Bridging the Gap

Issue 1 and Volume 11.

One of the constant topics brought up in my officer development classes is the difficulty in working with various generations, whether it is students in the class or instructor-to-student generational differences. The same can be said regarding the dynamics of our current firehouses for our company and chief officers. There are many assumptions made concerning why it is difficult to mesh generations, with most being subjective and judgmental. For example: “Kids just don’t know how to work these days,” or “Captain is just old and crusty, stuck back 100 years.”

These are all perceptions, but there is some truth to what is spoken. We, as officers and leaders, should understand the context of the situations describing the different generations. People typically criticize what they do not know or understand. Understanding this context allows us to have appreciation for the various generations and capitalize on the strengths of each.

As discussed in “Training Officer’s Toolbox: Influence,” my article for Fire Engineering, officers are leaders and need to understand the influence they place on their crews by taking advantage of each member’s strengths and developing their weaknesses. I will discuss these topics and provide a matrix to assist officers in similar situations.

Generation Terms

There are several variations of time periods and terminology describing the actual generations. The ones we will discuss include Traditionalist, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y. (Traditionalist may be referred to as Veterans in some texts, and for the purpose of this article, Generation Z is included in Gen Y).

There are various personality characteristics affecting the different generations depending on many factors including culture, experience, background, and education. The key factor for any officer is to use a multipronged approach when delivering training so that there is a cognitive, psycho-motor, and affective domain involvement. This ensures that knowledge is delivered, there is a hands-on portion, and the “why” was discussed to connect with the audience.

In Training Officer’s Desk Reference, David Wall discusses the learning styles associated with various generations including the Gen Y, Gen X, Baby Boomer, and Traditionalist. Each of these provides several challenges when you consider the individual learning styles that must be blended together as efforts are made to retain the attention span of each in the same setting.

Generational Matrix

The Generational Matrix shows how to combine these learning styles and generations based on my research and experiences as a professional trainer in the fire department and private industry. It also examines assumptions about each generation, which should be considered for all generations as there are no “exacts” in generational research. Officers should learn to read the audience and understand these general assumptions but also must be careful to not stereotype.

Melissa Dittmann describes these generational challenges in a team-building scenario that could very well represent your firehouse or fire academy:

“Boomers may believe Gen Xers are too impatient and willing to throw out the tried-and-true strategies, while Gen Xers may view Boomers as always trying to say the right thing to the right person and being inflexible to change. Traditionalists may view Baby Boomers as self-absorbed and prone to sharing too much information, and Baby Boomers may view Traditionalists as dictatorial and rigid. And, Gen Xers may consider Millennials too spoiled and self-absorbed, while Millennials may view Gen Xers as too cynical and negative.”1

The following information was derived from the American Psychological Association as generalities when considering the various generations. As you think through the time periods, try to consider what culture and backgrounds they encountered growing up, as this explains a good portion of how and why they think the way they do.

Traditionalists (Before 1945): These individuals can be described as hard working, family/community oriented, and their motivation is internal self-worth. Their love for their homeland is second to none, and they understand what it means to be an American as they fought through WWII. These individuals are also very personable because of everything being handled with a handshake and a conversation. They grew up with tools in hand during the Great Depression.

Baby Boomers (1946-1964): These individuals are the reason for long hours and the “work until it is done” mentality. They are very similar to the traditionalists in the personable skills, and later in life technology made a major impact (the first colored TV marketed in 1950s and the Cuban Missile Crisis occurred in 1962). Most Baby Boomers grew up learning from their parents, who taught them work ethic and hard work pays off.

Generation Xers (1965-1980): “I” prefer competency based vs. time based. (If I can complete the task to perfection in two hours, do I still need to sit through all eight hours?) “I” also like time off, and money is not as important as living. Technology really became a major factor during this time generation (MTV, Internet, e-mail, and video); however, they did see international conflict during Desert Storm. They challenge the status quo not to be disrespectful but to understand why.

Generation Yers (1979 -2006): Generation Yers likes to be different, as individuality is important to them. They tend to look at today’s payoff and work as a means to live. Children under the age of five are learning to turn on and play games on their PCs. This generation can create PowerPoint® presentations and develop iMovie videos with narration embedded into the PowerPoint with multimedia simulations. They also question the “why” as fire science has made many strides and our school systems are teaching theories in many classes.

[As a side note, consider the following: One of the students in a previous recruit school graduated well in his class in academics and physical training. He also was a very respectful and hardworking individual. After graduation, he was an assigned to a station and on one of his first shifts yard day came up, which was every Saturday for the respective shift working. During yard day, the grass is cut and trimmed and the outside of the station is washed down. This particular firefighter’s duty was to start the lawn mower and cut the grass. I should also mention that he was a fairly young firefighter (Gen Y/Gen X timeframe). To the surprise of the crew, he had never cut grass before but not because of his age or work ethic. It was because of where he grew up; there was no grass. The point to the story is to not judge based on the generation but understand the experiences, background, and cultures-it will give you a different perspective.]

Putting it All Together

A few years ago, as a 25-year-old training officer, I overheard a conversation from my officers concerning the implementation of an incident safety officer course. As a Gen Xer (solid foundation with technology and challenge the status quo for the “why” mentality), I took the initiative to study the materials and develop the course for our command level officers (including completing the National Fire Academy’s Incident Safety Officer (ISO) and Fire Department Safety Officers Association’s ISO certification). However, I knew that I would need help and that I did not have the experience to teach the tactical perspective of the ISO position.

In response to this, I solicited the knowledge of a well-respected captain of more than 20 years, Wayne Mooney (now chief of operations), and he delivered the tactical considerations. He (Baby Boomer mentality: hard work, steadfast, and experience) appreciated the initiative and work ethic associated with me driving this program. This team attack approach from opposite generations worked well, as we gained a lot of respect for each other and learned from each other. The key for us was to be open-minded and forget the “it’s always been done this way” or the “it’s my way or no way.”

In-Service Training

The above example is just one way of describing how two different generations can work together. The key is understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and applying what it is that they bring to the table. In my officer development course, I provide a training scenario at the fire station with multiple generations involved and have them develop a plan for incorporating all of the individuals.

Address this scenario at your station: You have decided to provide a fire behavior class to an in-service crew. Be prepared to discuss your thought process for personnel incorporation (the expectation is that they are actively involved). The crew includes the following:

  • Six-month probie.
  • Ten-year engineer.
  • Fifteen-year lieutenant.
  • Twenty-two year captain.
  • Thirty-five year battalion chief.

There is no right or wrong answer, but I offer the following suggestion. The beauty of this flow is that everyone is actively learning prior to being provided the actual lesson. As well, if you read between the lines, there is a mentorship being developed without any formal mentoring program-which is how it is supposed to happen. Each generation is able to capitalize on what they do best, which creates fulfillment and a sense of accomplishment. Because of all of the frontend work, once the class is delivered, the discussions should go beyond the basics and provide realistic decision-making applications.

Six-month probie: Develops the actual PowerPoint/lesson plan after researching the topic using any means he sees fit; let him explore. He could also create a video for the lesson. The probie should also be prepared to speak through the PowerPoint and review with the 22-year captain or 35-year battalion chief for the experience perspective.

Ten-year engineer: This individual should review the lesson plan and develop a hands-on activity that works to emphasize the points stressed in the probie’s presentation. Prior to the class, he should review the planned activity with the probie so he understands how to speak to the lesson/activity. This individual is also very tech savvy, so he could assist with the research or video development.

Fifteen-year lieutenant: The role of the 15-year lieutenant is to work with the 10-year engineer to ensure that the appropriate resources are available for the activity. He should offer suggestions as well as provide any experience that may lend to assisting in understanding the topic.

Twenty-two year captain/35-year battalion chief: These roles know the “why” because of their experience and knowledge surrounding the topic. They should play active roles in offering subtle suggestions for adding practicality and realism to the lesson and the hands-on activity. These individuals should allow the others involved to take the lead but should provide “words of wisdom” to fill in gaps or where opportunities present themselves to expand on the topic.

Full Involvement

Remember, your team is only as strong as the weakest link, and no one deserves to be left behind. The challenge for those reading this article is to ensure everyone is involved and, regardless of the generation or background of an individual, everyone can create value. True leaders understand how to challenge, yet mentor, each generation to develop them and capitalize on the strengths of each team member. Generational differences can be a great thing and provide us with numerous opportunities to help all of us grow.


1. Dittmann, Melissa. “Generational Difference at Work,” Monitor on Psychology. Vol. 36, No 6. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/jun05/generational.aspx, June, 2005.


DeSimone, Randy L, and Werner, Jon M, Human Resource Development, South-Western Mason, OH, 2012.

Ward, Brian J, Training Officer’s Desk Reference. Jones and Bartlett Learning, Burlington, MA. 2014.