Many articles have been written about the differences in each of the three current generations in today’s fire service: Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials. While some from the Greatest Generation continue to serve, soon enough the next generation, Gen Z, will enter our workforce. It is helpful to know about the characteristics of these various groups particularly if you are a manager or supervisor of a younger generation. But is this the key? Maybe not.
After seven years of leading a regional fire academy and graduating several hundred fine young women and men from more than two dozen classes, I see an important component often overlooked: The communication of expectations. More precisely, the lack of such communication. Everyone has expectations. Often, those expectations are that others will just do what we want or expect. Except, that in many cases we have not communicated those expectations in a meaningful way. Organizational and personal expectations must be communicated. It’s not enough so say “you should know” or “get with the program.” Um, just what is the program? It includes expectations! Your department has expectations. You have expectations. First, those two must be synergistic. What’s the message to the members if the boss essentially says, “here’s the program but let’s do this instead.” Within your department expectations may vary but let’s look at some common ones.
Expectations of the new firefighter:
I want to help people. I want to learn the job. I want to do the right thing. I want to feel I’m needed (by the public and by the members). I want to belong to the group. I just don’t want to have to stray too far from my comfort zone because I am new and all of this is very foreign to me. I really had no idea what firefighters do other than answer calls.
Expectations of the incumbent firefighter:
We will take you if you pay your dues—this is a long-standing tradition. Whatever we watch and like on television (sports or movies or musical theater), you should too. Same goes for our diet! If we train hard, so should you. If we don’t, then please don’t because it makes us look bad. If you ask us, we may help make you a better firefighter. However, it’s not likely we will push you to be better. You’re supposed to know what’s expected.
Expectations of the officers:
I’m the boss of this company. What I say goes--except if a chief shows up. I want you to do what’s expected. I am responsible for evaluating you against the department’s standards. I also expect certain things to happen – they guys and gals know this. You’ll learn if you pay attention. Make me look good—as a result, you will look good too.
Expectations of the chiefs
The public expects much of us, and when those expectations are not met, they will yell at me. I don’t like that. You shouldn’t either. We all need to get along and work together. I have great hopes for you. Do not disappoint us. If you follow your officer, you will do fine.
You may say this isn’t you. Well then good; but, are you being honest with yourself? I said these are common expectations because that’s been my experience. Many of the firefighters, officers and chiefs I have worked with during my career are basically average resulting in average expectations. Average expectations are essentially “see one, do one” or a repeat of what you eventually learned from others. I say eventually because it is most likely that no one laid it all out for you during the start of your career. This isn’t a onetime sit-down. It’s an ongoing process. Sure, it starts out that way, but it needs to develop. Creating expectations is akin to creating objectives. Remember that from your Instructor II course? Let’s approach it from the A-B-C-D method:
A = Audience. For this article, our audience is newly hired members. For you, it could be a newly promoted driver/operator, company officer, or if you were promoted it could be your newly assigned company.
B = Behavior. What behaviors are you going to address? Your expectations of the new hire should address three main areas: essential response skills, station skills, and social/political skills. Social or political? What’s that? I am referring to the time spent interacting with one another. Eating, washing rigs, watching TV, discussions, etc.
C = Condition(s). How and where will the work or activity be performed? What things do we do alone, with others in our company? When does the company officer participate with you in the activity?
D = Degree of proficiency or accountability required. Think high-risk/low-frequency events but also think about mundane but frequently complained about tasks such as rest room and kitchen cleaning.
With this in mind, let’s revisit the expectations of each group’s expectations.
Expectations of the new firefighter:
You may want to try and drag this out of the new hire, but perhaps just wait and let the others communicate their expectations first. Good observation and evaluation skills on your part will help you discover these as days, weeks, and months transpire. Regular formal and informal evaluation sessions with your probationary members will allow for discussions on performance and behaviors.
Expectations of the incumbent firefighter:
These are always informal but perhaps the most important in the probationary member’s success. I have found that in the academy setting these conversations are frequent, and the instructor’s actions often speak as loudly as his or her words. People who walk the walk, are followed before those who just talk the talk. Should new hires have to pay their dues? Perhaps. The real question is how does that improve the organization, its members, and prepare the new member to contribute significantly to the department? If the members work and train hard, shouldn’t the new member not only hear this, but then see it, or is it just lip service? Do our (the incumbents) activities create a welcoming and accountable environment?
What about having a talk like this: “New guy, there’s a lot to learn. We’ve learned a lot already. You need to learn certain things we all already know. Therefore, you are going to have to put in some time by yourself getting up to speed. We are here to help you but only if you help yourself first. For example, you may want to take an hour or so after each evening’s meal and review the equipment on the apparatus. We will be more than happy to answer questions but you will need to practice with the tools to develop proficiency.”
Expectations of the officers:
As the boss of the company, you have two things to work on with the probationary member: can they meet the needs of the department articulated in their task book, and can/will they fit in for the next 25 to 30 years. These two needs of the department are complimentary; however, the probationary member probably doesn’t think so at first. It is your job to show them. Station maintenance (toilets, sinks, floors) are important, but lack of attention to these matters may carry over to lack of attention to response readiness (PPE, SCBA, hand tools checks). The probationary member needs to learn that when we all look good, we shine as a team—when one of us is off the mark, the team looks terrible. Tell them this before they step in it. It isn’t about you, the officer, it’s about the team and the probationary member is part of that team.
The company officer needs to explain how the chain of command works and its importance. Explain how your position influences their success and what you are going to do to help them be successful. One order of business is to discuss how the fireground is different from the “other” work environments. There is a greater likelihood of injury or death when success is not met in the hazard zone. When will you be autocratic vs. democratic and open to questions or statements under a Crew Resource Management concept versus, when is there time to sit down to step aside and talk about things.
Expectations of the chiefs:
Chiefs need to set the tone for the organization. While the company officers will be the most influential and have a greater workload, the rest of the organization needs to see the company officer being supported by his/her superiors. How so? For example, you send out an email department wide about the uniform policy, and the following week, the chief officer has casual Friday attire on Tuesday. What’s the message to the organization? Are we instilling a double standard or apathy?
The fire chief should have the “welcome to our department” conversation with each new hire. Besides being welcoming, the fire chief should set the tone and communicate his/her broad expectations. This shouldn’t be five-minute pat on the back or scolding. It needs to be planned and formally executed. After the fire chief’s welcome talk, another similar but more specific conversation by a deputy/assistant/battalion chief with the new member should follow. The strategy here is this: multiple conversations that go from broad topics to specific details with each new level of supervision or management. What does this do? It tells the new member the organization is on the same page so he or she should be too.
Some expectations of new hires to consider:
You should have some form of a new member task book or checklist for skills such as hose, ladders, SCBA, tools, apparatus, etc. But what about other things, the soft skills? Here are just a few items to ponder:
- Attention to detail: How do you expect them to put out their PPE at the start of each shift? Does it matter? Can the hood be inside the coat sleeve one day and in the boots the next? Do you dress before you board the rig, enroute or once on the scene? Should the probie follow your lead?
- Acceptable behavior: When, if ever, can one drop an “F” bomb, make disparaging remarks at the dinner table, wear less than the prescribed uniform (come on, everyone else does it)? Your organization must define its level of expectation, then practice and adhere to it. You can’t say one thing and do another.
- Toilets: Are you going to assume he or she knows how to clean one meeting the department’s expectation? Why wouldn’t you give detailed expectations (use this product with this brush in this manner to make it look like this)? Can you really assume that any new member has had to do this task in their personal life? What about lawn care activities if your station must do their own?
- Eating together: When? Must they eat with you? Who sits where? Who cleans up and how much? How do you scrub those pots or pans? With what? What are you paying for? Do you operate a house fund for common items, cable TV or internet?
- Starting time. What does it mean to be ready at zero whatever? Does it mean you go get your PPE and put it out then or before then? What about SCBA check? Or is all of that expected before start time and at start time all members coming on duty are to be on the line or at the kitchen table or some other designated location? Or isn’t that how you do it? Whatever you do, is it clear to him or her?
- How about other important expectations like: being professional and courteous always, showing up the work ready to learn and serve, wearing seatbelts and proper PPE all the time, and washing PPE?
By now you’re probably thinking this is all fine and good but these new kids, this younger generation, you see, they just don’t get it. I say nonsense. What they don’t get is that we expect it, but we don’t tell them and show them. We shoot first and tell second. Some of us don’t walk the walk. Their accountability starts with our own accountability. You can’t put the words in their mouth. You can’t do the work for them. But you can do what you are supposed to do. You can do it so they see the results of your work that affects them. See it’s not that they are from a different generation. It’s because the expectation isn’t crystal clear. If a company has four members and the three incumbents all have different expectations, what do you think the new guy, number four has? Different expectations! Why? Why not? If the other three are different, why can’t I? Or a better question is, which of the three do I follow? Please hold the target still so I can try to hit it.
In the fire academy, we see men and women enter with varying degrees of knowledge, skills, and ability. Their personal expectations and those of the program are sometimes unclear. By delivering clear, concise, credible and realistic expectations over the 450 hours of the program, relationships and performance improve. Most of all, the culture will become one of “follow me” versus “I’m right behind you.” How do we know this progress and momentum is sustained? First, the academy cadets tell us this class after class. Comments such as “it didn’t make sense at first,” “I hadn’t experienced this kind of thing before,” and, “in the end it all comes together and I get it, it’s more than hose and ladders.” These comments are followed up by actions. On their own and without request, they pay it forward coming back to greet the next class of cadets, provide their expectations and words of wisdom, and helping to make that first day a success. Finally, we see cadets return to the academy for advanced training two to five years after graduation. They carry themselves as if they were still in the academy. Many outperform incumbents with twice as many years of service, but for whom clear expectations weren’t delivered. The crowning moment is when incumbents tell you they wished they had had an academy experience like today’s cadets.
Throughout a career these aren’t one-time conversations or actions. It is ongoing and evolving. It changes each time you have new relationships—whether those are newly hired or newly promoted or you are the one newly promoted or have your shift or station assignment changed. Some conversations are best saved for another day, but rarely should any conversation be tabled indefinitely. Start small. Makes notes. Develop an outline or plan. Use that outline or plan to guide the conversation. Go for it. The payoff is a team of different generations united by a common goal, “to save lives and property!” (And have fun the rest of the time).