Implementing a Certification Program for Your Department

How does your department measure the competency of its firefighters? A certification program is a way to do this. Citizens, communities and their governing bodies deserve and require professionally competent firefighters.

Most departments already have a minimum certification program. This usually is medical certifications overseen by a state health or public safety department based on national standards from the U.S. Department of Transportation and a local physician advisor.

Just as a medical first responders, emergency medical technician-basics, and paramedics are required to meet professional standards, so should the firefighting side of our business meet professional standards.

The standards for firefighting come from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The NFPA sets the standard, but does not administer the certification. Certification organizations include the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress, the Professional Qualifications Board, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, and the International Association of Fire Fighters (for the Candidate Physical Abilities Test).

These organizations certify federal, state and local agencies to conduct training and testing based upon precise procedures to meet the NFPA standard. The agencies include the U.S. Forest Service, state fire marshall, state department of public safety, colleges, and other certifying organizations.

There is value for a department in implementing a firefighting certification program. It helps to identify qualified individuals for entry into the fire service and for advancement within a department.

The best example of this is the recent completion of the Candidate Physical Abilities Test developed by the International Association of Firefighters with the International Association of Fire Chiefs through the work of many fire departments throughout the country. This has created a recognized standard for physical ability testing for firefighter candidates. Fire departments throughout the United States are adopting this certification test.

The firefighter certifications which include Firefighter, Fire Officer, Inspector, Investigator, and Haz Mat are valuable to a department for training firefighters to meet a standard, for identifying a qualification for promotional processes, and for meeting a professional standard to reduce liability.

One day firefighter certifications may be valued as an aspect of fire department ratings.

There are costs to a department in implementing a certification program. There is the need for additional trainers. Curriculum, books and equipment must be purchased and kept up-to-date. Time must be allowed for the training. This time may be in service or out of service.

Out of service training requires coverage by other resources. There is staffing time and equipment needs for the testing or the cost of having the testing completed by a third party. Then there is recertification usually every three years.

The result of this discussion leads to the question: How can a certification program be implemented for my department? I have seen a certification program implemented for a medium-sized municipal fire department and I have been a co-administrator of a training and testing agency for a state firefighter certification program.

I also work with NFPA standards daily in the award of college credit for prior learning. The following are important points to consider:

  1. Contact your authorized certifying agency. Develop a relationship and begin to identify the certification process.
  2. Understand the certification process and identify it for your department and all its members.
  3. Develop a certification policy for your department:
    • Entry-level for firefighter candidates.
    • Training academy certifications.
    • Incumbent certification.
    • Tying certification to the promotional process.
    • Levels of certification. (Will it begin with new firefighters on a certain date, or will it be required for incumbent firefighters? Will the certification levels be implemented all at once or over a period of time.)
  4. Sell it to your department: through planning and development by firefighters at all levels of your department.
  5. Certification testing and proctoring must always be done by an independent third-party.
  6. For the promotional process determine the value of certification, experience, tenure, and promotional testing; and how this meets your local, state, and union statutes and contracts.
  7. Evaluate the budget requirements and effects of a certification program. Then implement budget changes to meet the need. Provide the resources to make it happen!
  8. Consider the future consequences of the certification policies your department implements! Make considered changes down the road when they are needed.

There is much to consider in implementing a certification program for your department. It requires planning, resources and quality implementation. It will professionalize your department in the eyes of the fire service and in the eyes of your community. It is one way, an excellent way, to measure where your department is; only if it is designed, implemented, and administered with integrity and consideration.