When Kelvin Cochran first embarked on his college career in 1981, little did he know that four years of study would take nearly two decades to complete. The former U.S. Fire Administrator and current Atlanta, GA, Fire Rescue Department chief’s college career – robust at first – sputtered to...
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“A lot of people who are not that familiar with the fire service think that it consists of basically vocational training and muscle – you don’t need education,” he said. “I would like to tell them that the fire chief I work for manages a $100 million budget and more than 1,000 employees. You can’t tell me that someone in his position doesn’t need more than vo-tech training.”
McNabb has met one of his goals: He now teaches college courses to primarily fire service personnel. “To me,” he said, “that’s about the most rewarding thing – to teach the associate’s- and bachelor’s-level courses to people who are trying to get into the fire service or who are already in the fire service. We talk the same language. To expand the credibility of those teaching fire service courses is important to me.”
Joe Bruce jokingly refers to his initial college experience as his “20-year plan.” The chief of Colorado’s North Metro Fire Rescue District took his first college course in 1977, shortly after leaving the Air Force. He was awarded a bachelor’s degree in 1998.
“When I was in the Air Force in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Northern Michigan University offered an associate’s degree in fire science,” Bruce said. “One of the first classes I took was building construction for the fire service. I really enjoyed it…and took some more classes. But I was one of those guys who didn’t really look at a degree plan, I just kept taking classes.”
Eventually, Bruce made his way to Colorado.
“At the time, I was in fire inspections, so I took a fire inspection class at Red Rocks Community College,” he said. “Then I took a codes class. I was looking at college for my own job improvement. Initially, it wasn’t necessarily about getting a degree, it was more about how I saw it set others apart and how it (helped them) do their jobs. Higher education gets a bad rap because it’s referred to as ‘book knowledge.’ This is in contrast to the guy with great field knowledge, such as someone who is a good incident commander. But I don’t think you can separate the two.”
He continued, “What really struck me was when I looked at people in the fire service – remember, this was in the late ’70s – the people who had received their degrees seemed to stand out. I could tell there was a difference in their perspective, the way they looked at things, their critical thinking – their networking awareness.”
Using Time Wisely
Ken Treffinger, special operations manager and volunteer coordinator at the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department, recently decided to head back to college at American Public University after attaining an associate’s degree in fire protection technology from Monroe Community College in 1990.
“I would advise someone that even though you might not need a degree currently, it’s something that you can always use and will always have, even if you’re not really sure you want to take the steps to get it done,” he said. “Use your time wisely; make sure you have good time-management skills, especially the older you get in life. Family issues you will accumulate will make it more difficult to successfully manage your time.”
Although Treffinger has 20 years in the emergency services, he is new to his administrative position.
“Now that I’m getting into the administrative side of the job,” he said, “I feel that higher education is needed primarily to learn techniques to better deal with people. Also, learning budgets, grants and other aspects of administration will help greatly. With the technical knowledge, the addition of higher education will allow me to learn and grow on the administrative side. I think it adds to the credibility of the position and the person.”
Part of the challenge he faced was finding the right college program from the growing number available.
“Identifying where you want to go and what you want to get out of the program – doing your research in terms of accreditation – are all important,” he said. “From what I learned as I continue my career, regional accreditation is essential for the possibility of advanced programs such as the EFO (Executive Fire Officer) at the National Fire Academy or using my bachelor’s degree for an advanced degree. Regional accreditation is pretty much mandatory. You might be able to get a good education from an organization that is not regionally accredited, but what’s the reason?”