Recruiting the Next Fire Service Leaders: “The Millennial Generation”

By Candice McDonald, MA

The Millennial generation (those born between 1980-1999) is the largest cohort in history, with over 80 million Americans falling into this group.1 For the fire service, this is the largest population of potential new members to be introduced to the industry. It is critical for organizational survival to integrate and embrace the talents this population has to offer. This requires fire departments to change strategies for how you recruit, manage, coach, and promote volunteers.

Misconceptions of Millennials

It’s easy for many members of older generations to pass judgment against a Millennial sitting in a restaurant staring at a bright screen. Some even make comments that this behavior is rude and question the state of today’s society.

What those older generations fail to realize is that this behavior is exactly the same as the man or woman who flips through the morning paper while sipping their coffee at the table. Both generations are reading current events, the delivery of the material is just different. Technology allows Millennials to stay connected with local and worldwide news in real-time. In fact, the Internet (59%) is the main news sources for this generation, with the newspaper (24%) falling way behind.1

We must remember that each generation has a unique personality shaped by events in history. Often personality differences and misconceptions can occur across generations. Millennials are frequently labeled as a generation of entitlement and narcissism. Despite being stereotyped as selfish, the focus of this group is just the opposite. In fact, the top three priorities of this generation are being a good parent, having a successful marriage, and helping others.1

A top priority of helping others should not be surprising. Community driven relief initiatives following tragic events such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, school shootings, and the tsunami in Southeast Asia have shaped this generation’s views on the world. These events created a group of social-minded people that are connected, diverse, and ready to collaborate across boundaries. It has been said that community service is part of the Millennial DNA.2 This was evident after the hurricanes of 2005, when thousands of college students spent their spring breaks on the Gulf Coast rebuilding.2

Engaging Millennials

If Millennials are eager to help others, why is the fire service having a hard time engaging this population as volunteers? The recruitment and retention issues are not with the population; they are with the outdated methods being used by many departments. Fire departments need to implement new strategies to capture this generation of talent and determination.

Millennials are more likely to respond to non-conventional methods of recruiting. Departments need to be engaging in social media for recruitment of this tech-savvy generation. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram should all be included in those efforts. Technology is an extension of how this generation relates to people and organizations.

Research also shows that Millennials are influenced by peers when deciding where they will volunteer.3 This influence increases with age. By the time Millennials reach college, peers have four times the influence as family does on where an individual volunteers.3 This is a good lesson for starting early with Generation Z as well; fire departments need to begin engaging youth in middle school and early high school. Waiting until the age of sixteen to try and engage youth in a junior program is often too late. Encourage youth to come in a group or to bring a friend.

Incentives such as a free t-shirt won’t work with this population. This generation is focused on investing in their future and how they will pay for education. Offer a small scholarship to new recruits that complete a set number of volunteer hours. Highlight how department sponsored training, such as the EMT certification, can be used by the Millennial to get a part-time job while in college or to build skills that enhance their career path.

This group values time and wants a hassle-free environment. Fire departments who do not respect that will lose this generation. Have a schedule of trainings posted in advance and abide by it. If training is to start at 7pm, don’t wait until 7:15pm to get started. Ending at the stated time is also important. Chances are this population has other commitments scheduled after such as family commitments, a term paper, work, or social plans.

Managing Millennials in the same way you manage other generations can be a challenge. A strong manager understands that methods must be adapted based on how individuals best respond. Millennials desire efficient processes and opportunities for feedback. Complicated and time-consuming systems will drive this generation away. Persistent positive feedback is a must for retention of this group. Remember this is the generation that grew up with constant coaching and with everyone getting a trophy. Positive feedback for this group can be as simple as “that’s a great idea” delivered in the form of a text, email, or quick conversation.

Benefits of Investing in Millennials

Investing in a Millennial can offer numerous benefits to your organization. The value this population can add to your organization is worth the investment in changing strategies. With one out of three adults being part of this generation, departments cannot afford not to invest in this group.

This generation was raised with technology and the ability to share ideas across the globe with just one click. Speed, the ability to multi-task, and working independently are all strong Millennial traits that add value. Give Millennials a task without red tape or hassle and they will find the most efficient way to accomplish the end goal. This group is eager to improve processes, problem-solve, and want leadership to consult them with issues.

Millennials are team players. Collaboration, patriotism, and helping others are all characteristics of this group. It is important for leadership to set clear boundaries and timelines for the collaborative work. If the purpose and expectations of the group are understood, working with others across generations is easy for the Millennial.

Creativity and self-expression are strongly integrated in the Millennial world. This translates to the fire service as a wealth of fresh perspectives and problem-solvers. Millennials are not afraid to introduce new ideas to the group and lead brainstorming sessions. These are traits that can bring new life to fire prevention, community education, and recruitment programs in the fire service.

With creativity comes a desire to work in a fun and comfortable environment. It is important that the Millennials can contribute ideas without being criticized. The fun factor is also needed to foster outcomes among this group. Provide this group with the right environment, and they will show you how to work smarter using technology and improve time-worn processes.

Candice McDonald is a firefighter/EMS Officer with the Winona Fire Department and works for NASA in the Office of Protective Services. She is the co-chair of the Cumberland Valley Volunteer Firemen’s Association Reputation Management Committee and an active member of the outreach team, is a trustee for the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, and has served as the appointed Fire Corps State Advocate for Ohio and in other capacities for the National Volunteer Fire Council since 2009. McDonald is currently pursuing a doctor of business administration with a specialty in homeland security. She holds a master’s degree in organizational leadership, a bachelor’s in business administration, and associate’s in health and human services. She is an instructor at Stark State College, contributing author to numerous publications, and has traveled the country for the past 15 years empowering individuals and organizations.

1Luscombe, J., Lewis, I., & Biggs, H. (2013). Essential elements for recruitment and retention: Generation Y. Education Thinking, 56(3), 272-290. doi: 10.1108/00400911311309323

2Stone, A. (2009, April 14). Millennials a force for change: 'civic generation' rolls up its sleeves to lend a hand at home and abroad, striving for a difference. USA TODAY.

3National Chamber Foundation. (2012). The millennial generation research review. Retrieved from