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A College Degree Is More Than a Piece of Paper

There once was a time when firefighting tactics involved pulling down or dynamiting neighboring homes to prevent fire spread. There once was a time when firefighters fought against the introduction of steamers and gasoline-powered fire apparatus. There once was a time when firefighters entered burning buildings before the invention of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) - and when they finally were introduced, you were called a coward for wearing one ("leather lungs" was a destructive cliche). There once was a time when rapid intervention teams were as unheard of as property and environmental conservation. There once was a time when all we responded to were fires.

We have come a long way in our profession - and we still have a long way to go.

Over the years, there has been a growing debate on the value of a college education in the fire service and the benefit and need for such when hiring or promoting. The most recent debates pit experience against education: Which should have more value in the fire service and which should the most emphasis be placed on? Should the college degree be in only a fire-related subject to have any value? Does having that piece of paper make a person more intelligent or capable, or does he lack of a degree somehow make a person a better leader?

With the rapid progression of the fire service, technology, the complex nature of emergencies and hazardous environments in which we are finding ourselves, these questions are not so simple to answer. This is an issue that must be explored beyond the surface of firehouse kitchen-table debates. As officers and leaders, we need to understand what's at the heart of this issue, what's at stake if we are to progress as a profession (and the key word is "profession"), and find better, safer and more efficient ways to do our job.

We all know what experience means to the fire service and in no way does any amount of post-secondary education diminish or trump that experience. But looking into the future of our service, we cannot leave this issue so simply defined. Just as we understand how experience comes into play, we also need to know how a college education comes into play, and fully understand what that line on the resume says about the applicant or the promotional candidate. If we do not understand this, our profession and community will suffer.

A college degree has never meant just a piece of paper, an impressive fill-in on a resume, nor does it really matter what area of study that degree is in. It's not about the relativity of that degree to the fire service; it's about what having a college degree represents and says about the person in possession of it. A college degree says that the person in possession has the qualities of:

  • Ability to learn - A college graduate has a proven ability to learn difficult concepts. Not just what an "open-end wrench or a Philips-head screwdriver is for," but the mathematical concepts of torque, pressure, balance, angles, etc. These are some of the essential skills we all must have to understand building collapse, hazardous materials issues, para-medicine, high- and low-angle rescue, collapse shoring, trench rescue, and all of the other new areas our profession is requiring of us - whether we are going willingly or being dragged kicking and screaming - it is a professional fact. Isn't this a quality you want in a new recruit or lieutenant?
  • Commitment - Holders of degrees obtained them at great financial and personal sacrifice. The fact that they spent hours away from their family attending classes, researching, writing papers and doing homework says a great deal about their ability to put personal wants aside to get a job done. Instead of golfing, hitting the bars, fishing, buying four-wheelers, boats or golf trips, the college graduates stayed focused and went to class or the library and invested in their future. Isn't this a quality you would want in your firefighters?
  • Self improvement - A college graduate chose that path in the pursuit of self-improvement - no matter what the motives; promotion, pay raise, prestige, etc. Firefighters study a mountain of books and regulations to prepare for a promotional exam, so what is the difference between studying for months prior to an exam and studying over a two- or four-year time period to earn a degree? It's not just the end result, but proof of the effort and ability that means the most, which is why a 95% on an exam means more than a 70%. It's not the numerical score itself, but the commitment, time and desire for self improvement that it took to obtain that score. Isn't this a quality you want in your officers?
  • Outside-the-box thinking - How many times has your supervisor told you, "We need to be thinking outside the box!" A college graduate has exchanged dialogue with, researched and studied, as well as written about, several topics and subjects involving numerous cultures, religions, ethnic backgrounds, experiences, historical lessons, etc. They not only know who flew the planes into the towers, but why. Not simply and ignorantly that the terrorists were radical Islamic extremists who hated the United States; but why they hated us, where they came from, why they operate the way they do. All the things that will help a department plan and prepare for another 9/11. Isn't this a quality you would want in your operations or training officers?
  • Full understanding of the community and government they serve - Yes, a criminal justice or astronomy degree has no relativity to the fire service on the surface. But beneath that degree title are required classes like: communications, history, sociology, government and political science. It is one thing to talk about taxes and the political process and another to have a full understanding of how that process works, political trends and party strategy, and how things interrelate and get done. Isn't this a quality you would want in chief officers?

What I believe it comes down to is a balance. Experience and education combined makes the best firefighter, fire officer and chief officer. Education rounds out the character, smoothes out the rough edges, expands the sphere of ability - regardless of the degree title or relativity to the fire service - and shapes our service into a true profession, not just people who show up and spray water until the fire is out.

How did we ever learn about fire-resistive materials, positive-pressure ventilation, hydraulics, thermal imaging and halligan bars? You never know what challenge and innovation the future fire service may require that will call on the need for that astronomy degree (how does a thermal imager detect and display temperature signatures - who would have guessed that we would need to know that 20 years ago?)

The two productive questions I believe we should be asking in this debate are:

  1. Why don't those experienced firefighters have a secondary education? It has been known for decades that a college education is important to any profession and that having one will be in more demand in the fire service, so why are there so many good experienced firefighters that do not have a degree? Maybe because some other "experienced" firefighter told him or her it was a waste of time.
  2. If that college person does not know how to properly mix gas and oil, operate a circular saw or identify a spark plug, what we need to ask is why? They obviously have the ability to learn and they obviously have a desire to be in the fire service, because instead of taking that degree and earning six figures, they came into our profession to work two jobs to pay the bills. Could it be that our experienced people just write the college-educated rookie off as being incapable and with every mistake made being explained as "See, that college degree don't mean squat!" If a college graduate can understand quadratic equations, required college math 101, they surely can figure out pump pressure. So if they do not know, I think the problem is obvious - look inward.

While placing too much emphasis on college over experience is a dangerous thing, so is placing too much emphasis on experience without an education if we ever want to continue to advance our profession, stay safe and become better at what we do. This technological world is speeding up every day, and while overall fires are down, they are more toxic and explosive than they ever have been. We need to have a full understanding of what we are getting into. Our firefighters are being called to handle more with less and muscle and chutzpah are no longer enough to get it done. We need to be smarter and find a better way.

Instead of questioning the value of a college degree in the fire service, we should be, as officers, encouraging our youngest and brightest to round out their ability and potential by pursuing a secondary education. We need to place value on both experience and education if we are to stay ahead and prepare for the demands of the technological and challenging future; as well as, keep pace with our governmental leadership and stay one step ahead.

"Two hundred years of tradition unimpeded by progress" has not been synonymous within firehouse slang without reason. With shrinking budgets and increased liability mixed into a dangerous and politically correct world full of greed over safety, we cannot afford to be associated with this destructive cliche. I think it is irresponsible, unprofessional, and outright dangerous for anyone to promote experience or education while devaluing the other, no matter what side of this issue you are on.

DANIEL BYRNE is a lieutenant and the fire marshal for the Beaufort, SC, Fire Department. He holds an associate's degree in fire science and is pursuing a bachelor's degree, also in fire science. A 22-year veteran of the emergency services, Byrne is a National Fire Academy alumnus and a volunteer paramedic with Beaufort County EMS. A U.S. Marine veteran of the Desert Shield/Storm War, he is a technical sergeant with the Georgia Air National Guard, serving in the Fire Protection Division airport crash crew. He can be reached at