Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, IA, has packaged training with education to produce a remarkable double play for the fire service. It serves as a training ground for aspiring firefighters and in the process delivers recruits who have earned associate's degrees to enthusiastic local...
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"The majority of the activity is hands on," he says. Rural departments look for FFI, and don't necessarily engage the academic component. "Yet, (students) can take FFI as an hour-based program or for credit hours to work toward their degree," he says. "They can go either way. If someone took FFI at an outlying campus, it is really easy to transfer — a slam dunk. It makes life easier."
Beckering admits that in some states the dichotomy between training and higher education often causes "animosity between the academy and the educational system…and it becomes very difficult if they will recognize each other's training." A bright spot for both training and education, he says, is the National Fire Academy (NFA), "which has had a hand in promoting higher education and has been the stimulus for all of this. They attempt to get everyone on the same page — not downplaying those basic skills training provides, but taking a look at the full career path."
He continues, "The model curriculum provided by NFA's FESHE (Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education) program has provided those who had existing degree programs something to validate what they had. For someone starting out, the FESHE model curriculum gives them the direction they need to go. All states are likely looking at it in one form or another. There are local differences that need to be accounted for. A fire officer in Minneapolis has to be able to fight a fire in 30-below-zero weather, and that wouldn't apply in Alabama, for example. There have to be some things that are different — some changes to the model — some have done an addendum."
Beckering's 30-year career in the fire service has revealed what he calls "an evolution that has come out from the idea that 'We'll train you to spray water' to now where you have to understand the science of fire," he says. "We have come a long way from when 20 hours of training was all it took and as much as most firefighters wanted. Now everyone has FFI and 160 hours. Now we are starting to see the same thing as advanced training into the degree areas is becoming more prevalent."
In Indiana, Dr. John M. Buckman III, director of the Indiana Firefighter Training System (IFTS) and editor of Chief Fire Officer's Desk Reference, sees a vital need for higher education, one that in the not-so-distant future will have high-stakes implications for all departments.
Part of the process, which Indiana has accomplished, is standardizing the fire training courses that are integral to various higher education curricula.
"Before, (community colleges) pretty much pieced together their own curriculum," he says. "These 12 fire courses varied across the state. The courses in Lawrenceburg could be different than the ones in Evansville." When the state standardized course content, much changed, Buckman explains. "Yet the standardization was a pretty easy process," he says. "For one, institutions did not want to reinvent the wheel."
"The FESHE model was not necessarily used to standardize statewide curriculum." He says the 12 fire courses were the only ones his office and others worked to standardize. The core courses are distinctive to each institution.
He believes the acceptance of higher education in the fire service "is changing. Because someone just out of high school has to know that he has to wait at least two years to be eligible to be hired on most career fire departments. So they have a choice…start building houses for a living or go ahead to college and get a degree. Obviously, fire science is one of their interests." Yet, Buckman says, in Indiana a degree is not generally accepted as a qualification to be hired. "It is still one of those nice to have things, but not a requirement. More career firefighters are pursuing a degree to get advancement. I believe Fort Wayne is the only department in the state that uses higher education as a requirement for advancement.
"The challenges we are facing with higher education is when individuals are hired, they would like to be compensated for their hired education. That is still a challenge in our state. Overall, when we look 10 years down the road and we realize that the only way for fire departments to survive in these economic times — what we are seeing now and in the near future — is to have people who have studied in a variety of disciplines, who can bring new and divergent attitudes to the table so we can create the 'new fire department.' "