I had just backed out of a parking space and was adjusting my seatbelt when I noticed that a car parked across from me had its backup lights on. Feeling certain that the driver would notice my car right behind his, I was not concerned. That is, until the car started backing up, right toward me. I tapped the horn, but the car kept coming. I leaned on the horn then, causing everyone in the area to look our way – except for the car that kept on backing up. Finally, I had to dive back into the parking space I had just vacated to avoid being hit.
The other driver stopped, puzzled at all the commotion. I walked over to his car and asked him how he could have missed me in my car directly behind him. He replied, “You didn’t show up in my backup camera.”
This guy was in his early 20s and probably since he had been driving, he had solely counted on a screen on his dashboard to tell him if it was safe to back up. Turning around to look wasn’t an option he even considered.
This is the way of the world. Younger people – think anyone under age 30 – grew up so completely immersed in technology, they cannot fathom living in a world without it.
A mistaken conclusion about millennials
This dependence on technology is a source of much frustration to the older generation in many workplaces, including the fire service. In my work, I often hear older firefighters complaining that young people don’t have practical knowledge and abilities, that they are obsessed with their phones and social media, that they lack skill in face-to-face communication. This can lead some older firefighters to conclude that younger firefighters are less qualified and capable in the job.
This would be a mistaken conclusion. While it is true that firefighters back in the 1960s were more likely to know how to rebuild a transmission, nowadays, almost no one (other than trained mechanics), including firefighters, has the ability and resources to do such work. It is just a function of change in the world, and much of that change is linked to technology.
And this is where younger people may have an edge. They grew up not only with computers, but with advanced technology in all areas of their lives. They are not intimidated by it. Many of them have had programming experience as children.
They can bring new approaches and new skills to old problems – but only if they are given the opportunity to do so. In a push for “back to basics,” some fire departments have become nearly Luddite in their resistance to new technologies and change. And such resistance, while understandable, does not really serve anyone.
The modern-day firefighter
Firefighters in the 21st century need to have multiple competencies – technical, personal, mechanical, physical, intellectual. It’s not possible to be a good firefighter these days just by being strong enough to kick in doors and drag hose. Are these abilities still important? Absolutely. But they are not enough.
Modern firefighters need to be:
- Comfortable with databases and apps.
- Adept in deciphering complicated alarm systems.
- Able to engage with online platforms for training and record keeping.
- Capable of troubleshooting complex equipment.
In all these areas, millennial firefighters enter the workplace with an advantage over their older coworkers.
If these younger firefighters come to the job with deficits (and that is the truth for every firefighter), then it is up to their teachers and leaders and peers to help them develop skills and abilities that may not come as naturally to them.
A responsibility to train millennial firefighters
So if you want young firefighters to develop communication skills, talk to them. Give them specific assignments that require them to do public presentations and help them prepare for these tasks. If you have practical skills in things like electrical wiring or plumbing, share this knowledge with newer people on the job. Make an effort to include them, and give them credit when they make progress.
I’ve had some fire officers disparage this approach. “The new people don’t care about that. All they want to do is stare at their phones.” But I would say that for most people, staring at a phone is a default position, something to do when there is nothing else of interest going on. Provide an alternative, make it engaging, and you might be surprised at the results.
It is also the responsibility of older leaders in the department to truly include those who are new, and that means listening to them and treating them with respect. Are they different? Of course, that is the way of the world, that each new generation is a change from the previous one.
Young firefighters bring energy, knowledge and a different perspective to the job of firefighter. They are the future of the fire service and it would be worse than foolish for any organization to marginalize them from the beginning.
If you want your new firefighters to drive with their eyes and to use their heads, rather than just the technology available, then show them how. With the skills and knowledge of the older generation, and the energy and curiosity of the young one, anything is possible.