Higher education in the U.S. fire service historically has been a melange of curricula, institutions and departments. States, regions and counties all have a diverse concept of what constitutes acceptable higher education for fire service professionals. Some see all degree programs as a step in...
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Higher education in the U.S. fire service historically has been a melange of curricula, institutions and departments. States, regions and counties all have a diverse concept of what constitutes acceptable higher education for fire service professionals. Some see all degree programs as a step in the right direction, while others require a more narrow definition such as degrees in fire science technology or fire service administration.
Further, a conglomeration of institutions - from public community colleges to private universities - have taken the initiative to assemble courses with the intent of designing degree programs useful to those firefighters seeking a path to promotion. Some institutions resemble pay-to-play programs, while others seek to challenge students with a rigorous, thoughtful curriculum. Fire departments also occupy the spectrum with attitudes dismissive of higher education to those that require a degree. Some old-school fire chiefs maintain that their high school diplomas are more than adequate for the job, while others see the need for higher education in the ever-expanding complexity and demands of the job of company officer through chief officer. A new series of articles looks at a sampling of what works when building higher education initiatives in various parts of the country, especially as seen from the perspective of stakeholders.
Chief Mike Thompson of the Spokane Valley, WA, Fire Department is a proponent of higher education in the fire service, and not just because he has earned an MBA. In his position as the head of a 175-person department, decisions regarding budgets, hiring, planning and staffing are his to make.
"I also answer to three city councils and a fire board," says the 30-year fire service veteran whose career began in Southern California. "We need the educational foundation to do it all, we don't have those (internal) departments to rely on...it's just us. And we need to prepare future leaders to do the job."
Job succession is a top priority for the four-year SVFD chief. Thompson, with the agreement of all stakeholders - labor, management, political leaders and the local community college - has put in place a plan that by 2010 will require SVFD captains to attain an associate's degree in fire science, administration or a related field to test for battalion chief. As captains, candidates are provided five steps aimed at positioning them to test for a chief's position. The department includes a salary increase from 4% to 5% per step. Further requirements will mandate a bachelor's or higher degree for deputy chief or Thompson's job.
"Initially, we had some resistance...but we did not grandfather anyone. Those with educational credits can submit them for consideration in partially meeting the (new) requirements," he says.
The organizational impact of this requirement, similar to many others across the U.S., took some time and patience to overcome. "But I believe everyone involved is convinced this is the right direction," Thompson says. The requirement of attaining specific levels of higher education is the norm in civilian labor market. Even other public safety entities use higher education to justify pay and promotions. As Thompson points out, "Law enforcement realized this light years ago."
The eastern Washington department, which serves a population of 125,000, uses tuition reimbursement to foster its educational initiative. Although this budget item has soared three-fold to $35,000 annually, Thompson says, even in these economic times it has maintained local funding support. "It is an investment in our people and an investment in our organization."
Local College Impact
Spokane Community College's Cindy Usher sees this new educational requirement both challenging and rewarding. She's the college's coordinator for fire science programs, literally a one-person department. Usher is in the middle of ramping up Spokane Community College's fire officer program to meet the needs of surrounding departments' promotional requirements. Her school's fire science program has two target audiences: new firefighter training - for entry-level personnel and fire officer training - to provide those aspiring to upper ranks the basis for leadership positions.