In the quiet Wisconsin woods along the western shore of Lake Michigan, some of the brightest fire service leaders assembled in a mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to produce Statements of National Significance to the Fire Problem in the United States. One of the treatise's 12 points...
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In the quiet Wisconsin woods along the western shore of Lake Michigan, some of the brightest fire service leaders assembled in a mansion designed by Frank Lloyd Wright to produce Statements of National Significance to the Fire Problem in the United States. One of the treatise's 12 points was the need to elevate the fire service to professional standing through education. It delineates, "A systematic and deliberate educational program leading to a broad knowledge base which is acceptable to the academic community is the surest approach to professionalization."
That was 44 years ago.
The first Wingspread Conference report might not be current reading for today's fire service leaders, but they are aware of the educational suggestions nonetheless. Many of its recommendations remain unresolved.
The superintendent of the Florida State Fire College in Ocala sees an opportunity to reach out to firefighters, not only in the tried-and-true training aspects, but with higher education.
"It's my view that about 30% of the fire service is not being touched by educational programs in Florida," says Superintendent Barry Baker. "Really, if you look at battalion level and above, with the exception of technical courses, we're not reaching them, yet that is our intent. I think quite frankly the fire service is very focused on highly technical and operationally oriented classes. Out of necessity, that is what we do. But as we get to leadership and some of the soft skills found in formal education, we have not been as strong as we need to be. I talk often of taking the fire service from an avocation to a profession and that takes some discipline."
Baker sees higher education as a continuum of vocational training and believes the fire service might not weather economic downturns without it.
"If you look at the fire service in general, the first attempt to focus on something beyond the occupational training was the initiation of The ProBoard (the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications). It creates portability from one part of the county to another. There is a resurgence in making something that is portable and more professional."
According to The ProBoard's website (www.theproboard.org), the organization's mission is to, "Establish an internationally recognized means of acknowledging professional achievement in the fire service and related fields."
"The nature of our business…we promote from within for the most part," Baker says. "If we don't hire people with (degrees) or get them educated, we end up with what's best of what's left. Today is probably more demanding than I have ever seen in my career, in terms of limited resources, and people being stretched to get all there is out of the funds available. I've been doing this for 45 years and I have not seen the lack of public support for the fire service that I am seeing today. Part is due to the economy, part is due to some perceptions, but the reality is we have to elevate the fire service. And what better way to do it than changing it from an avocation to a profession. You're not seeing professions beat up; you're seeing avocations beat up. If you want to change that, you need to raise your sights."
Baker and the state not only encourage collegiate participation, they reward those who attain degrees.
"At one point, a degree was desirable," Baker says. "Now, it is essential if you are going to advance in the fire service. The competition is keener and the challenges are getting greater. We meet with each student who goes through The State Fire College — from the most junior to the most senior — and make sure they understand the opportunities and necessity of (higher education)."
To reward Florida firefighters' educational accomplishments, the state provides supplemental compensation for degrees. According to Baker, "It is to encourage higher education in the fire service. We offer on a monthly basis those with an associate's degree $50 and those with a bachelor's degree $110. We have been discussing the idea of offering an incentive for a master's degree."