Virtually all firefighters at some point in their careers evaluate the numerous advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a college education. While many accept that having a degree will enhance their promotional opportunities and income potential, there is still substantial resistance and fear about...
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Virtually all firefighters at some point in their careers evaluate the numerous advantages and disadvantages of pursuing a college education. While many accept that having a degree will enhance their promotional opportunities and income potential, there is still substantial resistance and fear about making a long-term educational commitment. Regrettably, far too many firefighters decide not to pursue a college program without fully investigating the pros and cons of this educational commitment.
This article will share the authors’ professional and educational experiences, and offer resources for earning a degree one credit and one course at a time until it’s time to attend graduation to accept your college diploma. In his book Going for Gold, Fire Chief Ronnie Coleman, president of the Fire & Emergency Television Network, urges prospective fire chiefs to “set your educational achievements as high as possible.” It’s time for more firefighters to stop thinking and procrastinating about earning their degrees, and just do it!
Educated Firefighters – An Oxymoron?
Most firefighters possess tremendous practical and technical expertise in the fundamentals of emergency service operations. Whether it is planning an offensive attack strategy for an occupied multi-family dwelling at 3 A.M., managing the numerous resources necessary for a train versus loaded school bus or informing the county’s most powerful builder that the construction plans do not adequately satisfy the department’s life safety codes, firefighters are just smart individuals regarding their job knowledge.
Unfortunately, firefighters’ knowledge, skills, abilities and interest in pursuing an education beyond high school equivalency remain a serious issue for the transformation of firefighting from a vocation into a profession. Sargent (2002) states, “While it is important for a chief officer to obtain a formal degree, it is just as critical for a chief to obtain technical training relative to his job and his subordinates’ jobs.” More fire officers will need both the technical expertise and the college education to excel in their positions.
Coleman also writes, “A lot of people will object to this statement, but police chiefs, for the most part, are much more highly educated than fire chiefs. ...In general, by the time people have worked their way up through law enforcement, they have almost always availed themselves of mainstream educational opportunities; they are better read and have a more universal understanding of society and societal problems than the average fire chief.” The authors’ professional experiences support Coleman’s statement and suggest fire chiefs should pledge to mentor more of their subordinates to earn their degrees.
It’s easy to understand how young firefighters who are struggling to develop their skills and support their families question the short-term value of pursuing an education. Earning a four-year degree can be a 10-year process for many firefighters; having to suspend college courses for promotional exams, paramedic programs, mandatory callback shifts, family issues, part-time jobs, etc., is a legitimate barrier to accumulating graduation credits.
The enormous demands of firefighters’ personal and professional commitments along with the significant financial, emotional and logistical issues for attending college are serious challenges for many firefighters to overcome. Nevertheless, the National Fire Academy-sponsored 2000 Fire & Emergency Services Higher Education Conference (FESHE 2000) advocated that firefighters “need to focus on the fact that a higher education teaches a person how to learn and fosters life-long learning.”
Cultural barriers are viewed by the authors as one of the most significant barriers limiting higher education within the fire service. Fire chiefs generally have not advocated the importance of education to the same extent as their law enforcement peers. Consequently, lack of promotional or financial incentives, or diminishing subordinates’ educational efforts by senior officers are real cultural barriers within some fire departments.