From fighting fires to onboarding Millennials, times are changing. Embrace the changes.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit fire services in more than 75 countries around the world. It’s always humbling to meet with our customers, and it’s an honor and privilege to be in an industry where we can assist those who give so selflessly.
American writer and humanist Kurt Vonnegut realized their contributions to society when he wrote, “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man’s humanity to man than a fire engine.”
A lot has changed over the years. Firefighting technology has seen significant advancements, including compressed air foam systems (CAFS), ultra-high pressure, water mist, touchscreen control panels, and on-board water purification.
The single biggest change that I’ve seen is the number of fires, at least in the USA. While your department may still have a name with “fire” in it, let’s face it fighting fires is not where you spend most of your time. This is largely due to better fire prevention, including more stringent electrical and construction codes, fire sprinkler systems, fewer smokers, and flame resistant products.
The number of fires around the world is a fraction of what it used to be when I joined our 100-year-old family business. It might come as a surprise to you, but in 2013, less than four percent of all fire service responses in the USA were actual fire calls. According to NFPA statistics, roughly 65 percent of calls were for medical aid or EMS related. I encourage you to download the complete report from the NFPA website at www.nfpa.org.
The amount of statistical information on USA fire services in this report is extraordinary, and it probably reflects conditions in your country. Last year, the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) was the busiest fire station in the USA, responding to over 1.4 million calls. However, less than two percent of those calls were for actual fires.
Don’t get me wrong: firefighting is still critical regardless of where you live. But you, and your equipment, should change with the times. While the fire apparatus, equipment, techniques and methodologies may vary from country to country, progressive fire departments around the world are becoming more practical in their approaches.
The hottest trend in the USA, for example, is toward multi-purpose vehicles. These vehicles still have a substantial pumping capability, but the pumps take up much less of the vehicle’s overall footprint. This frees up space to carry more equipment for all the other responses, in a more compact package that allows for better vehicle maneuverability. These vehicles meet the true needs of today’s fire service, rather than historical perceived needs.
In China, on the other hand, major cities have embraced our most sophisticated products, such as CAFS. The Chinese are not hamstrung by traditional firefighting methods, like many in the USA. With the explosion of high-rise housing, China simply needs the best equipment to protect its cities and citizens.
Its fire service conducts research and then implements decisions quickly.
No matter where you live, two things haven’t changed: First, we’re still “putting the wet stuff on hot stuff,” albeit at a significantly slower rate than we were just 10 years ago. Second, men, and a growing number of women firefighters, still fight fires similar to how they were fought for centuries. There isn’t a magic pill. And while robots may have a place in the fire service, when it comes to fighting fires, they have not replaced humans, and probably never will.
That means for your department to grow and thrive, you’ll need to onboard and inculcate new members. Most likely, they’ll be “Millennials,” those who are roughly 18-35 years old. Never before has one generation been more analyzed and scrutinized then the Millennials.
I’m a data-driven manager, and while I don’t like to stereotype, you can’t ignore the statistics about Millennials. To attract these fine young leaders, an organization needs to explain its vision, be transparent, provide encouragement and feedback, and allow for upward mobility.
According to a 2014 survey by the National Volunteer Fire Council, recruitment and retention is one of the biggest challenges facing volunteer fire departments today. New members are the lifeblood of any organization. Properly attracting, onboarding and training them is critical to long-term success. Our military customers know this better than anyone.
A 2010 Pew Research Center study found that Millennials place a higher priority on helping people in need (21%) than having a high-paying career (15%).
If this is correct, then why are volunteer fire departments in the U.S. having recruitment challenges? I don’t have the answer, but perhaps part of it has to do with leadership’s inability to listen and then adapt to changing times. I find myself caught in this trap at times.
Whether you’re a career or volunteer department, it’s critical that today’s fire service leader be constantly listening to this new generation – and I mean really listening. This generation is tech savvy and filled with ideas on ways to improve your department’s level of service.
At Darley, most of our breakthrough ideas come from truly listening to our customers and employees. Whether volunteers, employees or customers, all stakeholders need to have a voice and be heard. The quickest way to turn off any group of constituents is to not listen. Action needs to be taken based on input. And if you can’t implement certain changes, your constituents need to know why.
At Darley, we’re going to continue to embrace and learn from Millennials while slowly adapting our culture.
I would encourage your organization to do the same.