generation people seem to want to put in their time on the rigs and then do something else during their time away from the station. They see the fire service as just a job. I realize that some of you will take me to task for these comments, but that is what I have seen for some time now.
The new members with whom I am familiar fail to see the depth and range of the requirements for being considered active members of the many service organizations that have grown up around our field of endeavor. As I attend meetings of local, county and state fire organizations, I detect a noticeable lack of younger people. It seems to have worsened over the last few years. I have devoted time to seeking reasons for it and have identified some possible reasons for it. Perhaps it's because attending meetings is simply not as exciting as responding to emergencies.
While it may be hard to get worked up over drilling on pre-fire plans, washing rigs and attending mandatory training, you must suck it up and do the right thing. Here is where leaders can come to the fore and lead their people from the front. If there is a drill, participate as a sort of working foreman. The leader is going to be in charge, but that doesn't mean avoiding an active role in the operation. Be there with your people. Leaders earn their respect one day at a time.
Even with that, I am still confounded by the lack of young people stepping forward to serve in our fire organizations. Perhaps it is because there is no money or recognition for a lot of what we do in our part of the world of voluntary service. Maybe the days are gone when people would do things for the plain old joy and satisfaction of doing them. If this type of devotion is gone, what a shame. A good leader can set the example for the next generation of fire service members and leaders.
Jack Peltier and I decided that we need to begin setting the tone for how this problem should be addressed. We have decided to become mentors for a number of younger people. You might say that we have been doing this for a long time, but we want to formalize our approach to the delivery of mentoring. To that end, we want to share a story with you. It is about someone that Jack and I met at the CFSI dinner. Nathan Bowers is the nephew of Marshall Younker, who was the president of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman's Association (CVVFA) for 2006-2007. Nathan is 16 years old and wants to become an active member of the fire service. He was with Jack and me during many of the events that surround the dinner. At every possible opportunity, we gave him a tip or two about working behind the scenes as a "go-fer." We spoke of the importance of being in the right place at the right time. We spoke about using important concepts, phrases and questions such as:
- Thank you
- How can I help?
- What do you need?
Jack and I spoke with Nathan of the need to maintain a positive, can-do attitude. It should be noted that we made all of our comments quietly and discretely. We did not want to smother or embarrass Nathan with our efforts. We just wanted to share some of our combined 94 years of fire service experience and expertise with someone who seemed to have both interest and potential. I hope we were able to help in some small way.
It was an exciting time for both Nathan and his Uncle Marshall. As president of the CVVFA, it was Marshall's privilege to accept the first Paul S. Sarbanes Fire Service Safety Leadership Award. Nathan got to see his uncle deliver a passionate speech thanking the CFSI and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation for their support of the CVVFA Highway Safety Initiative, the Emergency Response Safety Institute and Respondersafety.com.
However, where were the rest of the young people? How can we expect the next generation to step forward if we fail to proactively invite them to accompany us when we make this periodic pilgrimage to the halls of power? This is neither magic nor brain surgery. If we want to have a next generation, we have to identify, cultivate and create that next generation. If you really love the fire service, you need to actively identify that person who will take your place.
I am proud that my daughter Kathleen is an active member of our fire company in Adelphia, NJ. In addition to her firefighting and emergency-response duties, she is a member of an area-wide committee created to stage a major joint fund-raiser in 2008. She has also attended Firehouse Expo in Baltimore. I would like to see her do more, but understand that she is a new schoolteacher with a limited amount of time off. There goes that busy-life syndrome again.
Solving the problem of creating next generation in the fire service cannot be left to chance. There are wise people in the fire service who have worked hard to convince their fire departments that youth programs are a critical element in creating future success. We did this in Adelphia nearly 24 years ago and the successful results are evident for all to see. Over the past 20 years, former members of our fire company juniors have risen to chief-level rank and have commanded our organization at numerous emergency operations.
Unfortunately in many cases we have lost the family connection. This is sad, but it is a part of American life in this the 21st Century. My point is quite simple: We can moan about the lack of young people in our world or step up to the plate and do something about it. The great leaders will step forward and adopt this as a critical part of their job. Moaning will do nothing to alleviate the problem. Only a conscious, active, concerned, and caring approach to building a productive future will work.
DR. HARRY R. CARTER, Ph.D., CFO, MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is the former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. Dr. Carter is a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. Currently chairman of the Board of Fire Commissioners for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is vice president of the American Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers (MIFireE). He recently published Living My Dream: Dr. Harry Carter's 2006 FIRE Act Road Trip, which was also the subject of a Firehouse.com blog. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.