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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Julius Halas, director of the Division of the State Fire Marshal, whose job it is to oversee education and training in the state, sees the fire service's role expanding, something higher education greatly facilitates.
"In Florida, our domestic security grant funding comes through the emergency management function. One of the things I see — big picture — is reaching out to other disciplines, to have law enforcement, public health, fire, EMS. This all-hazard approach can be enhanced through this participation," which has a basis in education, he says. "It will only help our preparedness. It is a real value to the citizens of Florida."
On the west coast of Florida, Chief Mark Souders of the Bradenton Fire Department has good advice for firefighters pondering higher education.
"It used to be that getting a job required an associate's degree," he said. "Today, it's darn near the case to have a two-year degree to keep your job."
Souders, with 34 years of fire experience, is quick to counsel department members on the merits of college. His personal advice is a degree in public safety administration, he says, "which makes someone more marketable within emergency services. I advise them without fail to get the two-year degree in fire science."
Souders added, "I don't think the state would mandate a degree, but if you look at any job application, for executive level, a bachelor's degree is pretty much mandatory, even at a small department. A master's degree is preferred. A two-year degree or four-year degree is necessary to be competitive. I served on the board of the Florida Fire Chiefs. When I started on the board, a bachelor's was a high achievement. What I have seen, at least at the chief and executive level of fire departments, people are getting master's degrees. They are specializing. Jobs are getting tighter and those doing the hiring are being more selective, seeking degreed persons."
Souders' motivation for gaining a master's degree? "It was to have some measure of control of my professional destiny. If you work for somebody and you don't have a degree that allows you movement, then you're stuck in that position."
The Peach State has a highly localized associate's degree program in fire science. Through its technical college system, roughly a dozen statewide programs deliver fire science and general education courses for firefighters. According to the system's website, "The Technical College System of Georgia is a unified system of technical education, custom business and industry training, and adult education programs. Our programs use the best available technology and offer easy access to lifelong learning for all Georgians. The system goal is to be an integral part of a seamless education process for Georgia in which students can transfer credits efficiently as they advance from secondary schools to technical colleges and to the university system."
And as Dave Wall, division director at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, emphasizes, this localized approach is designed to meet the needs of counties or regions that the technical college system serves. His position is to run the state's training academy. Yet he is keenly aware of what is beyond the job's training aspects.
"As people progress through their ranks, they do need to attend higher education, whether technical enhancement or what some authors have referred to as the soft skills," Wall says. "The skills of being able to communicate clearly — writing, speaking — understand and synthesize information from multiple sources, learning ability, especially from different disciplines as human relations and budgeting. The importance of education is that it is not an end-all, but an integral part of becoming a fire officer.
Wall continues, "When I got my first fire chief's job in 1993, it was not because I had fire chief experience; it was because I had a master's degree in public administration. And I was not the first department head with a master's degree. I was the third or fourth. What that does is put you on a level playing field when you are a chief officer. You are competing for diminishing resources. The fire service, long steeped in history and tradition, tended to ignore that other public safety professionals were embracing higher education. Then fire leaders stood by and wondered why they were not getting an equivalent piece of the municipal pie. I say wonder no longer and become one of the peers."