Even though there are national standards for fire service training, there is little continuity for educational requirements for firefighters. Some states deliver training through a fire academy, and firefighters may choose to pursue college courses locally or online. Education and training are...
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Lieutenant Daniel Byrne of the City of Beaufort, SC, Fire Department, said, "Our firefighters need to out-think the problem, out-think the fire and out-think the environment and the structure."
Obviously, general education courses alone are not going to give a firefighter all of these capabilities, but combined with training, a foundation is laid. Critical-thinking skills cannot be easily measured or agreed upon, but one concrete skill set that is improved by attending college is math. Math skills are critical for everyone in the fire service, from the front-line firefighter to the chief of the department.
Firefighter/Paramedic Missy Thorpe of Parris Island, SC, Fire and Rescue said, "As a young firefighter or apparatus engineer, having a good background in algebra made my understanding of fire service hydraulics easier."
When you are "pulling that hose," someone must be able to make the necessary hydraulic calculations. Before firefighters ever arrive at the scene, someone has completed hydrant-flow calculations. If the firefighter is a paramedic as well, then math is needed for administering correct medications to patients. The need for math only increases as the firefighter advances. Chief Karl Ristow of the St. John's Island, SC, Fire Department, explained that math skills are needed "for budgetary work, data analysis for decision-making and even teaching other firefighters."
Another skill that is reinforced through education is communication. This includes written communication, oral communication and the use of computers. Firefighters today must do everything from writing daily run reports to grant writing that could mean millions of dollars for their departments.
Lieutenant Aaron Collette of the Burlington, VT, Fire Department, said, "One of the classes that helped me the most was my advanced writing course. This course helped me with department memorandums, correspondence and report writing."
Firefighters have to not only communicate with each other, but with the public as well. By learning the use of PowerPoint in computer classes, firefighters are able to create presentations for the public on fire safety and training officers can better engage their firefighters during classroom training.
Better communication skills can also help in less obvious ways. Paul Menches, department chair for the Fire Protection Technology program at Austin Community College in Texas, said his communication courses "improved my ability to motivate change within executive and blue-collar levels with persuasive speaking."
Another area that many do not consider when they dream of becoming a firefighter and charging a line on an engulfed building is the state of mind of the people they will have to deal with on a daily basis. Chief Jay Mitchell of Gantt, SC, Fire Department, explained the job of a firefighter to a group of Cub Scouts by saying, "When we are dealing with people, they are having a bad day."
Being able to handle situations with people who are stressed, injured and possibly irrational takes a specific skill set. Not everyone has these skills naturally. Not everyone can learn them, but psychology and sociology courses expose student firefighters to aspects that help them begin to understand how to deal with these situations. These courses also help the firefighter in the firehouse. A lot of a firefighter's time is spent in the firehouse with the members of the shift. Knowing how to effectively communicate with them and understand why they do what they do can mean the difference between a dysfunctional team and a great team.
"Understanding group dynamic during a sociology class has helped me understand the differences with my peers and has helped me to become a better leader by understanding how people are more likely to act in a group than individually," Thorpe said.
Being able to understand different points of view outside of the firehouse is especially important in today's world where the population a department serves is becoming ever more diverse. The fire service is a tight-knit group — a family. This is one of the dynamics that attracts many people to the fire service. For the most part, this is positive, but it can have a downside. When you spend your days with people who think like you and do the same things you do, tunnel vision can set in. Simply being enrolled in any college course will affect how you see the world, as Beaufort Lieutenant Reece Bertholf discovered.