From the Chief’s Desk
B y R o n n y J . C o l e m a n A lot has been said about the idea of generational differences in the fire service. There is a body of knowledge that draws quite a distinction between a person who was born in a specific era having a different outlook than those who went before them or came after them. For the most part, the generational differences have been recognized only in the past 50 years. Society never thought in terms of generations before but rather in terms of decades and ages.
Interestingly, the body of knowledge of the technology of the fire service has similar generational
distinctions. It is a miracle that one generation can
effectively operate with a member of another generation considering these differences. Depending
on when you entered the fire service, you may have
heard of different traditions being adhered to.
What I am referring to is the difference in building content and construction techniques that are
constantly changing regardless of which generation
is responding on the apparatus. While it might
be an argument about whether a person is a baby
boomer or a millennial from a standpoint of human
resources, the reality is America’s fire problem is also
changing constantly. This is going to require a change
in attitude about generations. Between the year that
you were born and the year that you entered the fire
service, a lot of things can change. After you have
completed your probationary period as a firefighter,
there is a time during which you will have some
degree of confidence that you understand the fire
problem, and this will usually take you to retirement.
And at some point, in time, both content and
construction are going to change, whether we in the fire
service like it or not. If you are up to date, you may have
to change the way you think about things. If you are not
up to date, you may be a danger to yourself and others.
The way that we combat fire is highly dependent
on what we are taught during our formative years.
It is equally important that we continue to observe
the consequences of changes that are going on as
they reach maturity in the field. This is the basis for
the argument that we have a continuing education
requirement for the fire service.
Here are just a few examples of this phenomenon.
The single-family dwelling has been evolving for years,
and one could take the point of a view that a house is
a house is a house. However, is it not true that a house
built in 1880 creates the same fire problem as a home
built in 2008. What comes to mind are such things as
insulation, synthetic products, lightweight construc-
tion, and built-in fire protection.
We tend to lump fires into occupancy type as
opposed to construction characteristics, and a fire in
an 1880 building is not going to burn like a fire from a
2008 structure. This phenomenon is being tested today
in response to another change in a firefighting—a quest
to have scientific solutions to our problems. Much of
the conversation about fire station deployment and
initial attack is centering on the concept of science. One
outstanding example of this is the work being done by
Dan Madrzykowski and Steve Kerber at Underwriters Laboratories (UL). This material is being explored
in workshops and in training materials. This scientific
approach is challenging many of the “traditional” solutions of the past. Therein lies the challenge. Which generation is going to pick up this methodology and which
generation is going to ignore it? Both possibilities exist.
The challenge today for all generations is to teach
and apply the most relevant information. While it
might be that on any given fire crew the generational
differences may be present, there is no excuse for not
fighting the fire with the most modern technique possible. Perhaps it is possible to teach old dogs new tricks.
If you were going into a doctor’s office to have major
surgery, you would want the doctor using the most
current methodology. In the field of engineering,
the same thing applies. Currency and relevancy are
The fire service is often accused of being a traditional organization. We cannot afford to live by the
limitations of the past in overcoming the problems of
the present. Our textbooks, our curriculum, our
course content, and all the other education and
training materials we apply need to be based on the
latest scientific information. It makes no difference
which generation you come from on the fireground.
The big difference is whether you are knowledgeable
of the construction type and the makeup of the
contents in the building that is on fire right now.
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of
California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the
state and national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree
in vocational education, a bachelor of science degree in political
science, and an associate of arts degree in fire science. He is
president of Fireforceone, a consulting firm in California.
Your Generation’s Fire
Embracing new strategies in a changing fire world