I have a love/hate relationship with stereotypes. They can be so useful when attempting to understand a large group of people, but when forced on a small group or an individual it can be incredibly harmful and disheartening. All stereotypes have accuracies and errors. However, for the purpose of this article, I will use a few stereotypes, in order to clarify the point.
The fire service is not necessarily one of diversity...according to NFPA, in 2016 4.5% of all US firefighters were women, 9.2% were black and 9% were of hispanic origin. While this seems to be getting better in areas (or not, you tell me?), this is still the reality for many of us and some places are likely even lower statistics.
Now I have nothing, absolutely nothing against the "typical" firefighter (see word on stereotypes above). These can be fantastic, smart employees that bring great customer service and leadership to the industry. They can also be terrible, lazy employees that don't contribute anything at all.
But what if you AREN'T a "typical" firefighter, statistically speaking? Sometimes people don't feel like they belong when facing these differences in the fire station. What do you say when everyone is talking about their hunting trips and you are a vegan? You may want to share something about yourself, to help bond with your crew members but how much is too much or not enough?
First of all, you BELONG! You have put in the work, obtained the certifications, taken the tests and put in the hours. If you are dedicated to consistently improving yourself, supporting your coworkers and department, and providing a high level of customer service, don't let anyone (or yourself) convince you that you do not belong, just because you see differences from your crew. You deserve this career and you deserve to be treated fairly. End of story.
You will likely face your differences at the fire house eventually. As you may or may not already know, firefighter love to gossip, talk politics and stir the pot. You may even been directly confronted about your differences at some point. DO NOT CHANGE WHO YOU ARE JUST TO AVOID CONFLICT OR PLEASE OTHERS. The world would be a terribly miserable place if we were all the same. Embrace your lovely uniqueness and don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it!
Hide your goat.
You don’t have to share your differences with your crews if you don’t want to. If someone confronts you about your opinion on politics, religion, whatever, you are not obligated to answer. Your job is to be a public service professional (and a damn good one at that), not answer questions about your religious, political, whatever agenda views. Be careful, however, to not “let them know where your goat is tied.” If you have not heard this saying, it means to don’t let them know what gets to you.
For example, say Sally loves to read. She can hardly put a book down, science fiction, fantasy, whatever, reading is her solace. Her crew members nick name her the Book Worm, which she dislikes. Sally wants to be known for being a hard worker not for reading. This bothers her and she is constantly telling the crew to change her name, putting her books away, ect. She gets flustered while even reading department memos because her crew calls her Book Worm. Sally has shown them where her goat is tied and now they are going to go poke it with a stick.
Even if something does rub you the wrong way, act as if it doesn’t. If you don’t feed the raccoons, they will give up bothering you and leave.
Sharing is not necessarily caring.
You decide when and how you share your differences with others. If something bothers you, don’t bring it up and try not to react if someone else does. Just let it go, be professional and save those conversations for your friends and family. If you do decide to share, don’t downgrade your differences. For example, if you are vegan, just be solid in your beliefs and love yourself. You will likely get lots of questions and even be given offers and opinions on why you are wrong or should change. You do not have to accept these if you don’t want. Firefighters LOVE to debate. You be you. A safe bet is to change the topic back to work related matters, especially if you have questions about something you don’t know.
It seems that many young and/or newer firefighters feel that is required that they "expose" their life, to the tiniest detail. They share hobbies, education, family life, history and childhood, everything short of their bank account number, as if by offering up as much information as possible will cause their crew to be more trustworthy of them or accept them faster. As if by exposing their entire personality will show their dedication to the fire service. We need dedicated firefighters, but holding a magnifying glass over yourself at work is not necessary. If that's your thing, go for it, but know you don't have to.
Many people find an identity as a firefighter, which is great, but it is not required. Your job does not have to be you. You be you. The best, greatest version of you that you can imagine. You owe it to the world to achieve all you can achieve, as when we feel the most satisfied with our lives, we are the most productive, happy and share ourselves with the world.
That being said, you do need to bond with your crews, as you will literally be toying with death with these people. Trust needs to flow strongly in all directions. There will always be reasons to not get along (Millennials vs Boomers…look out WWE), but if you can try to find common ground with others, you can foster healthy working relationships. If you are feeling comfortable, share a few things about you to help others to get to know you better, ask about them, likes and dislikes, and just generally try to establish relationships with each of your crew members. As a firefighter, you are likely already an A type personality, so this shouldn’t be too hard. Even if you think you are the complete opposite of a crew member, if you get to know them, I bet you’ll find that you share a love of a musician, food, or something else.
When dealing with generational differences, offer your opinion or view without demanding that you be acknowledged as correct. For example, many Millennial employees are judged for being on their phones constantly at the fire station, and for an older generation employee, this can be viewed as disrespectful. What the older employee may not know, is that the Millennial is looking up the latest techniques for extrication or researching new cardiac arrest guidelines. Show the older employee these articles to show you are committed to the agency and not just messing around on your phone.
Harassment & Discrimination
It can be challenging to get a feel for company culture as a new or young employee while also understanding situations that could be harassment. Depending on your differences you might be a prime target for harassment or discrimination. In the first few years of employment, in each unique department, is full of intense learning, trying to fit in, and laying the map for the rest of you career. Throw a harasser or discriminator in the mix and things get confusing and disheartening. Great employees have quit for these reasons, so communication is key.
Some fire station cultures glorify some not-so-healthy traditions such as hazing, glorifying dirty PPE or stripping turnout liners in hot weather. I could go on and on about why these behaviors still exist, when we are in a modern, science based firefighting industry, but for the sake of this article, lets just all encourage each other to make smart choices. For now, lets look at hazing:
To know if you are experiencing harmful hazing, it can be useful to have a definition. My consulting firm uses the following:
"Hazing is the imposition of irrelevant, humiliating, unnecessarily repetitive tasks that cause a person to feel powerless, isolated and/or embarrassed."
It should also be noted that the intention of the hazer(s) is irrelevant. It is up to the person experiencing the hazing. Always go with your gut. We have an acute sense to know when things are not what they seem, so trust that inner voice. There is a SIGNIFICANT difference between hazing and general camaraderie. Humor, of course, is one of the best things in the fire house. Knowing the difference all falls back to power. When a person cannot communicate when enough is enough, have their rights to privacy, personal health, safety, and dignity, or be able to return a joke, things have gone too far. When things go too far, it effects how we think, which effects the choices we make, which effects the outcome of our LIVES. Being in a supportive, encouraging, engaging environment as a new/young employee is so important that by accepting hazing as the norm can be harming your agency in massive ways.
Don't allow yourself to be disrespected. Stand up for yourself, even as a brand new employee. I get it, you don't want to make waves, don't want to stand out, and need to be accepted by your crews, but by accepting mistreatment, you bring the entire industry down... Use the chain of command and policies that protect you in these situations. You will look back on your retirement day and be glad that you stood up for yourself and paved a prettier path for those that followed.
Today I had the pleasure to sit down with Unified Fire Authority's Assistant Chief Jay Ziolkowski to discuss fire service issues.
1. What is your background, related to the fire service?
My father was a captain for 36 years in Oregon so fire is in my blood. Upon moving to Utah, I was encouraged by my fire instructors to take the Salt Lake County test. I was on the list for two years with them before getting hired full time. Shortly after, I attended paramedic school and began my time in operations. I have spent approximately half of my 25 years of service on the admin side of things; as an inspector, PIO, in logistics, EMS division, paid call program coordinator and now as an AC. I have loved exploring all the options that the fire service offered me, however I have a huge amount of respect for those "specialists" like heavy and technical rescue who have truly honed in on their skills. I have a Bachelors degree in Management and two Associates degrees in fire science.
2. What do you think are the three biggest challenges the fire service faces today?
a) The increased demand for the diversity of programs by the public. Back in the day, we fought fire...now we are expected to do haz mat, technical rescue, wildland-urban interface, ect. The development of these programs takes time, money and personnel.
b) I'd say that the recruitment and retention of newer generational groups, such as Millennials and Generation Z, is challenging when the economy is good. When there is expansion of industry such as tech, many younger people flock to these jobs.
c) Of course, finance is always a challenge, for any department. Public safety is labor intensive...for example, agencies can have up to six people responding to one medical call. The long term sustainability of finances is going to be a challenge for all around.
3. Can you speak to hazing? Were you hazed? Do you think it is a positive or negative thing?
*While answering this question, we defined hazing as jokes or pranks that cause a person to feel powerless, humiliated or discriminated against.
I would say I experienced more just harmless pranks in the earlier days of my career. Horseplay was more commonplace and accepted back in the 70 and 80s, I'd say now, it is not as bad at it was, however I do occasionally hear about some of our part time employees being treated poorly, whether it is hazing or just general conflict, I am not sure.
4. What do you think the fire service offers to entry level employees?
The diversity of roles and opportunities available to firefighters is an excellent benefit. With UFA, a person could do USAR, heavy rescue, inspector, or many other options that we have and this helps to keep employees from feeling stagnated or bored in their roles. Knowing their work schedule and the time off availability is also a huge benefit as employees can plan family vacations or other events well ahead of time. Having four days off also allows employees to work additional jobs or own businesses.
5. Your department hires Millennials. What challenges has the department faced with recruiting and retaining Millennials and how has it adapted?
The stereotype of Millennials not having a work ethic has not rung true that I have seen. It is more of a problem of Millennials not "waiting" for the job, even if they are on the list. They typically don't want to wait the two years to get hired so, as we mentioned before, they will go find another job easily and quickly when the economy is good. UFA has created a committee specifically focusing on hiring and how to reach out to our target groups, such as Millennials, with social media, posters, and developing our high school programs and relationships with local fire academies. We will also be increasing the frequency of our hire academies so our talent does not have to wait as long.
6. What does "company culture" mean to you?
Culture is a complex combination of the policy and practices, mission/vision/values, response and the people of a department. It is not something that changes overnight and the overall hope is to move the people toward the goals of the agency.
7. If you could change one thing about the fire service, what would it be?
I wouldn't necessarily change a specific thing, but I am hopeful that the fire service always tries to improve, that we are open to change and explore ways that we could be better.
8. If you had advice for a Millennial seeking a career in the fire service, what would it be?
Don't give up.
Be patient with the process and with the people. Don't judge those that have been in the service too harshly...
Always find something to do - clean, read, tie knots, always improve
Consider pausing before stating opinions. That's not to state you shouldn't have discussion and offer your view on things - that is valuable - just be open to conversation instead of being right 100% of the time.
Never let them know where your goat is tied...
9. What is your opinion of the following quote: "100 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress"?
This does not ring true in my opinion. The changing environment has demanded change, as we discussed before withe going from just fighting fires to developing complex programs.
A different quote I have found to be true is: "two things firefighters hate is change, and the way things are now". Change is hard, but we are making progress.
Thank you so much to Chief Z for giving us his valuable time to offer insight into the industry and advice. UFA is a world class organization that clearly offers a variety of valuable programs to it's community and employees.
If you are frustrated with the system, you've been trying hard to get hired for months with no success, thinking about whether or not you really want to do this?
Don't give up. You will get the job, if you keep focused, keep pushing, it's headed your way. It will be worth it in the end.
We all use coaches through our lives, even "successful" people utilize them (NFL players? Business executives? Yup). While many people have been hired under their own will power, having an experienced eye on your portfolio, answer questions and guide you through the process can hurry along the process.
My favorite quote about coaching, that I have found to ring true over and over in my life is: "Coaching is like you are wandering through the forest, tripping over branches and moss in the shade, pushing hard in what you think is the right direction, dirty, sweaty and tired, while a coach is someone who has reached the peak already, who is cheering you on and can yell down at you to avoid the sinking sand or mountain lion. They are eating orange slices up there, wanting you to share the view with you."
We have been there. We know the struggle, we know the process and the pitfalls. And we want you to join us!
Check out our coaching program and let us shine some light for you. We offer specialized coaching for firefighter, law enforcement officer, EMS and search & rescue candidates.
According to our 2018 study, it costs a department approximately $9,500 to host a new hire test, including written tests, skills evaluation, CPAT and interviews for 50 candidates.
Many departments have had to increase the frequency of tests due to lack of applicants, turnover, or other issues…Some agencies are even reporting having to host a test 4-5 times per year. That’s $30,000.
What would your agency do with an extra $30K?
The numbers: (from www.payscale.com)
Chief time - $35/hr
Battalion Chief time $25/hr
Captain time $20/hr
Firefighter time $15/hr
Administration time $13/hr
For 50 candidates....
Common places where candidates get lost in testing process:
Job posting not reaching candidates
Unclear or restrictive application requirements
Broken website links
Non-relevant testing material (written test questions, skills)
Overly restrictive time limits or biased tasks on CPAT
Job focused interview questions (opposed to candidate focused)
Yep....there is a generation after Millennials....
Ok that might seem super obvious, but to some people, especially in the fire service, it is already a challenge to wrap our heads around Millennials that we don't even want to THINK about the next ones!
Time marches on and Gen Z is on their way to the fire service and it is likely that this group will hit even harder than Millennials are.
Generation Z was born between 1995 and 2012. They have never known a time without technology, many of them raised with a smartphone firmly in grasp.
Millennials make up 25% of the US population now (2018), but in 2020, Generation Z will make up 1/3. They will contribute a significant amount to the economy in the 2020s and are hot on the heels of Millennials in the work force.
Generation Z grew up with constant phone updates, a new fancy device every year and instantaneous, 24/7 entertainment. This created a group that adapts to change very well, can multi-task better than any human has ever imagined and are extremely mobile. They are following the footsteps of the Millennials, by abandoning traditional routes of career and education paths, starting their own businesses, going to college on the side (or not at all), and seeking their inner purpose, delaying even starting families, while they discover and cultivate their passions.
This is also a group that is more accepting of individuality as ever. They were washed over in the wave of equal rights movements for LGBTQ+, the Me Too movement, constant public shootings, economic crisis, and witnessing the effects of global warming. They feel passionately about standing up for others, service and preservation and have little tolerance for abuse of others.
This group will bring that sense of duty to others to the fire service, but will desire more ownership over their position as ever. Similarly to Millennials, they will also put their wellbeing and that of their loved ones, over anything else. This group will desire constant engagement, connection and the need to be heard and recognized. Gen Z is also one of public image. Marketing and purchasing studies have shown that already, Gen Z buyers will purchase brand name or top of the line products to increase their image/standing within social groups.
Considerations for the fire service with Gen Z:
Engagement - how can we increase job engagement with this extremely mentally active group? How can we increase their sense of service in day-to-day tasks?
Visibility - will this group understand what it means to be humble or will we have to address this? Can inter-departmentally recognition satisfy their need for visibility?
Diversity - how can departments bridge the gaps between older generations and Gen Z who may be far more diverse in their self identification? How would your departments senior members act around an individual that identifies as gender-fluid or transgender, even if they performed their work at a high level?
Links and references:
August’s Millennial of the Month (MOM) is a full time firefighter from Salt Lake City, Utah. He is a probationary firefighter who has a passion for the industry and knows that there are ways to improve communication between generations.
MOM requested to remain anonymous at the time of the interview.
MOM: I was born in 1991, graduated high school and began a professional career in the construction and tech industry. As I studied at a local university, I realized that the degree I was receiving had rather boring day to day work. I met a wildland firefighter who really inspired me to take an EMT class and look into the field.
During the class, I discovered the pull of the service industry, being able to make a difference and work with a specialized skill set. I became excited about a career in the fire service and decided to pursue it.
2. What has it been like to get into the sector? What struggles have you faced while trying to get hired? What was anticipated, what wasn’t? What struggles have you face once IN the fire service?
MOM: It took me about 2.5 years to get a full time job offer. I remember the constantly stress of tests and interviews, plus the uneasiness of not knowing exactly where I would end up with a job, whether it be career, volunteer or a combination department. It was stunning to me that of my initial firefighter training class, only 2 of the 22 students I trained with, ended up staying in the field…I did not know the drop out rate was so large.
I tried to work hard as a part time employee for several local agencies, trying to build my credibility, skill set, and resume. It was difficult, with low pay and no benefits at all. Like most entry-level candidates, I worked long hours at multiple jobs.
As time went on, I noticed the length of time, and expectations of the testing and hiring process truly weeded out those individuals that were not committed, similarly to the military. To further “sift out the gold nuggets” even those that make it through the testing process, could be lost in the intensive new hire academy, as I saw in my own training.
3. What are the three biggest challenges that you feel the fire service faces today?
MOM: The three biggest challenges that I see for the fire service are; departments struggling to retain experienced employees, as employees at my department are constantly being cherry picked to work at departments out of state for better benefits, overall fitness and health of employees, and recruiting new talent.
My department runs, not only a massive number of calls during the shift, but we often see more fire than the statistic, due to the building types in the response area. We also run on terrible calls such as assaults, overdoses, violence and other difficult calls, again due to the area we respond to. My department, while it is very supportive of mental health, struggles to fully support employees as individuals.
4. You are a Millennial. How do you think that stereotype has helped or harmed you in your career?
MOM: I feel that being a Millennial has not necessarily been positive or negative, but has been a challenge that I have addressed head on. Working in non-service industries, I have seen the “worst” kind of stereotype Millennials and am determined to change that stereotype. Anytime someone starts talking bad about Millennials, I use that as an opportunity to prove them wrong, by working harder, staying fitter, and being the smartest, highest quality employee there is.
I have noticed that a characteristic of the newer employees, including Millennials, is that they are FAR better in shape than the older, more experienced employees.
5. Can you speak to hazing? Were you hazed? How so? Have you hazed someone else? Do you think it is a positive or negative thing?
MOM: Yes I have been hazed, however my experience is that I received more of generally harmless teasing, with small amounts of negative hazing. I have, however, seen and heard much more hazing than what I experienced first hand. In my experience, positive feedback, especially when new employees are encouraged to express their own experiences, weaknesses and goals, is far more productive than hazing in creating employee improvement.
6. Do you feel the fire service is a sustainable career for you - financially, mentally, physically and in regards to your family and personal life? Why or why not? Do you work other jobs? How many and what in?
MOM: My answer to this is a resounding NO! Not in Utah! If it weren’t for my spouses income and insurance, I would be struggling in a bad way. If things don’t improve here, I plan to leave Utah, after I have repaid my department for hiring me in the first place. I owe them that. I work two other EMT jobs, outside of firefighting and am expecting to have to take another to support my family. I want to move my family to a state with better pay and better retirement.
I am also a little disappointed with the line-of-duty-death benefits, if something were to happen to me, I don’t know if my family would receive enough support.
7. If you could change one thing about the fire service, what would it be?
MOM: Pay and benefits. I would love to stay in Utah, I love my department and the state, but will likely leave to support my family. I even opted out of the fire departments health insurance, as it was far better to join my spouses insurance.
8. Do you feel the fire service supports a healthy, sustainable culture? How supported do you feel as a newer employee?
MOM: I feel that my department does have decent culture, but they will continue to see talented, experienced employees leave due to the pay, benefits, and call volume.
9. Which of the following is most important to you in your work? Job & income security, personal recognition, work environment, wellbeing, good leadership, or communication.
The CSC culture factor that was most important to me is health and wellbeing. Without it, a person can’t function.
10. If you could give the chiefs of the industry a recommendation about recruiting and retaining Millennials, what would you say?
MOM: “Stop saying, ‘back in my day’. The population has nearly doubled since your day, the technology, drugs and crime has drastically increased and the calls we run are no longer comparable. We face complex car extrications, fires with solar paneled roofs, school shootings, rampant opioid addiction, increased violence, suicides, and it isn’t fair to expect that we should behave the same way you did when you were new.
“There ARE amazing Millennials out there, but without the pay, benefits and mental health support, they will continue to leave. If you pay peanuts, you will get monkeys. Advocate for us in the retirement system and support us in the field as we try to serve an every changing, complex society.”
Thanks to Augusts Millennial of the Month for offering some insight on what it’s like to have a passion for the industry and yet be struggling with some of the most common issues in the industry.
Today, we will spotlight the Baby Boomers, born 1946 and 1964, this generation gets its name from the massive increase in births following WWII through the Cold War.
According to history.com, the Boomers were excited to embrace home life, after suffering through difficult war times. The suburban lifestyle exploded, unions sounded a rally cry for better benefits of workers, women were encouraged to remain home and be the cooking, cleaning, housemother. This particular campaign was disheartening to many women, as they had found a new sense of self and independence by working in factories, or even on the front lines, during the wars. This dissatisfaction with a new expectation would later lead to the feminist movements.
It was a time of new stuff. Televisions replaced the home radio, a new car could be seen in many driveways and Disneyland opened in 1955, bringing a flood of new toys to the market for children. Credit cards, TV dinners, velcro, microwave ovens, and ironically, birth control pills, were all products unveiled in this time.
Social movements also marked the time of the Boomers. They protested the Vietnam war, lobbied for equal rights for women, ethnic and racial groups and even youth. Some however, preferred peace and as such, the "hippie" was born.
By 2030, one in five Americans will be over 65. Even now, as this group begins to leave the work force, we see an increase in nursing homes, more pulls on social security and, the true loss in the fire service, experience....
These Boomers are the leaders of the fire service now. If not officially in title, it is in time and experience. They are reaching retirement age (if they haven't left already) and as they exit the workforce, they take a lifetime worth of hard lessons, techniques and worth ethic with them. We would all benefit from sitting down with a Boomer, listening to their stories and getting their advice, even though our world in the fire service is vastly different than they worked in, some lessons will still be valuable.
We salute these Boomers, as they suffered through as the unofficial "safety" testers that led the fire service to SCBAs, turnouts, mandatory seatbelts, and other equipment and PPE that we may not think much about.
For more on this, check out this Firehouse article:
Links and references:
Why is there a decline of entry level firefighter candidates? We used to have thousands of candidates competing for five or six openings, now it seems we are putting on tests every few months, so...was there a party and we just didn't get invited?
Millennials are an ambitious and informed group. Research is at the heart of nearly all their decisions and more often than not, choices are screened by friends and family before they are acted on.
As a result, it is very easy to just get online and compare careers, make lists and even experience different jobs through working interviews or job fairs. These are some of the results they are seeing, thanks to www.glassdoor.com for providing the information:
Both categories have strengths and weaknesses....
Even employees that enter the field and make it through the testing process, will leave if they feel abused for too long. Preventing the burnout and job dissatisfaction can stop Millennials from leaving the industry once they are in and attract more candidates to the field.
Getting creative with solutions is the key.
"100 years of tradition, unimpeded by progress" - this revealing quote needs to be disproven for departments to really start to attract and keep some talent for the long term.
Considerations for departments:
Declassify PTO - doesn't just have to be sick or vacation. Just labeled at personal leave or paid time off, an employee can use it as they need.
Gym memberships or discounts
Raffels and contests
Fix company culture issues if they exists
Increase pay and benefits as possible
There are four generations that are actively working in the fire service right now;
Baby Boomers (1946-1964)
Generation X (1965-1979)
Each of these generational groups experienced a different environment growing up that drive overall behavior, beliefs and values.
Baby Boomers faced intense political and civil rights movements, the Korean and Vietnam War and new love for entertainment. They grew up in a time without instant communication or social media and as result developed great interpersonal skills, a strong work ethic and have had to adapt to rapid increases in technology.
Generation X is the first generation to value work-life balance. Many experienced broken homes due to extreme work demands on their parents and thus became wary of overworking. This group saw several significant political events and the beginnings of computers and the internet.
Xennials had the benefits of rapidly growing technology while also being one of the hardest hit working groups in the early 2000s recession, 9-11 terrorist attacks, and being thrust into an entirely connected world. Xennials also experienced a focus on environmental issues.
Perhaps the most feared generation in the fire service now is the Millennials....often titled as lazy, entitled, and self-centered, agencies all over the country are facing a massive reduction in entry level testing numbers as this well-connected group become entrepreneurs and tech giants.
Frustrations and finger pointing are often the result of poor communication between all these groups. Older generations feel that these kids should just be grateful to have a job, to worship the fire service, and to get off their damn phones! Younger generations have far less tolerance for low pay, hazing and teasing, and the demand on personal life that the fire service presents.
However there are solutions...and both parties MUST adapt. Those departments that refuse to change will face huge turnover and an increase of entry level testing frequency as candidates flee from public safety. Millennials must develop as professionals and take communication into their own hands to show departments what makes them want to stay.
The answer does not have to be solely and increase in pay...