Generational wealth of leadership in fire service

Next Generation Firefighters

CarolinaFireJournal - By John Scott Loftis
By John Scott Loftis
07/05/2011 -

There is an old Scottish proverb that states “The grandfather buys, the father builds, the son sells, and the grandchild begs.” This proverb is of course referring to the cycle of generational wealth. It means that the first generation invests and sacrifices to obtain the object that will generate wealth. The second generation lives through the sacrifices, and is usually committed to continue building the wealth by operating and maintaining whatever it may be that is generating the wealth. The second generation does this because they have witnessed firsthand what it took to obtain whatever it is that is producing the wealth. The third generation did not see the sacrifices that took place to start and build the system. Often times the third generation takes the wealth for granted. It is common for the third generation to sell whatever the wealth producer happens to be and spend freely the wealth that has been created, never thinking of what they will do when the wealth is gone. The fourth generation is left with nothing, and is left to beg. The cycle then starts over and the offspring of the fourth generation are again buyers. They will start the process again because they do not want the next generation to suffer like they have had to do.


I am a third generation firefighter in the South Carolina fire service. I have watched the fire service in this state for over three decades firsthand. I have been lucky in the fact that I have known many from the first generation through my grandfather. I was also fortunate in the fact that I took the time to pay attention to some of the greatest firefighters in this state from that generation. I listened to their stories. I learned from their sacrifice. I am proud to say that they took the time to invest in me by teaching me from their own personal experiences. I also had the pleasure of having several mentors from the second generation as well, to guide me and mold me into who I am today. For all of this, I am extremely grateful.

Like many of you, I have seen some dramatic changes in the fire service in this great state. I have sat through seminars, conferences, training programs, and firehouse kitchen table discussions on why the fire service has deteriorated to an extent. We have discussed things like commitment and the lack thereof. We have discussed leadership and the lack thereof. We have also discussed things like cultural change, and a culture of safety. We have discussed declining numbers, and what to do about it. We have discussed getting back to the basics. We have tried to reunite a fragmented fire service into the strong fraternity that it once was. The fact is we are trying to use a Band Aid® on an injury that needs a couple of stitches to say the least.

The simple fact is the fire service has generational gaps. These generational gaps reflect traits similar to the generations described in the Scottish proverb. My grandfather’s generation is the generation that bought. This generation was at the helm of the fire service during the 1960s and 1970s. This generation invested and sacrificed for the fire service. This generation brought us things like national consensus standards, functional bunker gear, and SCBAs. This generation put things in place for the next generation to be able to build.

The second generation was able to build on that foundation. This generation ran through the 1970s and 1980s. This generation was the generation that built. This generation revolutionized the fire service. This generation was able to bring forth numerous technological advancements. This generation brought us thing like thermal imaging cameras, numerous advancements in bunker gear, advancements in SCBA technology, firefighter safety, and advancements in water delivery methods in the form of class A foam induction and automatic pump panel controls.

Now we are here. The third generation is at the helm. If we hold true to the proverb, we are the sellers. We will squander away what the last two generations have sacrificed and built. We will sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labor, and leave nothing for the leadership of the next generation. Is the seat getting hot yet? It should be.

However, all hope is not lost. Fortunately for us and the generations to come, it is not too late. There are still members of the two previous generations around. Some are even still active in the fire service. The second generation is still around, and for the most part still active. These are the folks who have quietly moved back, and allowed us members of the current generation of leaders to spread our wings. These are our go-to people. We use them quite frequently when we realize that we should have paid more attention when they were trying to freely give us what they themselves have earned. As far as the first generation, you may see them as those grumpy old-timers that come by the station to drink coffee and complain about the current sad state of the service today. Now you may better understand their complaints. That old-timer is being forced to witness the current leadership of the fire service squander away all that they bought and paid for.

Now comes the time where we have to make the decision. Do we sell out as the proverb says we are doomed to do, and leave the next generation of leaders begging, or do we strive to build back some of the wealth of leadership that we have squandered to this point? Right now, this generation is looking for the leadership that they desperately need. Do we have enough time to get them ready before it is their time to lead?

I have a dear friend who once made a statement in haste while discussing options to save the fire service that dealt with getting our “stuff” together. He immediately paused and reflected on the statement. I dare say that he may have even regretted letting it slip. However, sometimes you just have to call it like you see it. His statement was only a few words, but it spoke volumes to the well-tuned ear. I find myself thinking the same thing quite frequently now. What he said simply motivated me. I am proud to say that this friend of mine is a member of the first generation. I can tell you from my many conversations that he is more than willing to listen and give well informed advice. I do believe that it is a personal goal of his to see the current generation make the right choice and re-invest in the fire service. He knows that we are the generation that can break this cycle and prove the proverb wrong. You have to make this decision personally. Will you sell out and let it end with you, or will you re-invest in fire service leadership and pass it on?

I for one am willing to take the stand and work hard to provide the leadership that the next generation desperately needs. If you want to leave an impression on the fire service that will last for generations to come, mentor a young firefighter. Instill good values in them, and they will pass it on as well. I am going to make it my personal goal to find at least one young firefighter from the next generation to mentor. Can I count on you to do the same, or are you going to keep sitting on your backside and watch it all fade away with us?

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