Bridge the gap: Leading multi-generation crews while recognizing individuality
Officers must acknowledge generational differences and develop common goals for team members
The move from firefighter to company officer is one of the hardest transitions in the fire service – and the challenges of this transition are intensified by the need to navigate supervision of a multi-generational crew with varied characteristics, motivations and values.
Whether you’re a younger officer leading crewmembers who have years, if not decades, of experience or a more seasoned officer leading a new crop of members, there will be communication and supervisory bumps along the road. It’s vital that new officers recognize the challenges, address the differences in communication styles among different groups, work to reach all members, and devise a common pathway to which all members can relate, thereby creating connections among the crew.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because this is not a new problem in the fire service. Firefighters have long bemoaned the newest generation of members.
What makes the modern fire service unique, though, is the fact that there are five generations currently among our ranks, coupled with the fact that the technological revolution of the past several decades has widened the knowledge gap between the newest and longest-serving members. Think about it: The bulk of the fire service membership consists of millennials (born 1981-2000), Gen X (born 1965-1980) and baby boomers (1946-1964). But we still have some Traditionalists (yes, 75+) serving in volunteer departments, and Gen Z (aka Zeds, born after 2001) are already joining the ranks. Consider the range of skill sets from a 20-year-old Zed and a 68-year-old boomer.
Although not an easy task, it is, in fact, possible to effectively supervise a multi-generational crew.
As a new officer, regardless of your own age, it is important to acknowledge generational difference and how members’ values and motivations may be different. Lumping all members together or assuming the same skills sets in motivation will leave you with a disengaged and frustrated crew.
Let’s consider some interactions, expectations and assumptions of new officers. For a crew with a young officer and older crewmembers, the older firefighter may be skeptical of a younger officer’s competency. However, when told to do something, the older firefighter will likely follow the order, as more seasoned members don’t typically question authority, even if that authority is half their age.
The younger officer must understand some of what the older generation experiences as well. For example, an older firefighter on the crew may not be as dialed in to social media and the other ways younger members are connecting. They may feel isolated or resentment as a result.
On the flip side, an older officer working with younger crewmembers may find that those members to be more reserved, with a tendency to keep to themselves. The perception is that many younger members are more technologically engaged, rather than personally engaged with fellow firefighters around the kitchen table. Some more seasoned members lament that this tech savvy comes at the price of trade skills.
Most of us have seen through experience that attempts to make everyone conform to the same set of behaviors is futile. For example, telling that new firefighter to hop into the jump seat, ride backward and keep their mouths shut will not work with the younger generation that strives to know the “why” behind our actions. Nor will older generations lamenting to younger members, “I had to pay my dues, so should you,” as such declarations don’t benefit the member, the company, or the fire department as a whole.
As such, as a new officer, you must work to bridge the gap among generations so communication is clear on and off the incident scene. You must reach out beyond your own generational comfort level, whether it be a younger officer who is more technology savvy or an older boomer who learned by doing, to work to bridge that gap.
Methods to engage
What does this look like in practice, though? How can new supervisors work to bridge the gap?
Mentorship matters: Ask some of the older members on the crew to mentor new members on specific tactics, or the department’s fireground standard operating procedures and guidelines.
Trickle-down instruction: One technique that I have found to work well starts with identifying a seasoned member who may be disenfranchised or who has reached a plateau in their career path. Ask them to take a new member out and show them the equipment and lead them in, for example, driver training. While this is happening, I will ride the back step observe how the seasoned member works with, coaches and mentors the newer member.
Strength-finder: It’s vital to identify crewmember strengths. Let’s start with the newer members. Most newer members are part of the generation that grew up with access to the world at their fingertips. Use that knowledge to benefit the crew. Challenge them to quickly research information that could benefit the crew on a difficult call – and ensure the veteran members see how this quick research helped mitigate the situation. For example, on a recent medical aid call, a crew faced a language barrier and struggled to understand the patient’s complaint. Fortunately, the newest member of the crew used his smartphone’s translator app to help the crew get the patient information. It was that simple.
And it goes both ways. Identify the strengths of the more seasoned members, and have them lead the crew in a training on their particular skills. This could be a skill involving engine/ladder company operations or even a trade skill like working with chainsaws.
These approaches to increase engagement among members give younger and older members alike a sense of ownership within the organization. They have some say, and responsibility, in the organization's outcome and therefore feel more engaged overall in the experience.
Beyond the fire station: Specialized teams
We’ve explored some of the basic challenges facing a new fire officer leading a firehouse crew. But what happens when that officer is outside the firehouse, for example, for a technical rescue team, hazmat team or some other type of specialized team?
Many firefighters are known to be classic Type A personalities, characterizing by a drive to win and a more intense work ethic. In my humble opinion, those members who are also involved with a specialized team organization demonstrate a Triple-A personality. Many demonstrate an even stronger sense of competitiveness and workaholic mindset.
Being a company officer, squad officer, team leader – whatever you call it – for a specialized team with multiple generations will bring its own unique challenges; however, the challenges are rooted in the same issues addresses above, albeit on an amplified level. Supervisors must be able to recognize and identify the differences among generations, work to foster communication among all members, and ensure that members are clear on the mission values in order to maintain motivation toward the end goal.
Many of the approaches are similar to a standard fire crew, though. For example, technical rescue team leaders can use the differences among their squad members to their advantage. For example, they can have the younger members of the squads to show the senior members how to use the handheld GPS devices or other high-tech tools. Senior members can show younger members how to use a map and compass to navigate when electronics fail.
Further, not only will the officer be dealing with these individual mindsets, but these specialized teams are usually made up of individuals from different departments. This adds to the officer’s challenge in communicating to the different generations in their crews. Again, strengths will have to be identified and maximized for team cohesion. They will have to ensure that each “Triple-A member” has some responsibility bestowed onto them, so they are empowered toward a successful mission.
I had the fortunate opportunity to take 46 State Urban Search and Rescue (SUSAR) members to North Carolina from southeastern Massachusetts with water assets to aid the local government in search and rescue efforts after Hurricane Florence. While deployed, I had a few newer squad officers (both younger and older) come up to me looking for advice on how to communicate with newer members or earn the respect of senior rescue technicians.
My advice to those new squad officers would be the same as to new fire officers. Get to know your members who are working for you and beside you. First, listen. There is a reason why we have two ears and only one mouth. Listen to what those individuals in your crew can bring to the table. Once you have identified what each individual can do to benefit the crew, the fire station, or the department, use it for the betterment of the team.
Giving your members that respect and empowering them to have a say in how the organization functions will go a long way. Remember, as a new officer, some of these individuals that you are trying to communicate with will someday take your position in the organization. You should be coaching and mentoring them to take your spot when you promote up or retire.
We’ve all heard it before: There are two things firefighters don’t like: They way things are and change. Change is hard in the fire service, but it is the only way to progress. The same is true in life. Some communications can be difficult to initiate, but all has to be done so that we can progress as individuals, as members of a team, and as an organization.
Reaching out and communicating to a newer firefighter may be completely different than reaching out and communicating with an older firefighter. But when we do communicate and engage our personnel to empower them, we give them ownership in the success of the organization.