Laurie Mooney’s fire service career started in 1983, when she was hired by the City of Longwood, FL, Fire Rescue Department as one of its first female firefighters. In preparation for getting hired as a firefighter, Mooney became certified as both a Florida EMT and paramedic. Consequently, Longwood’s fire chief readily hired Mooney for a vacant paramedic/firefighter position, and she was assigned to a busy medic unit.
As with all probationary firefighters, Mooney’s first few years were filled with much anxiety, excitement, fear and satisfaction as she developed her expertise as a firefighter/paramedic.
“It really was a stressful time for both me and my family,” she said. “Mom especially worried about her 22-year-old daughter responding to fires and emergency incidents. However, my lieutenant was a really decent gentleman and treated me just like his own sister. Being a rookie firefighter is perhaps the funniest period of any firefighters’ career.”
The fire service of 25 years ago was generally quite tough and cruel to all new firefighters, but especially so to female firefighters, who were convenient targets for negative comments, practical jokes and incidents of sexual harassment. In Mooney’s case, she found the Longwood Fire Rescue Department to possess professional officers with a positive organizational culture. Her officers took their supervisory roles seriously, offering Laurie many career suggestions within the limits of their own experiences.
After completing recruit training, Mooney spent much of her off-duty time attending Seminole Community College. She took virtually every course related to EMS, fire service, hazardous materials, inspections, investigations, public health, management and supervision. Over the next 10 years, she was promoted to engineer and then lieutenant/company officer. Mooney eventually accumulated enough college credits to earn an associate of science degree in fire science technology.
“The fire chief really encouraged me to pursue my education,” Mooney said. “While it was a challenge to attend class because of my shift assignment, there were very few classes that I missed because of the cooperation and support I received from my supervisors and coworkers. I’ll always be indebted to them for their willingness to help me attend class.”
Longwood’s fire chief continued to be impressed with Mooney’s passion for career development and he encouraged her to attend Florida’s Law Enforcement Academy. After earning her certification as a Florida police officer, Laurie was appointed as training officer and arson investigator. However, after 10 years employment with Longwood, Mooney, like many middle-aged careerists, had lost her focus and passion for attending college. Her busy staff position kept her occupied developing training schedules/curriculums, and conducting fire cause determination investigations. She was promoted to battalion chief in 1999 supervising all shift operations.
After completing a career self-assessment, Mooney began researching colleges on what was required to earn her bachelor of science degree in public administration. She met with admission counselors at various colleges and received the same feedback: “We can’t accept this credit, that credit, this course was too long ago, we can’t recognize this course, why did you take that course,” etc.
The end result of their transcript evaluations was Mooney needed to take another full year of college courses just to be eligible to start a bachelor’s program.
“I just never imagined how difficult it would be to transfer my associate credits toward a four-year degree,” Mooney. “The college counselors and admissions directors I spoke with just didn’t seem interested about the extra money and time I would have to spend in order to gain acceptance. Almost everyone I spoke with offered different advice, so I eventually just gave up on ever completing my bachelor’s degree.”
Many firefighters have held similar discussions with college admissions counselors. It’s a long, reflective walk to the parking lot after getting the news that earning two more years of credit for a bachelor’s degree will take three or more years of classroom commitment and expense.
Mooney decided to redirect her career development by gaining acceptance to the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program. The process for gaining acceptance to the EFO program is competitive, given there are only 175 to 200 appointments annually. As with many EFO applicants, her first application was denied, but she gained acceptance onher second attempt.
In June 2002, Mooney attended the Federal Emergency Training Center (FETC) to complete her first two-week-long EFO course, Executive Development. The intensive curriculum was spent discussing fire service organizational issues with chiefs representing departments from around the globe (other countries regularly sponsor their senior chiefs to attend the EFO program on a space-available basis).
Earning the title Executive Fire Officer (EFO) requires completing a two-week residency course every year for four years, plus submitting an applied research project for each of the four courses. Participants must attend all sessions and complete all four of the research projects to be awarded the EFO designation. Officers seeking the finest executive development curriculum specific to the fire service should strongly consider submitting their applications. (The EFO website is http://www.usfa.fema.gov/fire service/nfa/courses/ oncampus/nfa-on2.shtm.)
One of Mooney’s course presenters spoke of the National Fire Academy’s Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP). The NFA develops and coordinates an approved curriculum through a network of seven universities for a bachelor of science degree in fire protection engineering. Mooney contacted Cogswell College and quickly gained acceptance to the program with the majority of her existing college classes transferring for full credit. Additionally, some of her technical college and National Fire Academy courses also transferred.
Mooney juggled many academic assignments completing both her first two EFO applied research projects and coursework from Cogswell. Since her first EFO course in June 2002, Mooney is halfway through the EFO program, has earned high grades on her first two EFO applied research projects and expects to graduate in July 2004 with her bachelor of science degree in fire and safety engineering technology from Cogswell College. Additionally, she had seven articles published in fire service magazines, and has presented training sessions at four international, national and regional fire service conferences.
Mooney’s momentum for continuing her education is ongoing. She will attend her third EFO course in July 2004, and has submitted applications to pursue a master of business administration degree with an emphasis in human resource management. Earning a master’s degree offers expanded career and post-career opportunities. It’s becoming more standard that agencies hiring fire chiefs are mandating candidates possess both the EFO designation and a graduate degree.
While Mooney is appreciative and fulfilled in her present position as a battalion chief, she is looking ahead at her future.
“I’m fast approaching my 25th anniversary with the City of Longwood, but I’m naturally asking myself what the next phase of my life is going to offer,” she said. “Pursuing a position as a fire chief, fire science program director or perhaps a management position with the Department of Homeland Security are all being considered as long-term career goals.”
Mooney offers an educational challenge to readers: “The time to start acquiring credits toward earning a bachelor degree was yesterday. Time is short, money is precious, college is getting more expensive, but the potential rewards are definitely worth the effort. I really struggled understanding the best approach for myself and should have spent more time earning college credits earlier in my career. Find and nurture relationships with positive role models to keep you focused and moving in the right direction. Attend professional fire service conferences and take leadership roles in fire service organizations. Keep the faith, earn college credits and eventually you’ll be walking down the aisle to accept your diploma. It’ll be one of the most satisfying days of your life.”
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 National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO) Program.