Our Kids

*Image from Uniform Duds for Kids.


Everyone got there cahffee? Grab some diamond plate. This one might stir up some lively discussion.

So the other night I was listening to an on-line podcast over at FirefighterNetCast that is hosted by Christopher Naum entitled "Taking it to the Streets, The New Fireground and the First-Due." If you click the link you can listen to the replay of the show. The guests were Division Chief Ed Hadfield, Coronado, CA. FD and Deputy Chief Jason Hoevelman of the Sullivan Fire Protection District, MO. The main point of the podcast was talking about the new firground, how we need to start changing our thinking and tactics at some of these fires with new construction methods and new hydrocarbon-rich fuels burning. The show was great with many good points being brought up and discussed by the host and the guests. But I'd like to talk about another great aspect of the show. In case you have never attended a NetCasts show in person you're really missing out. In addition to the great content there is a live chat-room that runs throughout the show in which the producers of the show, the host, the guests and then the listeners all type-chat with each other. It is a great feature and really leads to some great discussion and information sharing.  There is also a call-in number that you can either dial from any phone or use Skype to call in and talk directly to the host and guest(s). It is a topic that was brought up in the chat room and then commented on by the guests that I would like to discuss today.

One of the listeners typed a simple question into the chat-room. I don't remember it exactly so I'm going to paraphrase here, "Is there something different about todays younger firefighters definition of "work" than, say, the older generation's?" A couple people chimed in and then another listener typed his opinion that basically said, paraphrasing again, "Yes. Kids today often haven't had a real job before getting to the fire department. They don't know what real work is." I agree with that sentiment, for the most-part. Anyone with the least little bit of knowledge of the history of our job knows that the number of firefighters coming from the ranks of the construction and mechanical trades has dropped significantly. Those that come from a farm, factory or some other background where mechanical apptitude is needed as a way of life are even fewer. On the flip-side we are getting more firefighters with college education and knowledge that, while may not be directly applicable to the fireground, is very valuable to the department as a whole. Computers, legal issues, radio equipment and communication skills come immediately to mind as examples.  A little more discussion in the chat-room ensued and then Division Chief Hadfield typed a response, paraphrasing, "The kids haven't changed. They just need to be LED!". Again, I agree with that statement too, for the most-part. I'm sure when the legions of carpenters, electricians, plasterers and plumbers entered the fire service in the '40's, '50's and '60's there was some of this sentiment too. I can imagine the barn-boss grumbling, "Sure 'dis kid can swing a hammer but he can't roll hose for s**t!" Or, "Hey junior! When I want you to come to my house and patch my plaster I'll call 'ya. Until then, sit there and shut-up." That's just the way of the fire service. We're gonna break your stones for a while until we find out what you're really made of. But there's a major difference between yesterdays kids and todays, and it's what I think the listener who responded to the question was talking about.

So, 20 and 30 years ago (and more) you had these tradesmen or guys that worked in factories or on farms that became firemen. Many of them had also served in the military during war-years. They brought special skill-sets that revolved around those trades or mechanical apptitude but they also brought something else. In general, the candidate-firefighters of old brought an ability to follow orders, think on their feet and put in a hard days work. Life was vastly different back then, even as recently as the '70's. No one sat around playing video games all day, or glued to their smart-phones or were handed things by their comparatively well-off Mommies and Daddies. No, most of the older generation firefighters worked, or fought, for what they had. Which left precious little time or expendable income for "fun" stuff. Many of the kids I see today, whether it be in my own department or teaching at the academy, have either had no real job to speak of or worse yet, have had many different small jobs. I say "worse yet" because I have asked several of these candidates why they hopped from one menial job to the next in their short work-life and more times than not I get answers like, "I couldn't stand my boss," or "My boss had it out for me," or "I  wasn't being paid what I deserved," or my personal favorite, "It took up too much time so I quit." Huh?!?! So now they want to be firefighers. And suddenly they are forced to report for duty earlier than many have had to get out of bed in years, they have to dress in a certain, prescribed and detailed manner, follow orders that are being barked at them, do certain things at certain times without question, think on the fly in a very fast-paced environment, learn the use of a multitude of tools, learn foreign materiel i.e. building construction and put in a harder days work than many of them have ever done. Talk about a culture shock! It's no wonder we have some trouble in getting through to these kids. Our academies and probationary time is not set-up to allow for a learn-at-your-own-pace approach. You have a set amount of time to complete the academy and the rquirements or fail. You have a set amount of time to make probation or fail. Except in a very few cases, there are no do-overs or time extensions. Sink or swim lads and lasses. 

Now here's where I think Chief Hadfield's comment comes into play. I don't necessarily think he was disagreeing with the listener's comment. I think what he was trying to say was that more officers, and senior firefighters, need to step-up and show our "babes in bunkers" the way. Another listener typed a comment that I think is reflective of an emerging problem in the fire service today. The listener said, "Too many officers "lead" from the office." Obviously nothing I, or anyone else says can be construed as being reflective of any entire department. However, I have seen in person and talked to more and more firefighters who have that exact complaint. That their Lieutenant or Captain sits in his or her office all day and they never see them until the tones drop or someone needs to be yelled at. When it comes to spider-solitaire, checking their e-mails or their stock portfolios or running their side-business they're the bomb. As a company officer, in its truest sense, not so much. Now that's not to single-out the officers only. There's plenty of senior guys who do the exact same things and never invest one second in the new boot. IMHO, er, in my humble opinion (I learned that one from one of those kids) many of us older guys are just as much to blame. These kids need to be led, yes, but don't expect that you're going to take them onto the floor, haul out your extrication equipment and in 10 minutes teach them all the ins and outs like you would with a guy that has worked with heavy tools and equipment before. It's just not gonna happen. In the same vein, when you're sitting around having an impromptu training session at the local building under construction don't throw out building terms like, lintle, top-plate and bearing wall and expect these kids to completely get it like the carpenter on the shift. Many of these kids learn just enough for the test they have to take on building construction, and other subjects, in the academy but have no real practical understanding in real-life. Many of these subjects are going to need to be reviewed and in some cases, completely re-taught. It ain't gonna happen over night brothers and sisters.

Be ready for something else, folks. The "whys" and "this is stupids". Now, to many of us the automatic and best response to those two statments would be a tersely stated, "because I said so" or some version of that retort. Many of us grew up in the fire service under officers who led with iron fists and little in the way of management or personal communication training. An officer or senior member gave you an order and you did it without question or hesitation or be prepared to suffer the wrath. That approach doesn't work with these kids. While it kind of doesn't make sense that they only want to study the absolute minimum to get by for the tests in the academy they actually do want an explanation as to why they are doing some particular thing or other in that particular way. And if that explanation consists of, "because that's the way we've always done it" or some other time-honored traditional response you may get met with the "this is stupid" retort. And guess what folks, in some cases they may be right. Remember, we're kind of set in our ways, brought up in a different fire department. These kids look at things differently and are more technology savvy. Those explanations we simply accepted and shut-up aren't good enough for them. Many times they don't mean offense or insult by their statements, it's just part of their lexicon and their everyday operation. Sometimes we need to take a deep breath and remember that. Then back-up and perhaps explain a little more in-depth or ask what exactly their question is so we can better answer it. Again, they, and we, won't change over night. But I think both our groups need to be willing to.

Well, until next time, getjerbutts off 'da tailboard and go invest in a younger member! Just be patient.


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