5 ways fire officers can successfully lead older firefighters

Robert Avsec Sponsored by Globe

We’ve all heard the adage, “Firefighting is a young person’s game.” I know I’ve said it many times. But the reality is that our firefighting workforce — be it career, volunteer, or combination staffed — is becoming older.

This is partly due to financial conditions, such as paying for their children’s college education or caring for elder parents; it is forcing career firefighters to work longer.

Another reason is that age discrimination when seeking new employment is a reality. Firefighters are reluctant to retire, even though physically and mentally they would like to; however, employment prospects for older workers are not plentiful.

On the career side, firefighters are faced with fewer opportunities for advancement into management positions (where the physical demands are not such an impediment to job performance), because of staffing cuts and organizational realignments due to budget cuts.

On the volunteer side, fire departments are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain young people. Incumbent volunteer firefighters feel obligated to continue serving lest their community’s fire protection suffers due to a lack of staffing.

Older firefighters, younger supervisors

As the firefighting workforce ages, the company officers are actually getting younger. And the percentage of those supervisors who are younger than their subordinates is growing.

It’s no secret that older workers and younger supervisors don’t exactly mesh all of the time, and this conflict is compounding the issue of older firefighters who stay on the job longer than they would like.

Before getting into how to better manage senior firefighters on the scene, it’s helpful to understand the younger supervisor/older firefighter dynamics at work.

  • Younger officers are less likely to give older firefighters feedback or hold them accountable.
  • Younger officers are also more likely to believe that performance problems with older firefighters can’t be fixed.
  • Younger officers who manage by reward and punishment find that older firefighters are less motivated by pay and less afraid of being fired.
  • Younger officers struggle to shake the feeling that they shouldn’t be in a position of authority.

It is important for young company officers to understand that responsibility, authority and accountability are not synonyms. And they should not assume that because someone has a lot of time-in-grade that they understand these terms as well.

Young officers need to use these management tools to their advantage to ensure that their expectations and those of their subordinates, especially those who are their senior, are truly in harmony.

5 keys to managing older firefighters

An important concept for supervisors to remember is that many older firefighters got to be older firefighters for good reasons. In many cases where the company officer is not satisfied with the job performance of their direct reports, it’s because of the company officer’s inability to understand and use the talent they’ve been given.

D4H Technologies published five rules for new hazmat officers. Here’s an adaptation of those principals for fire officers managing older firefighters.

1. A little introspection goes a long way

Take stock of where your leadership skills currently stand. Most people think they have a better understanding of their own abilities than they actually do, and this can be a big problem when managing senior firefighters.

Ask yourself what aspects of your job seem the most unnatural to you. And don’t pass judgement on yourself. Identifying where you feel less confident will help you better understand the boundaries of your comfort zone and where you need to improve.

2. Embrace humility

When a promotion suddenly places you above colleagues who are older than you, things can understandably get a little awkward. You want to prove that you deserve your newfound position of influence.

But it’s important to remember that your promotion doesn’t automatically come with instant leadership qualities and respect. Those have to be earned.

You’ll earn that respect by displaying a humble attitude, a learning mindset and an open mind. Not every emergency is a life-or-death situation that requires you to make split-second decisions.

Take every opportunity you are presented to involve senior firefighters in the decision-making process. Chances are they’ve been there and done that; they know what works and what doesn’t.

3. Learn to delegate

Many officers are poor delegators because they don’t have confidence in the abilities of their firefighters to successfully accomplish tasks unsupervised. Managing senior firefighters with experience gives you an advantage that those supervisors don’t have or don’t use. Use it.

During your training and planning activities, identify what each of your senior firefighters bring to the table. What are their areas of expertise? What are they passionate about?

For example, if one firefighter is a vehicle extrication guru, let them manage the car crash scene while you take on a task that they assign to you, like operating the spreader.

4. It is about your team

Don’t fall into the trap of solely concerning yourself with getting better at your job. Your primary job as a company officer is to mold your group of individuals into a safe, effective and efficient team.

Give your new team the opportunity to get to know you and adapt without pressure.

I always found, in the variety of supervisory and management jobs that I held, that pre-incident planning and training activities were the best way to develop trust with my subordinates, many of whom were senior to me. That environment provided many opportunities for them to learn about me — how I thought and why I thought that way — and vice versa.

5. Learn to accept discomfort

I read the other day that perhaps it would be a good thing if all emergency response job descriptions included this bullet point: Must be comfortable being uncomfortable.

By the very nature of their position, officers are dropped into uncomfortable situations on a daily basis. Whether it’s giving tough feedback, making cutbacks, or standing by unpopular decisions, get used to it. It’s now part of your job.

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