Could Higher Education Be In Your Future? A New Approach to the "Finish Line"

A universal truth in the fire and emergency services is that working toward obtaining college degrees and career certification don't seem to mix well. One would think that obtaining a college degree and completing career certifications would go hand and hand; however, sometimes the obvious is not the reality. Merging these two goals has been difficult at best - until now. It has been a little like adding oil to a glass of water; the lighter fluid (oil) stratifies and rises to the top of the glass when the heavier liquid (water) seeks the bottom layer, not a good mix. It is almost as if training and education for career fire-rescue development are mutually exclusive, even though many of the same requirements (competencies) exist for both programs.

Most fire-rescue agencies seek a "panacea" and want to implement a career-development program that is simple, efficient (reduces or eliminates costly course duplication) and, most importantly, effective so that firefighters and fire officers can flawlessly execute their jobs. Sounds easy, but most of the time it is more difficult than it should be for the members and the department to complete this process. This article will look at and examine a better way of educating your members, spending your community's taxpayer dollars and maximizing your precious little (and seemingly always disappearing) training time. Further, we will discuss how a metropolitan fire department is adopting this process to maximize their training efforts and resources. In sum, we will answer the question of what your future in higher education is and how it will benefit your career and professional development goals, or, more appropriately, your "finish line."

In 1998, National Fire Academy (NFA) Higher Education Manager Ed Kaplan was charged by the Superintendent, Dr. Denis Onieal, to develop a national model fire science curriculum that standardizes firefighters' and officers' education while preparing them for their next desired level of certification. The vision was to break down the "stovepipe" systems that keep the two processes separate and merge them into a single, integrated system. It was at this point that the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) program was launched and the landscape of career development was changed forever.

In 1999, Kaplan called the nation's top fire science educators to a summit at the NFA in Emmitsburg, MD, to discuss, produce and implement a plan that would standardize fire-rescue undergraduate degree curriculums in scope and content throughout the country. If this group could pull off this seemingly impossible task, then a major shift would occur from a fragmented system of mix-and-match education to a streamlined experience that would be more student- and department-"friendly." By the second annual FESHE conference in 2000 and through subsequent meetings of the National Fire Science Curriculum Committee (now called the National Fire Science Degree Programs Committee), there was a breakthrough toward advancing fire science education: a recommendation for a national, standardized curriculum. There now exists a robust national model curriculum of fire-related and EMS management courses for colleges and universities to adopt as their own. All the courses share common titles, catalog descriptions, outlines and content to provide a national core of knowledge and competencies delivered by the FESHE programs.

Steadily, the work of the pioneers of FESHE has begun to transform higher education. The day of localized, terminal (non-transferable) college programs isolated from their training and certification counterparts in professional development is giving way to partnerships between all three service providers. If you doubt this, consider this achievement as FESHE celebrates its 10th anniversary. With the model curriculum (including textbooks, lesson plans and other support materials) in place, fire and EMS degree programs across the nation can offer:

  • Six associate of applied science core courses and seven non-core courses commonly offered as core and/or electives
  • Three concentration courses in fire prevention and fire protection engineering
  • Twelve bachelor degree courses in EMS management that are in development and will be available this year
  • A FESHE baccalaureate curriculum that is comprised of 15 upper-level courses
  • Lower- and upper-level courses that concentrate on preventing firefighter deaths and injuries. Most appropriately, these courses were developed with funding provided by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF).

The Next Step

The FESHE community has dedicated itself to addressing and resolving the earlier identified and highly frustrating problem of "stovepiping" higher education programs. FESHE's goal has been to simplify the process and help fire officers and EMS managers to reach their educational and career goals. At the annual FESHE conferences and committee meetings, efforts were made to address this problem of a "stovepiped" system of professional development by creating the National Professional Development Model that integrates training, education, and certification. To date, there are models for fire officer, fire prevention and EMS management.

None of these models are promotional; rather, they are competency-based professional development pathways supported by their training, higher education and certification options. Each model has prescribed recommendations for how a competency can be addressed by any of the three elements. Metaphorically, it is best described as "interoperability for professional development," meaning that the imperative for interoperability of radios and hoses so that they connect and work together is matched by the need for training, education and certification entities to do the same.

With the models completed, NFA worked with the FESHE Committee to create the National Professional Development Matrix that moves these models from concept to reality. The Matrix is designed for training and certification agencies and academic fire programs to assist the emergency services personnel they serve. It is a template that cross-walks Fire Officer I-IV competencies with "national"-level courses that included NFA training courses, FESHE model associate's and bachelor's courses, and general-education courses recommended by the International Association of Fire Chiefs in its Officer Development Handbook (from which the competencies are derived).

The Matrix is a spreadsheet designed to bring competencies, education and training together in one common document, customized to meet the needs of stakeholders in each state and fire department. It is designed to be a computer-based tool for fire science and training coordinators, certification advisors and others who advise students and test candidates. Imagine a day when everyone who advises fire and emergency services personnel about professional development decisions will provide the same information about which officer-level competencies they need to address and the college and training course options. That day is rapidly approaching in California, Florida and Pennsylvania, among others. Washington, DC will be the first city in the nation to do the same at the departmental level, when the District of Columbia Fire & Emergency Medical Services Department implements the FESHE Model.

In taking on this pilot in partnership with USFA/NFA, Chief Dennis Rubin and his senior officers face huge challenges. Changes were of such magnitude that:

  • A higher education summit with seven of eight colleges with fire or EMS management degrees in the greater Washington/Baltimore region was needed to ensure a standardized model fire science curriculum was established
  • Negotiations were necessary with the firefighters union over new education requirements for officers
  • New funding for a first-time tuition reimbursement policy apart from the only approved institution, University of District of Columbia, would have to be sought from the mayor and City Council.
  • In addition to tracking department members' training, education and certification, Training Deputy Fire Chief Al Jeffery will now monitor individual achievement of all these elements against the competencies prescribed in the Matrix.
  • A major communication and education campaign for the employees explaining the new approach to their development as officers will be developed and implemented

As the department travels this difficult, but important journey, there will be lessons learned that will benefit all of those agencies that follow. In the District of Columbia, current and future fire officers will know what skills and knowledge are essential for successful management and leadership and what options they have for accomplishing them â?? just once.

"The department would like to publicly thank Mr. Ed Kaplan and his staff at the National Fire Academy for this wonderful opportunity of being a leader in this process," Rubin said at a recent public meeting. "We can't wait to provide the results and help make corrections to make the path smoother for the ones to follow."

For more information, visit

DENNIS L. RUBIN, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is chief of the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department. He holds a bachelor of science degree in fire administration from the University of Maryland and an associate in applied science degree in fire science management from Northern Virginia Community College, and is enrolled in the Fire and Emergency Management Administration program at the graduate school of Oklahoma State University. Rubin is a graduate of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program, is a Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) and has obtained the Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFOD) from by the International Association of Fire Chiefs. He is an adjunct faculty member of the National Fire Academy since 1983. ED KAPLAN, MPA, is the chief of the Education, Training and Partnerships Branch of the U.S. Fire Administration's National Fire Academy, where he has served since 1979. Until recently, he was the education program specialist responsible for the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) and the Degrees at a Distance programs.