What About This Generation Gap?

Many articles have been written about the differences in each of the three current generations serving in the 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: Expectations. 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 have known” 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 also 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. Actually, 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. We had to so you have to. If we watch (sports or movies or musical theater) and like it 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 have to evaluate you against the 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 and you will look good too.

Expectations of the chiefs
The public expects much of us and when those expectations are not met, they 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; just don’t disappoint all of us. If you follow your officer, you’ll 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 a living process. Sure, it starts out that way but it needs to develop.

To create expectations is to essentially create 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 or 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 (easiest), station skills, and social/political skills (the hardest). 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 tell their expectations first. Good observation and evaluation skills on your part will help you discover these as days, weeks, and months transpire. Regular, periodic formal and informal evaluation sessions with your probationary members will allow for discussions that cause these to surface.

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 do the work of 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? Does our (the incumbents) activities create a welcoming but 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 or will they fit in for the long haul. 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 they do. 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). 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 illustrate for them early on his or her position in the organization, the chain of command. Explain how your position affects their success and what you are going to do to help them be successful. One order of business is to cover how the fireground is different from the rest of the work time. When will you be autocratic 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? “Why” has a time and a place. You decide when it’s time. However “the time” can’t be a moving target. If you can’t explain why then why do you expect that? New members don’t have to agree and don’t have veto power.

Expectations of the chiefs
Chiefs need to set the tone for the organization. While the company officers will do the heavy lifting, the rest of the organization needs to see the company officer is supported. How so? For example, you put out an email department wide about the uniform policy then dress for casual Friday on Tuesday. What’s the message to the organization? Are we instilling a double standard or apathy?

A chief needs to have the “welcome to our department” conversation with each new hire. Besides being welcoming, the fire chief should set the tone and 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. 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? Or 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 to the department’s expectation? Why wouldn’t you give detailed expectations (use this product with this brush in this matter 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?

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, skill, 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,” “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, providing 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 post-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. They 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).

1 Comment

On point!

July 1, 2020 08:28 AM by Marc S Davidson

Great read and to expand on your point is that the generational argument is an excuse weak leaders throw down when they fail.  In 1992 I read an article talking about how "my generation" was going to be the downfall of the fire service...I read that same article nowadays...and I'd be willing to bet that the successor to Ben Franklin broke out the quill and inkwell to write that same article. 

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