Building an Educational Foundation To a Fire Service Career

Paul Snodgrass evaluates the incentives offered when pursuing college-level studies.


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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"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."