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...

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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'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 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