Preserving the Perishable: Engaging the Future Generations of the Fire Service
If you are anything like the authors of this blog article, you did not start as a fire protection and firefighting history lover. It grew on you as you became more and more involved in the service. Soon you stumbled across a relic at a flea market or in someone's basement and a collector was born. Whether it be a toy fire truck (our personal favorite), antique insurance fire marks, or old books, preserving the history of the fire world has now been planted in your bloodstream. As the passion grows, so does the need to expand your collection, visit fire museums, and attend antique musters. Then you begin to also dwell on your department history. Sadly, this doesn't typically happen overnight but likely several years down the road.
One of the biggest questions facing the fire community is how we can engage future generations, as the need for new members has never been stronger. More to our point, how can we not only recruit the next generation but also ignite an early love of history into them, setting them on an earlier course of preserving our perishable history? As we progress in this article series, we hope to inspire the future generations of the fire service and fire protection disciplines.
Before we can capture results from Generation Z, we must first understand what drives them. How are they motivated? What is it that makes them tick? A May 2020 article by Forbes Magazine talks about ways to connect to Generation Z's (born in the late 1990s or early 2000s). This is the generation that is video-driven, with many consuming and creating content on YouTube and TikTok. This is not the tech generation but the content generation and if allowed, their level of creativity is inspiring. They are natural storytellers as we watch many of them document their lives on social media. It's essential to know your audience and leverage their strengths to capitalize on the big picture. So how in all this information, how do we convince a younger member of the fire service on the need to preserve the perishable in the fire community, recognizing that they're already doing it in their own lives.
First, engage them. Social media is buzzing with Gen Z influencers who have taken to social media to tell their stories and capitalize on the monetary success it brings. As natural-born storytellers, they can tell a story through social media and sell it to the world. What a great way to preserve history. Retelling the story, preserving it digitally, and then make it available to the world. We need to leverage this natural ability to preserve our history for future generations.
Second, engage them in the evolutionary cycle of our trade. We have grown up in the service and have been witness to many changes that have taken place. We have seen many innovations slowly evolve over the years and now, with immerging technology, changes are coming at a rapid-fire pace. Allow our Generation Z members an opportunity to interact with an old nozzle on the hose line or get them involved in preventative maintenance on the company parade apparatus. Let them learn first-hand why we do things a certain way. This gives them the ability to map out how we got from point A to point B in their mind. Once they connect those dots, they foster the curiosity of the questions to expand their knowledge of the past and a deeper knowledge of our trade.
Third, Generation Z lives in a video world. Many of them are self-schooled in the craft of video production and can produce fascinating results. This skill is an excellent match with our task of preserving history. This is a perfect opportunity to engage them in video projects such as recording oral histories and building a department history library. They thrive on short video bursts such as TikTok and Instagram 60 second videos. So, consider that. Don't ask them to produce a video of your entire department history; instead, focus on specific events or eras to keep the video segment short and in their wheelhouse. They make one, then build on that success and task another while giving the necessary credit for the skills they have brought to the firehouse kitchen table.
Lastly, we are reminded of a project one department conducted with their new recruits. Each recruit was assigned a retired member of their department. Their goal was to conduct interviews with that individual so they could better understand the history of their department. This served many purposes:
- It gave the retirees a sense of belonging to the department and a reminder that they have not been forgotten.
- It provides a conduit for history to be shared from one generation to another. This is priceless. We often don't take the opportunity to share our history; we expect it to be absorbed over several years.
- It allows that oral history to be memorialized more permanently.
If you are in the fire service or fire protection discipline, then it's your responsibility to work to preserve our perishable history. Still, even more so, it's essential to instill in the next generation our love of history. If we fail to grow that in them, we risk disconnecting our Generation Z members from preserving our perishable history. It would be a tragic mistake knowing full well the incredible skill sets they have to bring to the firehouse kitchen table as we all work to preserve the perishable.
This blog article was a collaboration with Chief (Ret.) Dick DeVore (Executive Director, Chief Archivist) and Christopher Baker, GIFireE (PIO).
Cover Photo: Steve Redick