Randall Hanifen


I have listened to my colleagues discuss the lack of younger personnel becoming involved in leadership and extracurricular activities related to the fire service. I also hear newer personnel complain that we have “dinosaurs” in positions that they have not seen relevancy in years. So why do we have a leadership vacuum in our profession? I will examine a couple of possibilities related to how this has occurred and possible solutions.

Stages of Your Career

As I have mentioned prior, we have many stages in our careers and life as a whole. These stages are marked with some responsibilities and activities that can either lend to or detract from leadership and extracurricular activities. When we enter the fire service, often at a younger age, such as your 20’s, you are full of energy and looking to learn all about the best profession in the world. You seek out, either through the internet or events, opportunities to learn new ideas or strengthen your initial training. At this point, you are not thinking about leadership, but instead are thinking about how you can learn.

Next, you enter your late 20’s and early 30’s. By this point it is feasible to assume that you have identified a significant other and possibly have children. Now you have many competing interests for your time, mainly your family. At this point, many have taken on second or side jobs that allow them to increase their income to offset the increased expenses of a significant other and kids. At this point, just meeting all of the family and financial obligations is tough

Now, we move to the late 30’s and early 40’s in which we have a shift to saving for our children’s college and attending all of their functions. We have likely kept the second job to meet all of the extra costs and save as much as possible, as tuition has skyrocketed. Within your organization, you likely have at least 1 promotional opportunity present itself, possibly more. Many may think, I will wait, I am not ready, only to find someone less qualified or capable being promoted instead.

Lastly, it is the legacy part of the career in which you want to become involved and now have some time. Many become involved in organization, but still find it difficult, as many opportunities for leadership beyond the official capacity in your fire department only cost you money to participate. With decreasing budgets and increased payrolls, the travel budget in many organizations is limited.

Differing Perspectives from Different Generations

As we can see throughout assessment of the stages of your career, it is not until the late 40’s and beyond in which you have the time and resources to participate in leadership outside of your organization. This limited age group is what develops the “old guys” perception of many of the leadership organizations in the fire service. Because this group is often the boards of many of the training and education experiences in the fire service at this point, those attending think you must be retired to provide leadership to our profession. Who can blame them, many are nearing, are retired, or should have retired many years ago?

The fact the perception of many of the leaders are that “they should have retired many years ago” is fueled by many great people in our profession that do not have a hobby beyond the fire department. I am somewhat guilty of this, as I do find enjoyment and fulfillment participating in leadership functions in the fire service and am not sure how I will disconnect when retirement comes in a few years. Luckily, our pension system’s deferred retirement option has a cap on the number of years you can participate, so my exit date will be set for me.

How Do We Get Involvement?

The increased involvement is a 2-way street. The first is the personal responsibility to step up and be a part of the leadership in the fire service. While you may not think you are ready for a leadership spot, you are always ready for involvement. Just because you do not have a board seat, does not preclude you from working on projects related to the organization. I do not know of any board member that does not think they have enough help to accomplish all of their objectives. If you wait until you think you are ready, the time will never come. If I can be from a town that you can’t not find on a map of Ohio, anyone can do it.

The other side of the equation is for each member of the board to be on the look out for a mentee. While many are comfortable with their positions and do not see their exit from the spot, we each owe it to the next generation to invite them to work on projects and build their involvement to take our spots. I know that is tough to swallow, but one of my next adventures will be to develop a networking organization for retirees that can help perform some of the advocate work needed in the fire service coupled with peer-to-peer networking that allows retirees to stay a part of the service.

Remember, we are all just passing though the service, step up early and once you have arrived, begin to look for your replacement.