It is always a very special time in my life when a number of different thoughts which I have created at a variety of times and in a variety of places come together accidently into a really neat new notion. Such is the case here. Let me mention that the beautiful weather which spread across New Jersey recently served as the genesis for a number of trips to my favorite thinking spot: my front porch.
Let me once again make an important observation. My friend, Bob Dylan got it right back during my high school days when he sang that, “The times, they are a changing.” Let me suggest that he did not know the half of it at the time. Things are changed in our world. I see no possible way for any of us to expect that the tone and tenor of our hectic times will ease off at any time in the immediate future. The closest I ever get to a slow down the pace of my life now are my periodic visits to the front porch of my home here in Adelphia.
So there I sat, soaking up the warm breezes which swept across my front porch and watching the passing parade. As the smoke from my cigar wafted lazily eastward, my thinking gland sprang open and a fresh new thought welled up within my mind’s eye. Was it not just a couple of short weeks ago that my front porch was buried under a record winters worth of snow? Was it not just a couple of short weeks ago that my front porch was being lambasted by the winds and record-breaking rain from a record-breaking March?
Yet here I sat, enjoying God’s Grace in the form of a beautiful day. Only a few short days after being subjected to the trials and tribulations one of the worst winters of my life, here I was languishing in the lap of a luxurious day. It was at this time that the words of a former pastor of mine came leaping forward. I can remember him counseling me during a time of personal trial to remember that, “this too shall pass.” It is tough to remember that thought when things are really going against you. At least it has been that way for me. He was right though.
As is the way, a day or so passed before the next couple of thoughts came to me. As I once more sat on my porch watching the sun set in the west, I paused to ponder about many of the things I had seen in my life. I guess the beautiful weather brought forth the philosopher in my soul. I then asked myself two simple questions:
· Can you remember when apparatus in our career fire departments staffed five, six, or seven firefighters per unit?
· Can you remember when our volunteer fire departments had so many people that we were forced to set up waiting lists?
Let me assure you that I can remember when the answer to both of these questions was a resounding yes. Had anyone ever suggested to me that these things too would pass away from our agencies, I would not have believed them. However, the new reality we face in 2010 is much different from the historic facts I have at my command. Change is inevitable. Let me remind you that how we choose to react to or prepare for change is up to each of us. Let me now suggest that a societal change which many among you may, or may not, have noticed going on around you, has come to pass.
Perhaps you have heard me speak about the possible impacts which societal changes may have had on the ability of our volunteer fire service to survive and protect our communities. It has also been my privilege to write about this on numerous occasions through the years. I cannot even count the times I have covered this topic.
Wherever I go, I try to look around. I ask questions and I take notes. Saturday April 10, 2010 found me in Clayton, Delaware at a meeting of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association’s (CVVFA) President’s Council. This is a gathering of the leaders of a number of state-level associations in the Middle Atlantic Region. These fine folks come together in order to share what has transpired in their states within the realm of fire service programs and legislation. Ideas are shared, strategies are outlined and friendships are renewed.
Before we kicked off the meeting, a number of us gathered around the coffee pot to share our collective wisdom. There was also the usual array of chop-busting, war stories, and truth-stretching. However, as is often the case, some solid, real-life ideas were tossed about. It was during a discussion of some ideas I had on the issue of staffing, recruiting, and retaining our members that Ernie Rojahn from the Lancaster County Fireman’s Association tossed out an interesting bit of information.
He mentioned to me that he was having trouble interacting with the younger members of his local association. Ernie mentioned that his younger members did not want to attend meetings. According to Ernie, these younger folks were addicted to interacting through a variety of electronic media. The text, they twitter, and they write on their Facebook walls. They really do not seem to like coming together in large groups to do anything. Grover Ingle from Delaware agreed with what Ernie was saying. He portrayed a similar portrait of his world.
He and Ernie noted that many people are living their lives on line. Personal, human interaction does not seem to have as much value as it once did. Ernie noted that a couple of the younger people have actually begun to campaign to go from a series of monthly meetings in the fire companies to a new scheme involving quarterly meetings. I hope that Ernie is able to educate them as to the need for holding meetings to do the organizational business, share thoughts, and generate new ideas.
My friends, how are we going to address this change as it applies to mining our pool of potential members? It would seem to me that we need to adopt a two-prong approach to interacting with the younger people. On the one hand we need to have a number of our middle-aged members who possess an understanding of the electronic world reach out through the electronic media to the next generation using their own tools to reach them.
The second prong of our attack on this problem will require moderation on the part of our older members. We need for these veteran troops to temper their comments and criticisms of the new people. These veteran troops have never had to be nice to anyone, if you will. That is just the way it was. It is my observation that today’s younger generations are a bit more high maintenance. It is easier for me to keep pace with this issue, as I am the father of two Blackberry ® toting daughters, and a MacBook son. These girls have turned into a pair of texting terrors. They have even converted my wife into a passable texting person.
We have brought a lot of new people into the Adelphia Fire Company over the past few years. With two exceptions, each of these new people is a younger person. Being a member of the educational community, it has been my good fortune to have learned several important lessons about interacting with younger people within our community. Let me offer them to you for your consideration:
· Welcome people to your group.
· Learn their names as quickly as possible.
· You should quickly ascertain their level of knowledge and understanding of the fire service.
· Listen to what people are saying.
· Let the other person have their say.
· Try not to come off as a “we’ve always done it that way warrior” when someone asks you why you perform a certain task in a given manner.
· Try not to impose your will on other people. They may have a different way of doing something which is better than yours.
· If they do something in a different way, do not be nasty. Ask constructive questions and offer positive suggestions.
· Remember that not everyone has a computer. Make sure that you have many ways of getting the word out. Nothing makes a person madder than being left out of the loop.
One change which is easy to see comes during our monthly meetings. Thanks to our younger members, we have become WI FI accessible in both of our fire stations. We have a number of folks fired up and online during our meetings. I believe that we have helped make our environment friendlier for our younger members because we have created an electronically-friendly fire station environment. More than that, some of these folks are researching for the answers to questions which come up during the meeting.
Now my friends let us move on to the next problem/observation I have encountered. I mentioned at the beginning of this commentary that I was at the CVVFA’s President’s Council meeting in Delaware. As I looked around the room I was struck by the fact that there were no younger people in attendance. The bottom line for age appeared to be around 45. I am guessing that the “we don’t do meetings” monster is at work here.
Unfortunately, given the driving distances involved, these meetings are an even tougher sell. However, given the importance of the issues involved here, I believe that the only way to address this in a one-on-one method. Younger people who enjoy many benefits of membership in the fire service are not aware of how these things came into being. Let me assure you that it takes a lot of tedious, face-to-face work meeting and greeting the legislators to put forward our positions.
The one sure thing about all of this is that each of us only gets so old before being called home by the Lord. All of us in attendance at the CVVFA meeting agreed to that thought. Let me suggest that if we ignore this issue, this whole network of associations, and all of the good works they do, they will pass away from the scene. Yes my friends, if we fail to nurture our fire-related organizations, they too will pass away.
We may still be doing fire-related things, but we will not be able to enjoy the benefits which, from time to time, come our way. However, the people who have been leading the way, and telling our story to the powers that be, will not be there to ease the way for us. Each of us must adopt one younger person to be our replacement. It is not easy, there is not a lot of extra time, and the demands on our own personal time are many.
We need to convey to the newer folks among us the important need to put our agenda forward. Good things do not just happen to us and for us. We must tell our story to as who will listen. If you fail to tell the story, you will be part of the problem. Step up and work hard to preserve our fire service for the future. Please.