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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Accessible education for members of the fire service is making a difference. Students from as far away as Australia have earned degrees by way of DDP and moved on to assume leadership roles in the profession. According to a survey of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Fire Science graduates, 60% of the graduates surveyed have advanced in rank, 75% have increased their income and 45% have earned a fire-related professional certification. Nearly 37% are enrolled in graduate school and 24% have earned a master's or doctorate. UMUC's fire science graduates are typical of all DDP school graduates in that they teach, publish articles and write books; they chair national conferences, and participate in the consensus standards-making process. They also participate in the national arena and become the leaders of America's emergency responses services. Matthew Stevens, Dan Quimby, and Melissa Helgesen are three such leaders.

Educational Role Models

Matthew Stevens comes from a family of firefighters, beginning with his grandfather, who was a volunteer firefighter in St. Mary's County, MD, and including his father, who is the chief of the Waldorf, MD, volunteer department. After graduating from high school, Stevens decided to pursue his dream of becoming a state fire marshal, and began this journey by enrolling in the local community college, where he earned an associate's degree in fire science while serving as a volunteer firefighter in Waldorf. But, he knew he needed a four-year degree to realize his dream.

Enrolled as a full-time DDP student at UMUC, he took on an often grueling schedule, working a variety of part-time jobs in addition to answering an average of 80 volunteer fire calls each month. But, as Stevens will eagerly admit, the hard work paid off. Recently, at the age of 22, he was appointed deputy state fire marshal (beating out more than 200 other qualified applicants), a job that combines fire prevention with investigation and law enforcement. And, according to those in the firefighting business, landing that job at such a young age is a testament not only to Stevens' outstanding achievement and commitment, but also to the exceptional education he received at UMUC.

Daniel Quimby already has a bachelor's degree from Thomas Edison State College and a master's degree in criminal justice from St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, but wished to increase his career opportunities in the building safety and fire-related construction field by earning his second bachelor's degree in fire science at UMUC.

A former police officer, Quimby is now the executive general manager of maintenance and emergency management for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and performs volunteer planning and logistical work with the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Quimby earned academic credit through UMUC's Prior Learning program for his on-the-job experience. He believes that education has been a critical component in all of his jobs, adding that it is particularly essential for first responders, who must function in a "can-do atmosphere" at all times.

Melissa Helgesen lives in Verona, WI. A former sheriff's department employee, Helgesen is now a captain in charge of fire inspection and prevention, and incident command at the Verona Fire Department. Helgesen came to UMUC for the higher education that would give her greater professional perspective and opportunity for advancement. "The highest degree offered in this region is an associate's degree, so it was good that I could do it at a distance," she said.

Helgesen previously earned an associate's degree in police science at a local community college. She was able to apply many of those credits toward her UMUC degree and also gain credit for some of her work experience through UMUC's Prior Learning program. Helgesen, who graduated in 2003, said the flexibility of UMUC's distance education program made it possible for her to keep up her busy lifestyles and work her classes into her schedule.

"I just loved the flexibility of it," she said. "It's the only way I could really do it."

Curriculum and Contacts

In all, there are 13 DDP courses covering a broad and balanced range of interests and professional needs. Courses draw on and include the study and application of statistics, psychology, sociology, management, law, political science, economics, mathematics, engineering, and a number of special fields, such as hazardous materials, arson investigation and fire research. Further information about the Degrees-at-a-Distance Program may be found at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/training/nfa/higher_ed/degree_programs/distance/.

Don't waste another moment evaluating the many resources for enhancing your career competencies for acquiring the prestigious title of fire chief. The effort and interest taken today will pay enormous dividends when competing in promotional examinations.