Climbing the Career Ladder: An Associate’s Degree Is a Useful Tool

Dr. Jeffrey A. Cantor shares why a degree is as important as a firefighter's hand tool.


Years bygone, you could join the ranks of the fire service as a young recruit and progress up the chain of command over a 20- to 30-year career simply by doing a good job and learning on the job. Fire service certifications were gained through training and experience, and played a major role in...


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Years bygone, you could join the ranks of the fire service as a young recruit and progress up the chain of command over a 20- to 30-year career simply by doing a good job and learning on the job. Fire service certifications were gained through training and experience, and played a major role in promotions.

Times Have Changed!

Why consider attending college? Today, a college degree is also a must if you are to maintain your skills and knowledge in a rapidly changing technological field.

The job of firefighter and emergency medical service technician has changed dramatically over the last several decades. Once, fire suppression was a major aspect of the job. You still must be ready and able to address a major fire, but in most localities building technology and fire prevention technology and education have reduced the incidence of fire quite a bit.

With today’s sophisticated techniques and equipment, the modern firefighter must be well-educated in responding to the demands of his or her job. The job has expanded. Today, the firefighter is called upon to perform medical first responder and emergency services extrications far more frequently than fighting involved fires. National threats of terrorism have caused new demands to be placed on the firefighter for knowledge and skills in disarming weapons of mass destruction, ensuring public health and safety, and performing mass-casualty mitigations and working as a public safety team member.

Today’s firefighter must have an in-depth understanding of the science of firefighting and the practices of fire prevention, as well as these new emergency medical services techniques. All of this requires post-high school education, as today’s firefighter will be a lifelong continuous learner in order to perform effectively.

How can you ensure that you will be able to stay up with the demands of a demanding job, and get ahead? Competition for jobs is keen! In many localities the ticket to getting on the job is to score high on an entrance exam. This requires the ability to do high school-level math, including algebra. Good reading and writing skills are also required on these exams. Some localities, such as larger cities, have many people turning out for these career positions, and as such one or two years of college are also required.

Additionally, it is clear that to succeed over a career lifetime there is a need for effective communications skills – including speaking, listening and reading skills. Likewise, an understanding of science and technology is essential – especially as you will be involved in suppression of fires involving dangerous materials. No longer is an understanding of the science of fire just enough. Now a solid understanding of the principles of chemistry, physics, electronics and even biology is important. Also, sound thinking, reasoning and decision-making skills, as well as the importance of continued lifelong learning are essential.

Taking Charge

Associates’ degree programs provide coursework in such areas as supervision and management, building construction and codes, materials, fire technology practices, and emergency management principles. Many programs also permit students to take course concentrations in other allied areas such as emergency medical services or construction design and management. Herein you can design your program to fit your interests and future career plans.

Whether as a firefighter, emergency medical services technician or potential officer, these skills are essential. Many departments require a minimum of an associate’s degree to be eligible to take promotional exams for “white shirt” jobs.

How should you prepare for a second career or an additional earnings power now? Be prepared for a second career upon reaching eligibility for retirement at an early age such as in your mid-40s.

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