The Flynn Effect April 22 2013, 5 Comments


Much has been written in the journals and periodicals about the new generation of firefighters and how they are different from previous generations--not as worthy, not as smart, and more self-centered.  We bemoan how they 'should be' and don't spend enough time getting them where they need to be. Certainly, at MDFR we have seen our share of questionable employees pass through our house.  But I won't categorize the younger firefighters by their worst examples as each generation has its share of 'less than motivated' employees.  Instead, I find most of the probies to be intelligent in ways that often surprise and sometimes humble me.  And I have no doubts that tomorrows firefighters will be smarter than I am.  But I do occasionally find them to be lacking and disappointing  in ways that I've come to understand is a result of today's society.

But first let's talk about how they're smarter:

James Flynn is a researcher from New Zealand who discovered and coined The Flynn Effect.  The Flynn effect is an explanation for the steady rise in IQ scores from generation to generation.  He contends that the rise in IQ scores proves that this generation is more intelligent than the generation before and so on and so on.  The effect is caused by each generation growing up with the increased benefit of looking at the world with 'post-scientific' spectacles.  We classify, we analyze and we think more abstractly.  In general, according to Flynn the rise in IQ scores is largely due to increased reasoning skills.  Those increased reasoning skills allow us to solve more complicated problems than the previous generations.   Additionally, more time is spent on mental pursuits than ever before.  Proof is in the internet, the video games, the tv, the fantasy leagues and so forth.


And I can buy all of this.  I believe James Flynn and hope he is right.  I want my son to be smarter than me and I want him to benefit from the research and work of my generation.  In the station, what I observe from my young guys allows me to generally agree with the Flynn Effect although as a good Captain, I will never admit that any of them are smarter than I was at their age.  I can say I honestly spend very little time explaining the ideas of fire growth or the incident command system.  These concepts and the importance of understanding them seem clear to most of the young guys.  In fact, these are the things that most of the young guys cling to and quickly understand.  I can also say that most of them can reason through tactics and strategy scenarios as well as most of our experienced chiefs.  These are the areas that truly impress me.

The problem in the fire service right now is something I'll call the 'Y Gap'.   I call it the 'Y Gap' because this is the generation that seems to suffer the most from this problem.  The 'Y Gap' is, the distance between intelligence and physical skills.  If the distance is short, you probably have a good firefighter on your truck.  The good firefighter is intelligent, shows good foresight and has good hands-on skills.  They can swing an axe, work a saw and don't buckle with the fear of heights.  Additionally, they know when to put these skills to use.  The 'gap' that I see is an increase in intelligence and a decrease in physical ability.  Many of our recruits have never mowed a lawn, changed their own oil, worked a chainsaw, or swung a hammer.  Instead, they pay someone to mow their lawn, change their oil and if they need to nail something they use a nail gun instead.  We receive these guys without the base knowledge of mechanics and form used to do so many things on the fire ground.  This is the area that most of the new guys suffer and the area that the academies do not focus on.  So we get guys who can tell us the phases of fire, but have no idea what a two stroke motor is.

The answer is to go back to the beginning--take your probie to the saws and teach them why it's a two stroke engine and how it works.  Then, let them cut scrap metal until they look like their not scared of the saw anymore.  After that, challenge them to make cuts of increasing skill and so on until they know the saw well enough to cut any material in any fashion you ask.  None of this takes intelligence.  None of it takes reasoning or analytical skills.  What it takes is form and practice and with enough of it you gain muscle memory--and with muscle memory you gain skill.  And that is why I will always respect the old guys like my dad, who, while driving to a fire years ago felt the truck die to an idle at his feet.  He popped the cab, saw that the throttle spring was gone and replaced it with a piece of the elastic chinstrap on his helmet.   He made it to the fire (was last in) but he made it.  And he made it there because he has common sense and grew up working on cars and performing a lifetime worth of manual labor.

So, if you are one of these new guys, I suggest you start changing your oil, mowing your own lawn, digging out your own stumps even though your intelligence and reasoning skills might tell you that there is an easier way to get it done.  You never know, it just might save your life one day.