Why? That seems to be the question that has everyone stirred up in the fire service. Why are these “millennials” (said with animosity) always asking why? Maybe the better question is; why does that bother all of us “senior” (said with air quotes) firefighters so much?
In order to better understand the younger generation, maybe we need to take a second to understand where they are coming from. This is a generation that has never seen a world without the internet. Some of them may not have even had books and chalkboards in school; they had tablets and smart boards. Many of us grew up in the 80’s (and maybe early 90’s), when globalization wasn’t as widespread as it is now. Many of the towns we grew up in were anchored by industries where our parents worked, and maybe their parents. A time where your hometown was where you lived. We had roots and stability.
We had vocational schools growing up because not everyone wanted, or needed, to go to college. Having a trade was seen equally as important and beneficial as a degree depending on your goals and aspirations. The people who taught these vocational classes were experienced in their fields and taught you based on those experiences and the class would work and learn together throughout the program. Regardless of your formal educational goals, you had to seek out information, from a book, at a library. The internet wasn’t as robust as it is today. So, we learned by doing; and what we didn’t learn from doing, we had to research on our own. This research happened slowly and, oftentimes, involved sorting through multiple sources to find and/or validate what we were looking for. We experienced the world by being in it. We didn’t have an electronic leash. Our parent’s would give us our parameters and trust that we would be where we were supposed to be when we were supposed to be there.
Since those days, the world has changed. This generation is not anchored to anything. As a result of globalization and/or outsourcing, many industries have abandoned the towns that relied on those jobs in order to thrive. Subsequently, people left those towns to find jobs and resettle. Today’s generation may have been born somewhere, but they don’t necessarily assimilate anywhere to being their hometown. They live where there is a job, just like their parents had to, and may see the need to remain mobile based on their livelihood, just as their parents did. As an example, no one at SAFE Firefighter was born in South Carolina. Though we call South Carolina home and raise our families here, we were all brought here by job opportunities.
Today’s generation has only known internet-based learning and research. Information is available to them at the swipe of a finger and a voice command (they don’t even have to type anymore). For many, their entire world is contained in a 3 x 6 machine made of glass and plastic. What this has caused is a generation where, instead of learning from and sharing with other people and other tangible resources, they simply talk into their magic box which gives them instantaneous responses. To add to it, these responses aren’t in dreary black and white print that must be muddled through in order to find the information. The information is contained in flashy 3-minute videos or a link to a website (or app) that gives them access to the specific information they were looking for… no more, no less.
Today, parents can watch their babies sleep in their cribs from their cell phones. Deep levels of trust and accountability don’t have to be built, because their whereabouts can be tracked on GPS and they can be reached at anytime, anywhere with any form of call, text or social media. So, out of the gate, their perceptions of learning and independence are vastly different than many of the firehouse/ fire department leaders. Now with that in mind, let’s get back on track.
So, why do they ask why? They ask why because, for maybe the first time in their lives, they realize that their answers can’t be found in a plastic box. Their entire education has been founded on theory and ideologies and rarely practical application. However, despite their lack of experience, they want to do a good job. Though they have been brought up in a different, more intellectual (or maybe just electronic) culture, these are smart and eager young people who want to do a good job. So how does the modern fire service attempt to educate our e-minded youth?
We sit them down the first day of class and give them a 600 page book to read and study. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, many aren’t sure how to study using a printed textbook. They have never had to use index cards or learn a pneumonic for memorization. More importantly, many have never had to pass a practical skills exam. So, we’re thrusting these young firefighters-to-be into a vocation where poor performance doesn’t result in being “un-liked” or receiving a frowny-face emoji. We’re putting them under real pressure to perform, while cramming a ton of information in their brains through a media that they aren’t comfortable with, then demanding that they perform those tasks after a borderline negligent amount of skills practice. What could possibly go wrong?
Though some departments are more fortunate than others, most of these young people will graduate as firefighters and report to the firehouse with a minimal amount of practical training. They have learned how to perform the skill in order to pass the test, but not perform on the street. Perhaps as a subconscious realization that we aren’t preparing these young firefighters for the real world we often tell them during their initial certification training “you’re Captain will show you how he wants it done when you get to the floor”. Is this a cop-out? Are we just pawning them off on someone else because we don’t have, or aren’t given, the time and resources to adequately prepare them for their job?
These recruits are told to ask their Captain, or crew, how they want it done when they report to their first assignment. So they learn the way that crew likes things to be. If this runs counter to what they learned during their initial training, it would seem natural that they would ask “why” it should be that way. Ironically, if and when they are reassigned, they are then told by another crew a different set of expectations and methods. Naturally, this would make anyone wonder “why should I do it this way versus the other way I was taught?” Hopefully you can see where this would start to become confusing and it seems that they would be justified in asking a very simple and valid question in an effort to clear up any discrepancies. Why?
Yet oftentimes we show little patience for a string of questions. Perhaps it’s the additional workload of a typical day in the firehouse that stresses our ability to be empathetic to these young firefighters trying to make their way in this alpha driven profession. Maybe we have forgotten what it feels like to be the “probie”. Brand new to a profession or position and chock full of information without any context in which to understand or apply it? This becomes even more of a challenge in slower departments. It seems like we would remember our own days as the “new person” and embrace having someone who is eager to learn. It also seems that we would remember that senior firefighter who took the time to show us the ropes and feel compelled to pay it forward. Oftentimes, however, this is not the case. We criticize them for not knowing while simultaneously complaining about them always asking “why?” Maybe the better question is, why does that bother us so much?
Maybe it’s the bravado of the fire service, but we all seem to remember a time when “men were men” and the new firefighter “kept their mouth shut and did what they were told”. While I remember times like that, I also distinctly remember the context in which I was told that as well. Foremost, the fire ground is not a democracy. I believe that to be true even today. There is a time and a place for questions and discussion. That time and place is during training (which includes the kitchen table). However, this concept only holds true if training is actually happening. Perhaps this leads into a larger cultural problem.
Is training actually happening in the firehouse and at the company level? If you are in an environment where the crew doesn’t train, any questions regarding anything other than meals and entertainment will be perceived as an inconvenient burden. If that is the environment in your firehouse, is that the young firefighter’s fault? No. They are trying to do their job by learning and asking questions. The culture in your firehouse is the problem.
This can be a sign of a larger problem where the culture of the department doesn’t put much emphasis on training. Is that the new firefighter’s fault? No. I would argue that the responsibility still rests at the company level. However, this “department culture” issue can be a symptom of an even larger problem. If you have been brought up in a system of “do as I say, not as I do” with the only justification being “because I said so” or “that’s how we’ve always done it” then you are simply perpetuating the cycle. If someone is brought up in a system like this, there is a reasonable expectation that they don’t want to answer the question “why” because they don’t know the answer. Subsequently, we suppress those who ask questions in order to salvage our own pride and protect our own ego. This does nothing but breed mediocrity.
They say that the children of alcoholics have a higher risk of becoming alcoholics. Is the same true for poor firehouse leadership? We have, arguably, a leadership crisis in the fire service. Though I could go into a great amount of theory and detail as to why that might be, I believe the simple solution starts in the firehouse. Time, information and techniques change and generations evolve. If you are a senior firefighter or officer in your firehouse, you should embrace having young firefighters in your company. They give you a reason to keep your spear sharp, they help keep you in the loop of evolution and they keep you active in the game. By training with your younger firefighters (or any firefighters) I almost guarantee a better performance, better relationships and a better future for your fire department and the fire service. So for the senior firefighters, swallow your pride (be humble), have patience, teach, learn and lead the future of our fire service. For the new firefighters out there, keep asking “why” every single day until you start getting answers. If you can’t get answers where you are, find a new place to ask questions. Find other training classes, embrace all forms of media and find external mentors. If it gets to the point that you feel that you have to leave the company, battalion or department to find those answers, don’t feel bad. It’s my generation’s fault, not yours.
Thanks and be SAFE,