Void Space

Firefighter, officer, chief—these are the titles of the jobs we sign up for. But just like “bingo chairman,” “corresponding secretary” or “roads and grounds committee member,” the title of “leader” is not something at the top of our list of “I want to be that guy” jobs that we strive for when we first join the volunteer fire department.

Although almost everyone who joins the fire service dreams of being chief one day, they probably don’t dream of being a “fire service leader“; that is, it’s not necessarily an inherent thought process to connect the title of “chief” with “leader.” And while the title of fire chief may conjure up images of flashing lights and standing in front of a burning building barking orders into a portable radio, as we know all too well, being a “fire service leader” requires a lot more preparation and hard work than that.

There is much discussion going on in the fire service today about this “void space” created by the potentially damaging collision of retiring experience and the growing lack of experience of today’s firefighters and officers. When I say growing, I’m referring to the fact that as our fire load goes down (that’s a good thing), so does our experience level, accordingly (that’s a bad thing). Thus we end up with a “growing” lack of experience.

I had the privilege of writing a companion article to Chief Jeff Johnson’s feature: Handling the “Leadership Absenteeism” Crisis Ahead—a Career Perspective recently published on FireRescue/FirefighterNation. It was interesting to see how much our thought lines paralleled each other, despite the fact that we didn’t physically meet until I bumped into Chief Johnson at the CFSI dinner in Washington DC the week before the articles were published, let alone collaborate on our writings.

It turns out that we share a common mentor in Chief (Ret.) Jack Snook of the same Tualatin Valley Oregon Fire & Rescue that Chief Johnson retired from. I and many others consider Chief Snook to be the father of volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention as he wrote the manual originally titled: “A Breed Apart” published back in 1989. His work is still relevant today.

After our complementary articles were published, I came across this article on mentoring – which fit right in with the common thread solution that Chief Johnson and I proposed respectively. And then earlier today, Bill Carey of Backstep Firefighter sent me a link to this article which debates the value of experience vs. education in today’s up and coming officers and leaders.

What really hit home with me was the way the author described how the fire service struggled with the acceptance of standardized and performance based training curriculum 10-15 years ago. I know that story firsthand as that’s when and why I was hired by Erie County Emergency Services to implement just such a program. To say there were growing pains associated with this transition is being polite.

The author goes on to remind us that while many of us “more experienced” firefighters may have struggled to embrace the concept at the time, Gen-Y firefighters have simply never known anything different and thus easily become “early adopters.” It’s in that vain that he makes the pitch that education based officer development will take a similar path towards acceptance.

I’ve spent the past two weeks on the road (and many more hours before that) visiting with firefighters around the country, conducting my own observational research of those I’ve dubbed X-box Firefighters and the way they integrate into today’s fire service. If I’ve learned nothing else about this generation, it’s that their greatest expectation is to be given clear expectations from their leaders and mentors.

So, if you’re looking to fill the leadership void space in your organization, I suggest you read the articles linked herein and surround yourself with the next generation of fire service leaders to better understand their expectations of you, and the role that we play in adapting to the needs and wants of our replacements.

Whether you decide to forge ahead and form strong bonds with those you’ll be handing the reigns to some day, or you decide to stick your head back in the void space and pretend these challenges don’t exist, I’m pretty sure they’d expect nothing less from you. I’ve found them to be pretty good judges of character.

Stay safe. Train often.

PS – Look for Paul Hasenmeier’s web exclusive on fire officer development coming to FireRescue/FirefighterNation in June. He fits right in with this line of thinking and he offers a great “Read it today — Use it tomorrow” solution to the process.

Links in this article:

4/21/11 – More on mentoring — just came across this mentoring worksheet from Fire 20/20.

4/21/11 – Related: “Dig In.” — http://tigerschmittendorf.com/2009/09/01/dig-in/

  • strtcopr

    ah….I remember the bingo chairman days…….

  • Mike Teague

    Talk about void space. We recently reviewed the ages of all our personnel. 70% of our people are over 40 with 23% being over fifty. I hear a large sucking sound at the top. We are finally starting to work on succession planning. 5-7 years from now we will have had an incredibly turnover. It is scary.