Building an Educational Foundation To a Fire Service Career

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.

"We are trying to give our students some options," says the educator and part-time volunteer firefighter. "They can participate in either higher education program and have a strong academic base to transfer to a four-year institution." And as nearby Spokane Valley Fire Department raises the bar for educational requirements for those seeking officer positions, the college will have a tangible goal for students as they pursue an associate's degree in applied science. "The hard part is defining what local fire departments want and putting that into educational terms," she says. But this is a bold step for a state that features no baccalaureate-level fire service degrees.

"This is new territory for the Valley," she says. "We are examining ways to deliver this program...and through the advice of our advisory committee (comprised of fire department labor and management) we will probably expand our distance learning opportunities." Although relatively small in comparison to other college-fire service initiatives, Usher is certain of some tenuous times as the program grows, but she is certain it will have one key attribute: "The end product will be quality."

Oregon Consortium

Oregon takes a similar approach. It has a formal educational consortium composed of community colleges, four-year institutions, major fire departments and state training. Dubbed DPSST (Department of Public Safety Standards and Training), this consortium meets at least quarterly to ensure statewide courses are consistent with one another, with the underlying direction provided by National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, says LaRon Tolley, programs and projects director at Western Oregon University (WOU).

Two higher education strands are available in Oregon. One features condensed upper-division "institute" courses tailored for fire department schedules and locations. These are delivered face-to-face on its Monmouth, OR, campus or taken to fire departments, depending on the enrollment. "These courses have similar objectives, and for the most part follow the same outlines with additional instructor material added," Tolley says. "They are delivered in two-to-five classroom days...then students spend several weeks on their own completing the courses." The main reason for the institute courses is that they are shift-friendly for students, Tolley says. Attendance ranges from 15 to 30 students, with WOU instructors delivering one course per month.

The other pathway is delivered though WOU, which is one of seven colleges and universities nationwide that teach the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Model Curriculum, developed in cooperation with the National Fire Academy. It provides students with a competency-based higher education road map. According to NFA's website, the FESHE program's goal is to "Establish an organization of post-secondary institutions to promote higher education and to enhance the recognition of the fire and emergency services as profession to reduce loss of life and property from fire and other hazards."

WOU handles enrollment for nine area states and teaches the FESHE courses. Tolley says fire science enrollment has remained flat but steady for the past few years. "A lot of it revolves around when major metro departments do hiring or promotions," he says.

Idaho's Approach

In Caldwell, ID, a combination department with 39 line personnel and two career stations, higher education has been a sought-after commodity with frustratingly few educational options. According to Caldwell Fire & Rescue Chief Mark Wendelsdorf, until recently the only available course of study yielded an associate's degree in applied science, which ran afoul of admissions counselors at baccalaureate-granting institutions. "A lot of courses had to be repeated or similar core courses taken to allow the degree to be accepted," Wendelsdorf says. Not a palatable solution for firefighters studying around the immutable 24/48-hour schedule. But that has changed.

Now firefighters can apply to Idaho State University, which is offering an associate-level course of study online. "It is also in the process of developing a bachelor's degree program," Wendelsdorf says. This and its distance education delivery are "huge, because colleges and universities in Idaho did not want to be flexible with class attendance. If the class was held Monday, Wednesday and Friday...it was pretty tough with shift schedules to attend," he says. "Now you could literally have someone who (as a military firefighter) at Mountain Home Air Base is to be deployed to Iraq can continue his education. Distance delivery has been huge for Idaho."

The four-year chief and 18-year veteran of CFRD says he is planning to ramp up the minimum qualifications for entry-level firefighters in 2011. "Not only will we require firefighter [training] and EMT, but we will require an associate's degree." His reasoning: "I believe you have to set the bar high at the beginning of a person's career and it will stay high throughout...If you set the bar low, it will stay low."

Incentives in Alaska

In Alaska, the state's largest department, Anchorage, has no higher education benchmarks for promotion, but offers a generous education incentive for firefighters. The department pays a 4% incentive for an associate's degree in fire science, fire administration or paramedicine. Additionally, a bachelor's degree garners an 8% addition to employee pay. "We pay for tuition for IAFF employees enrolled in any job-related subject, as well as other courses, if they are required for a degree," says Doug Schrage, operations chief at the Anchorage Fire Department. "We have 363 IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) employees, 111 of whom possess either a BS or BA degree. We have approximately 18 employees with MS degrees."

Schrage said management was instrumental in adding the incentives to contract language. "It was a deliberate attempt to promote higher education...because we have a pretty progressive town and the department places value on the intellectual and cultural contribution of new employees," he says. "We recruit those who have innovative ideas and who want to contribute to our department, and I think higher education [in the fire service] is more important than ever before."

He too sees it as an investment in employees and the department.

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.

Case Study: Washington State

Currently serving as the fire chief of Lacey, WA, Chief James M. Broman's 43-year fire service career includes more than 30 years as a chief fire officer, an MPA degree from the University of Denver and designation as a Chief Fire Officer. He is active in the State of Washington as a past president of the Washington Fire Chiefs, a member of the State Fire Protection Policy Board and co-chair of the State Interoperability Executive Committee. He is immediate past chair of the Professional Development Committee for the International Association of Fire Chiefs, serves on the Commission for Professional Credentialing and is active at the National Fire Academy in the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) program. In a recent interview with Firehouse® Magazine, Chief Broman, a proponent of higher education, provided insight into the issue in his state.

FIREHOUSE: You have voiced some frustration with your state and its adoption of higher education. What is needed to overcome these obstacles?

BROMAN: Our efforts here - and too often elsewhere - meet with ambivalence and dispassion. Community and agency leaders may acknowledge the importance of higher education, but necessary efforts to inculcate higher education into the culture too easily get displaced by crisis response or competing priorities; once distracted, we fail to return to pick up the cause.

We seem to lack an enduring passion for needed global learning. In the "society" of the fire service, higher education has not yet reached a "tipping point" where the benefits obviously outweigh the inconvenience. I believe we are close, but not there yet. In his best-selling book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, Malcolm Gladwell describes this phenomenon as the point where "the momentum for change becomes unstoppable." Gladwell uses tipping point as a sociological term: "the moment of critical mass, the threshold, the boiling point." According to Gladwell, economists call this the "80/20 Principle," which is the idea that in any situation roughly 80% of the "work" will be done by 20% of the participants."

FIREHOUSE: What do you foresee as the future of higher education in the fire service? Are we on the right track or will inertia and dwindling budgets stall any progress we have made?

BROMAN: Higher education is an essential component of competent and resilient leadership throughout our society; fire and emergency services are no exception. It will have a brighter future when we fire service leaders recognize and accept - from an educational perspective - the fire service's higher education needs are not unique. We must not expect or allow institutions or interest groups to bend or tailor its content to fire service biases and perspectives. The immeasurable value of higher education is the extent to which the experience forces us outside our intellectual, social, and moral frameworks to critically examine our world from the larger context.

We can use dwindling budgets as an excuse to set aside higher education, but that rationale has not stopped centuries of committed leaders from pursuing it. In fact, higher education will better equip leaders to deal with dwindling budgets and the numerous challenges that accompany economic swings.

We must convince those in power that higher education is essential to preparing future leaders with critical thinking skills. Some of these decision makers feel threatened by the prospect of an educated work force, preferring an agency head who will readily comply with short-sighted policy even when it goes against best practices and recognized standards.

FIREHOUSE: What is the value of higher education in the fire service?

BROMAN: Higher education incorporates an appreciation of history - where we have been - but is substantially focused on the future. A successful higher education experience challenges the individual about what to be rather than what to do (training-centric). Higher education builds life skills; it offers theories but leaves the individual with the ability to think and synthesize. Higher education equips an individual - a leader - to deal with the unknown.

We continue to witness exponential change in our world where increasingly the next challenge for fire service leaders is one no one grappled with previously. To apply only historic methodologies or strategies in these new circumstances risks catastrophe. We need leaders equipped to step back, assess from a broader perspective, collaborate (outside their paradigm) and make a decision. I recently encountered the term, "strategic agility" in reference to leadership competency and success - a term that I feel nails the issue.

When the fire service insists on "customized" higher education unique to our industry, we can only reinforce old patterns such as "this is how we do it in the fire service."

FIREHOUSE: How important is higher education achievement to promotion? In your department?

BROMAN: I see your question both as how important is higher education in the process of achieving a promotion; and, how important is higher education to the individual's success subsequent to promotion.

While civil service systems challenge patronage systems, they too become obstacles through arbitrary, negotiated rules that consider a very limited aspect of each candidate's potential for success as an officer or leader. From a similar but different perspective, some promotional systems heavily weigh higher education, but fail to examine for competency. In our fire department, we do not currently weigh higher education, although I think that is coming soon. In our process the value of higher education materializes in the interview processes - demonstrated in the form of communication skills, cognitive skills, and perspectives.

For me, the greater value of higher education is the thinking, vision, cognitive skills and values developed within the individual. These characteristics are more likely to lead to success on the job after promotion. Neither test scores nor ranking on a promotional list determines your success as an officer or leader; your competency is the determinant. I must add that higher education is not the only means to acquire these competencies; there are examples throughout our industry where individuals demonstrate these skills, having acquired them in other ways. But higher education provides a condensed, systematic means to cultivate requisite knowledge and skills.

FIREHOUSE: Who needs to take a leadership role in this?

BROMAN: We all do. I refer back to Gladwell's Tipping Point and the 80/20 Principle. My sense is that we have 10%-15% of the requisite 20% necessary to get the work done. The remaining force can be found among decision makers such as city managers, mayors, city councils and fire commissioners. Therein lays a significant challenge in the pursuit of a higher education tipping point.

-Paul Snodgrass

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