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.
The 21st century public safety missions will require firefighters and fire officers who possess more education, more knowledge, more skills, and more abilities on a multitude of topics. Fire departments will have to become learning organizations if they are to effectively and efficiently serve the public safety needs of their communities.
Houston Fire Department’s Approach for Supporting Education
In 1998, the Houston Fire Department (HFD) created a dedicated staff position titled assistant fire chief of career development. This position was established by the mayor and city council, who were disappointed by the number of fire department officers who lacked college degrees. Houston’s mayor found that the HFD, like many other fire departments, had not done a good job of helping firefighters focus on career development issues.
Historically, the culture of previous HFD promotional appointments for executive fire department positions were based on candidates’ political connections through their activities at city hall, political campaigns, and/or executive board membership of employee groups. The new promotional model is based on the idea that education and other credentials, including political savvy, is the preferred promotional path for senior chief positions. Political connections alone, without appropriate educational credentials, will adversely impact the department’s perceived respect and admiration both within the department and with other public administration departments.
HFD’s personnel know those among their senior ranks that “got their ticket punched” by completing some of the following career development activities: promoted up through the rank structure, earned a college degree, completed the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, acquired national accreditation as a chief fire officer, worked in various departmental divisions to expand their view of the department and involvement with employee organizations.
The HFD assistant chief of career development is responsible for managing the department’s college attendance program, coordinating National Fire Academy Residence Courses and the Officer Development Program. After a recent management review by TriData Corp., it was recommended that career development remain a critical focus to improve the capabilities of department members.
A new career development document has been distributed throughout HFD that formally defines what credentials should be acquired for officer ranks from captain to fire chief. This program is not mandated through the civil service requirements board at this point, but formal adoption will be discussed with the various stakeholders. However, this career development program provides guidance for firefighters who want to accelerate their promotional objectives. Hopefully, political leaders will embrace this career development model, especially for appointed positions in the rank of fire chief and assistant fire chief. College degrees are a key cornerstone of this program because of the value with broadening views of society through education, improvement in writing skills, and enhancing analytical abilities. The fire service is more complex than ever and requires leaders with formal credentials to take this profession to higher levels.
National Fire Academy’s Degrees at a Distance Program
As more fire departments require their fire chiefs and mid-level officers to possess college degrees, the National Fire Academy-sponsored Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP) is worth considering. The DDP offers bachelors’ degrees with concentrations in fire administration/management and fire prevention technology through seven accredited colleges and universities.
While most firefighters have a strong preference for working 24- or 48-hour shifts or some variation, we’re familiar with the challenges of doing anything that requires a commitment for the same night of the week. It could be a child’s ball practice, church activity, working a part-time job or taking a Wednesday night financial management course for 16 weeks. While some of our friends, coworkers, officers and instructors try to be understanding, it can be a huge headache at times. Missing your eight-year-old daughter’s playoff game or the course’s mid-term exam review session because of staffing shortages does have an impact. The DDP has over 20 years of success making college degrees accessible to shift personnel.
Panel Discussion (FESHE 2000) reported, “Distance education is a critical tool in providing higher education opportunities for the fire service. Key tools include satellite courses, the Internet, and NFA’s Degrees at a Distance Program. All of these areas are changing and growing rapidly and will play a key role in meeting the educational needs of fire and emergency services personnel.”
The Consortium of Higher Education for Emergency and Fire Services represents the seven institutions of higher learning offering baccalaureate degrees through the National Fire Academy’s Degrees at a Distance Program. The consortium website http://polaris.umuc.edu/~jhildebr/consortium contains enrollment requirements, course descriptions, and links to the seven member colleges. Additional sources of education opportunities specific to the fire service can be found at http://www.firedawg.com and http://www.usfa.fema.gov/fire-service/nfa/higher ed/nfa-high.shtm
One important aspect limiting some firefighters from pursuing their degrees is the cost. The authors possess a common expense in that we all have had to work extra part-time jobs or obtain student loans to pay the college bills. Firefighters are encouraged to investigate the many funding sources that are available to them.
Many departments offer tuition reimbursement, and numerous scholarships are published on the Internet or in scholarship books available at local bookstores. Additionally, the Consortium of Higher Education for Emergency and Fire Services’ website has a link for fire service specific scholarships.
Conclusion and Authors’ Challenge
There are more opportunities than ever for firefighters to acquire college degrees and other professional credentials during their careers. While we can all make numerous excuses for not having the time because of family commitments, part-time jobs, or other factors, distance learning negates most of those arguments
The fire service has a critical need for leaders who embrace education and take the proactive path of “getting their education tickets punched” as they advance within their fire departments. All things being equal, mayors, council members, government managers, private-sector executives, citizens and firefighters will generally prefer fire chiefs who possess college degrees more than those chiefs who lack college degrees.
The fire service and citizens deserve highly trained and highly-educated leaders to address the 21st century challenges, so pursuing college degrees is an excellent approach for facing the future prepared. Stop wasting time and pursue your college degree!
- Coleman, Ronnie (1999). Going for Gold. Delmar Publishers, Albany, NY.
- Compton, Dennis, and Granito, John, editors; Forsman, Doug, author (2002). Managing Fire and Rescue Services. International City/County Management Association, Washington, D.C., page 276.
- National Fire Academy (2000). Fire & Emergency Services Higher Education Conference (FESHE 2000), Emmitsburg, MD.
- Sargent, Chase (July 2002). “Chief Officers: Learn to Lead, Not Just Manage.” Fire Engineering, pages 47- 58.
Roxanne Bercik, an assistant chief with the Los Angeles Fire Department, holds a bachelor of arts in economics and a master of public administration. She is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program, and is a 2003 Harvard Fire Executive Fellow. Chris Connealy, former chief of the Houston Fire Department, has a bachelor of science in fire administration and a master of science in executive fire leadership. He is a National Fire Academy EFO graduate, accredited with the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation and a 2002 Harvard Fire Executive Fellow. Bill Lowe, a captain with the Clayton County, GA, Fire Department, has a doctorate in human resource management and a post-doctorate in marketing management. He is a university professor of public administration and is enrolled in the EFO program. Laurie Mooney, a battalion chief with the Longwood, FL, Fire Department, has an associate of science in fire science technology. She is pursuing a bachelor of science in fire administration and is enrolled in the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program.