You're Not Getting Younger, But The Fire Service Is

You might be a veteran firefighter and like the fire service the way it is – the way it's always been, and you might not want whippersnappers coming in and messing up a good thing.

You might wish you could still wear your leather helmet and lament the mandates and the wimpy rules that prevent you from going in and doing your job.

Chief Michael Gilbert of Brevard (Fla.) Community College Fire Science, is one of those guys. He said he just about freaked out when he found pink scrubbies and razors in the station shower recently.

“What the hell is going on,” Gilbert asked rhetorically. “It’s not our fire service anymore.”

Gilbert was an instructor at this year’s Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis and gave a lecture titled the same as his quote – “It’s Not Our Fire Service Anymore.”

In his class, Gilbert talked about the generational differences between the newcomers into the fire service and the grizzled veterans who may not fully understand or appreciate the youngsters in the fire service.

“Are we just getting old?” Gilbert asked a room full of baby boomers, many of them officers in their respective departments. He answered the question by saying yes, but that doesn’t mean the veterans can’t adapt – in fact they should adapt. He reminded the “students” they were once the youngsters joining the fire service with enthusiasm and new ideas.

Too often he’s witnessed veteran fire officers decide they just can’t adapt, turn in their badges and walk away saying, “I’ve had enough,” Gilbert said. Through his class, he hopes to prevent some of that burnout.

“I can’t walk out on the profession I love and I’m not going to do it,” Gilbert said. “I’m going to figure out what’s wrong.”

In his determination to learn more about the changes happening in the fire service, Gilbert examined the demographics of today’s firefighters.

He learned there are baby boomers in the fire service, born between 1946 and 1961. He characterized those as people who are open-minded, like to be liked, are loyal and are employees for life.

Next is generation X, those who are between 51- and 31-years-old, Gilbert said. He called those folks “latch key kids” who may have come from a family split by divorce or the necessity of having both parents working. They were on their own and most are well educated and change employers and careers without fear.

Generation Y are those born between 1980 and 1995, Gilbert said, noting they are digitally adept and technologically advanced. They also expect great work place flexibility and are constantly looking for new employment opportunities

Then, there are a few of the Generation Z who are filtering into the fire service, those born after 1995 who are “digital natives” and have never known a day without internet and advanced technology at their finger tips.

All of those generations must, somehow, work together and understand each other to be successful at an emergency call and in the culture of the fire service, Gilbert said.

Accepting those generational differences will go a long way toward keeping harmony in the fire service and the “buying in” of all members, Gilbert said.

Older firefighters need to be able to teach younger firefighters the traditions and institutional knowledge, and to do so in ways to which they can relate.

Gilbert said teaching firefighters is much more than telling younger firefighters to “sit down, shut up, wait for the tone and I’ll tell you what to do.”

Because younger firefighters are more familiar with multimedia styles of learning, Gilbert said fire instructors are obligated to provide that type of education to the new recruits. They should also try to make the classrooms more relaxed and engaging.

“They want to engage with you,” Gilbert said. “They want to interact.” If veterans and instructors don’t provide the type of education new firefighters need, they’ll turn to the internet or other similar avenues to learn what they think they need to know.

As the younger firefighters move up the ladder and become officers, Gilbert said veterans need to understand that they’ll do things differently and will embrace technology faster than those not as familiar with it.

Gilbert said it’s important to remember that everyone “buys into” the fire service at some point and accepts the practices and heritage even as it changes by evolution over the years.

“The fire service is us and will always be us,” Gilbert said. “What we chose to have as a legacy is up to us and will define our town or our city.”