The NFA's Degrees-at-a-Distance Program

Bill Lowe and Joanne Hildebrand review an option for fire service professionals interested in obtaining a college degree, which is one critical element for climbing the fire service career ladder.


Ask recruits reporting to their first day of training, "What are your career goals?" and many will respond, "I'm going to be the fire chief!" A reasonable follow-up question to these enthusiastic, and slightly naive, recruits would be, "What action steps must you take during your career to develop...


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Ask recruits reporting to their first day of training, "What are your career goals?" and many will respond, "I'm going to be the fire chief!" A reasonable follow-up question to these enthusiastic, and slightly naive, recruits would be, "What action steps must you take during your career to develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities for being appointed a fire chief?" This question would likely generate blank stares from both the recruits as well as many senior officers.

Unfortunately, far too many firefighters leave their career development to fate or last-minute urgency when preparing for upcoming promotional examinations. While there are an array of career-climbing tactics and strategies, most fire service leaders agree that obtaining a college degree is one critical element for climbing the fire service career ladder.

As the director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) at the University of Maryland, and past president of the North American Fire Training Directors, Steven T. Edwards is often asked, "What levels of education are required for certain positions within the fire service?" For a company officer, he recommends a fire service associate's degree; for a battalion officer, a fire service bachelor's degree; and for chief officer, a master's degree in a general management field is desirable.

"The higher you ascend within your fire department, the better an educational foundation you will need," Edwards said. "Similar to a building, the higher it is, the stronger a foundation it needs."

Despite the growing need for college degrees, firefighters have experienced two problems in accessing college-level education that other members of the workforce do not generally have: prospective students in the fire service are too geographically scattered to warrant the attention of many existing educational institutions, and fire service personnel work on schedules differing from those of almost every other group of potential students.

Addressing Accessibility

The fire service has long recognized the fact that a single fire department cannot combat the ravages of fire alone. It is only through mutual aid, or "partnerships" with other fire departments and community organizations, that the nation's citizens are protected. Borrowing from this valuable lesson, the National Fire Academy (NFA) has joined in partnership with seven U.S. universities to provide the Degrees-at-a-Distance Program (DDP) as an affordable, obstacle-free gateway of opportunity for members of fire service and allied professions to access advanced education in fire science through distance learning. The NFA also hosts the annual Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Conference, which provides a unique venue to representatives from colleges and universities and local fire service training agencies to address emerging issues in professional development and to foster educational programs specifically designed for the fire officer of the future.

The DDP schools offer 13 upper-level courses specially formatted for distance education, using tools such as online delivery via the Internet, course guides specifically written for independent learning, CD-ROMS, and video programs. Most schools offer credit for life experience and provide internship opportunities. In addition to degree programs, certificate programs are available. Even if a student is interested in taking only one course for career or personal development, upon successful completion of that course the student earns a NFA course certificate.

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