High-quality, professional public fire protection is primarily the result of two basic factors. The first of these, equipment and facilities, are the most obvious and typically get the most attention. The other factor is the human resources, firefighters, who must be in good physical condition and well trained and educated. If any one of these elements is weak, this critical emergency service will suffer.
How do your fire department's training and education levels compare with professional standards? Do you have a good understanding of training and education needs in the fire service? What would you expect to see in a fire department that is the best of the best?
This article is an attempt to answer these complex questions with the help of a simple model. Many of these concerns can be answered through the accompanying graphic representation of training and education in the fire service. The model was developed by the U.S. Fire Administration/National Fire Academy's Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) network (http://training.fema.gov).
In the graphic above, the right side represents training, which is typically found in fire departments. The basis for most of this training is contained in the National Fire Protection Association's (NFPA) fire-service professional qualifications standards, a series of distinct criteria starting with those for entry-level firefighters and going up through four levels of officers.
For instance, Fire Officer I and II (FO I and II, center of illustration) are rankings generally equivalent to company officers, or officers who may command up to three companies. These positions normally carry the job title of lieutenant or captain, though in smaller departments the title may be chief. On the "education" side of the pyramid, the banner notes that an associate's degree should parallel the positions of FO I and II. The most common associate's degree is in fire science.
Fire science degrees contain courses primarily in fire prevention and incident command skills. It is always better, of course, to prevent a fire than to face a hostile force that always causes extensive property damage before successful extinguishment. Further, it is not unusual for victims of fires to be dead before anyone calls the fire department.
The modern, progressive fire department realizes that it can make a big impact in reducing loss of life and property by preventing fires and lowering their risk. This takes leaders, officers who are professionally educated to offer fire safety education and code enforcement. These same company officers have always faced life-and-death decisions when they are first to arrive at an emergency. As is true in all professions, it is not realistic to expect fire officers, especially newly promoted ones, to be proficient in all situations as a result of their experience only. Also, in the emergency services, it is always better to learn from the mistakes of others, mistakes that have the potential of killing people, including firefighters.
Adding to these challenges is the new likelihood of being first to arrive at a terrorist incident. These officers must be ready for what may well be a once-in-a-career experience. The knowledge, historical experience and analytic-thinking skills needed to respond successfully to these challenges can only be gained through a formal education that adheres to a rigorous training program.
As the complexity of the administrative roles increases, there is a need for officers with such titles as battalion, division, deputy or assistant chief. These positions (FO III) also include the chiefs of smaller departments, such as those that have fewer than six fire stations. The model recommends that these officers have a bachelor's degree. For example, the New York City Fire Department will require a bachelor's degree for eligibility to take the battalion chief and deputy chief exams in 2008. It is common to phase-in an education requirement to allow existing department members time to acquire the schooling.
Although not indicated in the model, degrees should be from a higher-education institution accredited by one of the regional accreditation organizations, like the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and preferably should contain a concentration of applicable courses, as does a bachelor's degree in fire science or administration. The majority of these programs use the distance-learning format since the number of colleges and universities that offer these degrees are few.
At the next and final level, Fire Officer IV, the National Professional Development Model recommends a master's degree. Again, as with the bachelor's degree, only a few colleges and universities offer a specific, fire-focused concentration (www.usfa.fema.gov/training/nfa/higher_ed). Degrees in public administration or public policy are good alternatives.
Implementation Is Key
Implementing educational requirements can be challenging. Discussions with department members and their representative organization are always helpful. Also, a combination based on a carrot-and-stick analogy is effective. The carrot may be several items, such as educational incentive pay and tuition reimbursement. Both approaches are effective and highly recommended.
The stick is always the realization that the individual will not be promoted without the prescribed education. As a matter of fairness, either of two techniques that phase-in the educational requirement can be used. The first is similar to New York City's plan, which started in 2001 and reaches its end-level in 2008.
Another method awards points on the basis of a promotional list score, starting with a low number and ending with a substantial number of points after several years. These time schedules should parallel the time needed to acquire the educational requirement.
Awarding additional points on the promotional list score offers an advantage, especially in smaller departments. Although it does not guarantee that the people promoted will have a minimum level of education, it is more flexible than the FDNY plan during the implementation phase. If you have only a few individuals with the minimum educational requirement, however, what happens when you have promotional openings and no one on the promotion list? Your only option may be to hire from outside. This option has merit only at the fire chief's level because of the need for junior officers to be familiar with local operational procedures, so it can be more efficient and effective to promote from existing members.
This National Professional Development Model effectively takes the fire service to the next and final level of professionalism. A profession is ultimately defined by a formal body of knowledge and skills. Obtaining this knowledge and these skills results in a highly professional fire service that delivers better service to our customers.
L. Charles Smeby Jr., M.P.P., MIFireE, is a faculty member at the University of Florida, responsible for developing, creating and presenting courses and providing administrative support for the fire and emergency service bachelor's distance learning program. Previously, he was on the faculty of the Florida State Fire College and was a senior fire service specialist for the National Fire Protection Association in the Public Fire Protection Division. Smeby completed a 20-year career with the Prince George's County, MD, Fire Department, retiring as a battalion chief. He holds a bachelor's degree in fire protection and a master's degree in public policy from the University of Maryland.