Midwest Fields Many Higher Education Choices

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 departments.

"We offer two degree programs at Kirkwood," says Andrea Clark, department coordinator of Industrial Technologies. "The first associate's program was designed for the fire professional…and it's been around for some 20 years. It is for the guys who are already career firefighters and need a way to advance, move up in rank and move up in pay. But we perceived a need to offer a second (separate) two-year degree for those who wanted to break into the fire service; those who were not already a career firefighter, but maybe some volunteer experience or no experience at all. That program, called Entry Level Firefighter, has been around for about 15 years. It offers an associate's of applied science. It is a blend of classroom and hands-on training. About 90–95% of or students are the entry-level fire program." The two elements for the entry-level program revolve around Firefighter I (FFI) and EMT-B. Added to the associate's program is a selection of liberal arts courses that round out the curriculum, Clark explains.

"Local fire departments are pretty much insisting new recruits have a two-year degree," she says. "None of the local departments say, 'We will not hire you without it.' But anecdotal evidence says that there have been a limited number of hires at Cedar Rapids Fire Department who did not have one of our degrees. Often times, we will see students entering our program who already have bachelor's degrees, who are established elsewhere with a career…for whatever reason they are dissatisfied…and they take a leap. Many are from finance and business. Unfortunately, we aren't able to place all of our students." However, those who get jobs "most stay fairly local (the Iowa/Nebraska/Missouri/Illinois area). We do have graduates from Alaska to Florida. For example, last month, a recent graduate was picked up by the DC Fire Department."

Tom Mackey, a captain at the Cedar Rapids Fire Department and an instructor at Kirkwood Community College, has seen both associates' programs grow. "When I first started teaching, the majority of my students were coworkers," he says. "The student body has changed considerably over the years. Many of the students who attend now are (aspiring to be firefighters) with only a couple of coworkers in class."

Kirkwood Community College has some 17,000 students, but limits attendance for its entry-level fire program to 78 students. "This particular year, we filled the class a month prior to its start," Clark says. She adds that delivery of some of the curricula is available via the Iowa Communications Network (ICN), an innovative fiber optic network employing voice, video, data, WAN connections, and Internet services to more than 700 video classrooms located in education facilities, government agencies, hospitals, armories and public libraries throughout Iowa.

In Minnesota, statewide training encompasses higher education as well. "We don't have a fire academy like other states," says Don Beckering, state director for Fire EMS Safety Education. The state's training, as well as a higher education component, is conducted at 12 sites throughout Minnesota. "Participants can start at Firefighter I and go through to earn a baccalaureate degree. The system in place allows any training that students take to count toward their career advancement."

As Beckering explains the state's program, individuals may attain the necessary technical certificates to become a firefighter, or continue on and gather the required core courses for an associate's degree.

"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.' "

Buckman is the chief of the German Township Volunteer Fire Department in Evansville, past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and Presidential appointee to America Burning Revisited. He has 39 years of experience in the fire service.

In Illinois, a variety of community colleges offer two-year fire science degrees based on local needs.

"There about 20 community colleges in the state that offer two-year fire science degrees…and they come and go due to how much demand there is," says Richard Jaehne, director of the Fire Service Institute at the University of Illinois.

"What we and the Illinois Fire Chief's Association run is the Fire Office I and Fire Officer II courses. They are the bread-and-butter of the two-year fire science degree programs. The programs offer a real cocktail of courses, based on local need," Jaehne says. "This is partially due to the nature of community college, which receive funding by local and state budgets. In the 12 years that I have been director, higher education has become more a part of the promotional process. But this includes more than higher education, it involves (more) training, too."

Among state fire science training directors, Jaehne is not alone in observing a growing number of untrained firefighters seeking a degree first. "I see many younger students getting fire science degrees as a means to obtaining a job in the fire service," which, he notes, does not necessarily help. "The training comes first."

Dr. Richard Carter, director of the School of Extended Studies at Western Illinois University (WIU), agrees that the community colleges in the state are "very active at the associate's degree level." His program advances the notion of higher education using the FESHE model curriculum.

"Our baccalaureate program is completely online and we've had facility members participate with designing curriculum in conjunction with the National Fire Academy," he says. One of the strengths of WUI's program is its ease of transition for incoming students. "We have the flexibility to bring students to into the program, even without an associate's degree…just get them going on their core courses as they move into the program," Carter says. The end product is a bachelor of arts in the Board of Trustees Degree Program with two options for certificates in fire administration and management or in fire prevention technology.

The student base is from a handful of states that WIU serves as part of being one of seven institutions offering the FESHE curriculum. "It's a pretty good balance, but by far the largest geographic concentration we have comes from Texas. I believe it's because Texas has the largest population (of states WIU serves), and there has been a lot of good comments from former students for our program. A lot of people have completed it and recommend it to others," he says.

"The reason students want a degree is to enter administrative roles in the fire department or move up the ladder within their departments. But we have people in the military attending" who are looking to increase their career potential, he explains. "The courses are really intense…and they help the student learn skills that help them in their jobs. I think higher education is a growing demand. The bachelor's degree is the benchmark for moving into an administrative role."

"In these courses, which we offer at least once per year, we average 25–28 students per class," Carter says. "It has been a positive experience working with career firefighters. We consider it a service to the community at large…we want to ensure a consistent delivery of curriculum by using the National Fire Academy's FESHE courses. These courses were designed by firefighters for firefighters," he says. The WIU is one of the original Degrees at a Distance schools teaching the FESHE curriculum, he says, with more than 20 years.

Education in the Midwest comes in a cornucopia of packages — from programs that offer strictly higher education — to programs that integrate liberal arts with fire training to produce an associate's degree. As with Iowa's Clark, whose program is producing many capable candidates, other professionals in the fire training and education business see fire service jobs becoming increasingly competitive in these austere economic times. "The vast majority will have to try many times with many departments before getting hired," she explains. "They are also told repeatedly that the further they are willing to look geographically, the better their chances." Whether higher education combined with training produces a more attractive recruit is a point still undecided in the Midwest. Yet the strength and diversity of programs provides a rich source of education opportunities for all — regardless of their level of fire or EMS expertise. It's not about winning; it's about how you position yourself for that new job or promotion.

PAUL SNODGRASS, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a firefighter with the Sarasota County, FL, Fire Department and a former fire chief. He is an adjunct fire science instructor at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, FL, and Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. Snodgrass holds a bachelor's degree in political science from Augsburg College and a master's degree in education from the University of Phoenix. He has been writing about, designing and teaching online courses since 2005. He can be reached at e.educational@gmail.com.