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Arete? In The Fire Service

Long before the Army popularized the slogan ?be all you can be,? the Greeks defined this concept with one simple word: aret? (pronounced ar-uh-tay).Long before the Army popularized the slogan "be all you can be," the Greeks defined this concept with one simple word: aret? (pronounced ar-uh-tay). Some translate the word as "virtue," but the more precise definition means to reach your highest human potential. Aret? is akin to Dr. Abraham Maslow's description of self-actualization, when one achieves one's full personal potential. A man or woman of aret? is highly effective, using all of their knowledge, skills, abilities and power to accomplish great things, to make a real difference. For the Greeks, aret? was unmistakably coupled with knowledge.

While the Army may have embraced aret? for its soldiers, and the Greeks promoted aret? as the way of life, the majority of the fire service has yet to take up this concept. In the fire service, we teach fire fighters and fire officers to perform tasks and to follow orders. Using standard operating procedures and following orders is good and it belongs in the fire service. The results could be disastrous if a fire fighter decided to try a new method of throwing a ladder during a working fire, or a fire officer wanted to debate an order from the incident commander. Collectively, we in the fire service have done an excellent job of teaching fire fighters to follow orders, but we have not done a good job teaching fire fighters to think.

Socrates once said, "I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make him think." Many fire departments, however, lack this vision. In his book, 20,000 Alarms, Lt. Richard Hamilton tells a story about an FDNY fire officer who micromanaged his crews and discouraged individual thinking. The officer told one truck company to "go to the roof" of a multi-story building that was on fire. The crew went to the roof and waited for orders to vent. The order never came, and the fire mushroomed inside the building, going to multiple alarms. The chief investigating the fire attack questioned the crew as to why they did not ventilate when being told to "go to the roof." The officer replied that the crew was not ordered to vent. The chief asked if the crew needed an order for such an obvious task as venting when told to go to the roof, and the officer replied, "Chief, in this outfit, you need an order to go to the bathroom."

Thomas Stewart, the editor of Harvard Business Review, states in his book, The Wealth of Knowledge: Intellectual Capital and the 21st Century Organization that "knowledge is today's capital and the key to achieving competitive advantage." Fire chiefs and other fire service officers interact with professional business people every day. In a governmental organization, the fire chief interacts with the mayor or chief administrative officer, who most likely has a Master's Degree. The finance director, human resources director, and other department heads will most likely have at least a Bachelor's Degree. The Fire Marshal works with architects and engineers who possess advanced degrees. The fire service is no longer a blue-collar job; it is a profession. A fire department is a business division of a major corporation that competes with other business divisions for scare resources. College degrees provide fire officers with the knowledge and skills needed to compete and win in this environment.

It can be difficult to find college level courses tailored for the fire service. When I joined the fire service in 1977, I took fire courses at the vo-tech school. My friends on the police department took criminal justice courses at the local college. Many police departments require two years of college as a prerequisite for employment. Few fire departments have such a requirement. A non-scientific survey of the six law enforcement departments and seven fire departments in my county revealed that three police departments require some amount of college, ranging from 48 hours to an Associate's Degree for recruits, while none of the fire departments have such a requirement. A quick Internet search reveals that many colleges offer master's degree programs in criminal justice or law enforcement related studies, but there are only a handful of master's programs tailored for the fire service.

What is the answer? The fire service needs to promote higher education. Chief officers need to set the example for their personnel by enrolling in degree programs. Employers must offer tuition assistance programs and pay incentives for personnel who achieve college degrees. Fire fighters must include achieving a college degree as part of their career development plans.

Where do you start? Decide what kind of degree do you want, and how much time you have to devote to college. With sufficient available time, an Associate's Degree will take about two-years to complete, while a Bachelor's Degree will take about four years to complete. A Master's Degree can take from 18 to 24 months to complete after achieving a Bachelor's Degree. For fire fighters working 24-hour shifts, the time at the station between responding to calls and daily duties provides the perfect opportunity for study.

Compared with most jobs fire fighters work unusual shifts, so even night classes may not suit a fire fighter's shift schedule. Is there a local college that offers courses that fit a fire fighter's schedule? Will the fire department and/or course instructors work to accommodate a fire fighter who wants to attend college? Does the local college offer a degree program in your chosen field of study? If the answer to these questions is no, then distance learning may provide the solution.

However, distance learning is not for everyone. The courses are as challenging as on-campus courses, and the lack of classroom discussion and the inability to have face-to-face contact with the instructor places a greater burden on the student to solve problems on their own. While some may think that it is easy to study at home, family demands and unfinished chores around the house compete for study time. Distance learning students must have a high level of self-motivation and dedication in order to be successful. The College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Illinois offers a web page with a questionnaire to help people decide if distance learning is right for them. The questionnaire is available on the Internet here.

Where do you look to find colleges that offer fire service related degrees? The following are few examples of such colleges.

The University of Memphis University College offers a Bachelor's Degree in either Fire Administration or Fire Prevention Technology. The web site for program information is here.

The University of Florida offers Bachelor's and Master's Degrees in fire and emergency services and certificate programs via the Internet. The web site for information is here and the contact person is Dottie Beaupied.

University of Maryland University College offers a Bachelor of Science Degree with either an academic major or minor in fire science. The web site is here and the contact person is JoAnne Hildebrand.

Arizona State University offers a Master of Science in Technology in Fire Service Administration degree.

Grand Canyon University offers a Master of Science in Executive Fire Service Leadership. This program offers graduates of the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program (NFA-EFOP) to complete their graduate degree. The web site for program information is here and the contact person is Kim Coffman.

In 1977, Randal Collins wrote a book called The Credentialed Society. Collins posits that society and business, through the promotion of higher education, has established screening processes that favor those with degrees with better jobs, more opportunities, and better wages. The business community recognized this and established minimum education standards for employment. The fire service is undergoing a cultural change from a mostly blue-collar vocation to that of a credentialed profession. We are witnessing the birth of a professional culture in the fire service, and the future of the fire service belongs to the well-educated fire service leaders. It is time for the fire service to recognize that we conduct our business in a credentialed society and for our leaders to prepare accordingly.

Dennis Wolf completed a Bachelor's Degree in Fire Administration through the University of Memphis taking both traditional and on-line courses. He is currently enrolled in Grand Canyon University's Master of Science in Executive Fire Service Leadership program. He will be pleased to answer questions and share his experiences with distance learning. You can contact him at