Carter: Where is the Next Generation?

As I sit here in my hotel room in Las Vegas I am pondering the relative worth of all that I have done, am doing, and hope to do for my fellow travelers in the world of fire protection.  My associates and I are here for the annual general meeting of the U.S. Branch of the Institution of Fire Engineers.  We will be doing the good work of our organization over the next day or so.

Sometimes I use my space here to float a question or two that I think need answers if we are to continue to grow and prosper as a part of the overall fabric of life here in the Good Old U.S.A.  That is my intention here. I want to get you thinking.

I have been a volunteer in one way or another for just about 50 years now. My work in the fire and emergency service world began back in March of 1964 when I started riding as a cadet member with the Freehold First Aid and Emergency Squad. What a thrill it was to ride out on the old Cadillac ambulances or on our 1960 International rescue rig.  Many were the lessons I learned as we rolled out on emergencies of all sorts in the Freehold area.  Having your first four DOA ambulance calls happen before I turned 17 years old, taught me early on that the life was a very tenuous commodity at best.

So too has it been since I joined the Adelphia Fire Company back in January 1972. There have been countless tragedies to which my buddies and I have responded. Serious fires, fatal fires, and fatal motor vehicle accidents have continued apace throughout the years. Yet we have been able to continue providing out vital service thanks to the dedication of our members. However, in the case of Adelphia we have been extremely successful in recruiting younger members.  There are lessons to be learned within the village of Adelphia, N.J.

The Carter family has a tradition of service within the Adelphia Fire Company. My wife Jackie is a life member of the Ladies Auxiliary. My oldest daughter Ellen is the vice president of the Ladies Auxiliary and my younger daughter Katie has been an active member of the fire company since 2000. She was a junior member for three years before that and she currently serves as company secretary. And I am an ex-chief and active life member. I am also the chaplain for Adelphia, was well as for the East Freehold Fire Company in Freehold Township. I cannot tell you how many have been the thrills that the Carter family has shared with and through the fire company.

The same has held true in those organizations that I serve which have formed up around the fire and EMS world. Each year it is my privilege to attend a wide array of meetings for associations that have some role to play within the fire service and emergency service world. Some of these are at the local level, while others are at the county, state, and national levels. Each has a mission which it was created to fulfill and each has a track record of accomplishment. However, I worry that not all of them have a future to which they can look forward. 

However, the one item which I now find to be fairly common within each organization appears to be the age of the people involved in the work of these organizations. Almost all of the people with whom I interact on a regular basis are not young people. As a matter of fact, young in this organizational world appears to hover around age 40 and up. Many of us within these groups have been at work for many decades now. There is a lot of grey hair at work.

Personally, my first major meeting of any consequence was the National Fire Protection Association annual meeting in Chicago back in 1975. I had just been appointed a charter member of the old Member Advisory Council and took my wife out to Chicago for that one. Not too long after that in 1977, I began representing the National Association for Fire Science and Administration on the old Joint Council of National Fire Service Associations. Further, I began attending the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference in Memphis, Tenn. back in 1977. 

Over the years I have been a faithful participant in the Firehouse Expo, the FDIC, Fire Rescue International, as well as the Western Monmouth Mutual Aid Association here in New Jersey.  Back in 1999, thanks to the efforts of my dear friend Steve Austin of Delaware, I became an active member of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Fireman’s Association working on the highway safety project.

However, I am no longer a young man. I worry that the younger generation is not stepping up to take their place within the county, state, and regional fire service organizations.  It is my guess that keeping up with the simple things of life is not as important (or exciting) for the younger generation. Perhaps we who have been in positions of leadership are at fault for holding on to the reins of power for too long.

I can recall when I was a younger man being made to feel quite out of place, unwelcome, and unimportant by the older folks who were calling the shots for the folks back in those days. However, it is my nature to be stubborn.  When someone tells me what I cannot do, I go out of my way to prove them wrong. I hung on and moved up the organizational leadership ladder. But one important thing I also did was make a mental note never to treat the younger folks around me like crap.  Where would we be as a society if we did not ready the next generation for their roles in the future of our fire service.

Perhaps we are not seeing the younger people turn out for our organizational meeting because we have failed to keep up with the times. In a world gone mad with Facebook, Twitter, and all such things we might actually seem irrelevant. Could it be that many among us are still creating an aura of distrust and disdain within the organizations to which I make reference. Heck, might it even be that we have outlived our usefulness in many cases and failed to recognize that the time has come to fold our tents, close up shop, and steal away into the dark of night?  I have seen this happen.

Let me suggest something else you should really pause and ponder. Let me suggest that it is possible that those of us in positions of leadership are not living a good, solid, positive leadership example for others to follow. You must create a caring, nurturing, and inviting atmosphere if you want to recruit and retain people in our busy 21st Century Society. As a collective series of groups, we are neither talking the talk nor walking the walk.

Let me ask you to think a bit about the example set by my family. In my wife’s case, her dad was a long-time member of the fire company who joined in 1936 when he was but a lad of 18 and served up until the last couple of years of his life when his health began to fail. Her mother was also a life member of the ladies auxiliary. She is living the example which was set for her by her parents. When we started dating back in high school she knew that I rode the ambulance in Freehold.  She must have at least had a hit back then that I was a bit screwy.

Therefore she was not at all surprised when I joined the fire company as soon as I moved to the village back in January of 1972. It did not seem out of the ordinary when the Plectron sounded and I jumped out of bed to head off on a fire call.  This is the example which my children witnessed as they grew up in the Carter household.  Dad drove the fire trucks and fought the fires. Mom spent time working at the carnival and various bake sales. She was also on the team charged with making the soup and sandwiches after the big fires. The kids saw this and found it to be something they too wished to do. Of course my son took the example of service in another direction. He is now serving as a Catholic priest at the Our Lady of Sorrows parish in Mercerville.

Perhaps the next generation is not coming around because we Baby Boomer types have failed to set the proper example for them and created an awareness and enjoyment of the additional duties which need to be done beyond the excitement and satisfaction of the world of emergency response. Maybe we have failed to learn the lessons of those who went before us. Or maybe we are acting like those older troops who had a habit of driving people away. 

Let me ask a critical question. Who is going to do battle for those things which we will always need in our state capitols and county courthouses? Who is going to fight for the things we need? Who will step up to battle for the FIRE Act and SAFER Act in the future? As one who has been a part of these battles for many decades now, I am here to tell you that things like this just did not happen. It took a great many of us working in our own local areas which allowed us to come together at the national level with a voice to which the people in power had to listen.

It is my fear that I have failed to find and train my replacement.  How about you?  Maybe we all need to rise up from our collected dead asses to get this critical job done.  Perhaps what I am saying is that there is no easy answer to the questions I have posed?  Perhaps there is no easy answer to the question of where the next generation is.  But unless we get off of our collective, comfortable kiesters, there will be no next generation about which to worry.  My friends, that would be sad in indeed.