Higher Education FESHE: National Fire Academy Promotes Standardized Fire Science Education

In 2009, when Edmund Walker, the state fire training director for Massachusetts, was encouraged by two coworkers to attend a Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) conference at the National Fire Academy (NFA), his entire construct of training and higher education changed for good.

“They dragged me down to a FESHE conference and it was like a light bulb moment when talking to Ed Kaplan (NFA education chief) and participants,” Walker said. “There needed to be a correlation between higher ed and the state training directors. It became evident that the entire goal of the FESHE initiative was to ensure a clear and consistent path for professional development for members of the fire service.”

Responding to this need to provide nationwide standardized fire science core courses, the NFA has begun the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education Recognition Program. The program aims to “produce graduates well-prepared to improve the quality of fire and emergency services delivery now and in the future,” Kaplan said. It recognizes colleges and universities that subscribe to the FESHE core-curriculum model.

“There’s always been the vision of FESHE from way back at its beginning – a theoretical foundation – that a core set of courses should form the basis of knowledge that every firefighter should have regardless of where he or she came from,” Kaplan said. “Now the associate’s and bachelor’s programs are part of that. And through the vision of my boss, (NFA Superintendent) Dr. Denis Onieal, state training directors will oversee this new recognition program. And one of the great benefits is that the state training directors will be talking with colleges and the impact of that is nothing but positive.”

Colleges and universities seeking this recognition are required to meet a six-course model fire science curriculum for their associate’s or bachelor’s programs for students to graduate. Students completing each of the model courses receive a National Fire Certificate of Completion. This certificate becomes a portable transcript of sorts that certifies a student’s completion in the core course – regardless of institution, state or degree status. If a student achieves a certificate for Fire Protection Systems from a California college and moves to a New York college, that certificate indicates no similar course is required for achieving the associate’s degree. The standard has been met.

 

Recognition requirements

Institutions seeking recognition must offer and require the NFA’s six-course model curriculum for the associate’s-level degree. These six core courses are:

• Building Construction for Fire Protection

• Fire Protection Systems

• Fire Behavior and Combustion

• Fire Prevention

• Principles of Emergency Services

• Principles of Fire and Emergency

Services Safety and Survival

Recognized colleges offering an associate’s degree can be found at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/resources/resources_schools_associate.shtm.

Core courses for the bachelor’s-level recognition are:

• Applications of Fire Research

• Analytical Approaches to Public

Fire Protection

• Community Risk Reduction for the

Fire and Emergency Services

• Fire and Emergency Services Admin.

• Fire Prevention Organization and

Management

• Personnel Management for the Fire and Emergency Services

Recognized institutions offering a bachelor’s program can be found at http://www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/resources/resources_schools_bachelor.shtm.

All courses must be offered for academic credit. Noncredit courses do not qualify for NFA recognition or certificates. Although the titles of these courses can vary from institution to institution, the NFA strongly encourages the use of its standardized titles.

 

Toward certification

Achieving certification is relatively simple. It involves the college sending a request, committee concurrence and state fire training director approval. The entire process, according to NFA, is expected to be completed within 45 calendar days from the receipt of the request. Institutions receiving a Certificate of National Recognition will be listed on the FESHE college list website.

When the academy receives a request for recognition, it is handled by Diane Close, NFA fire program specialist, who is managing the recognition program.

“We have several schools that have already been approved for the recognition program,” Close said. We have another 16 that are waiting for everything to be finalized…and a lot more interest that I’m receiving by email and phone.”

An institution that wants to be part of the process must agree to the student certificate process and make its records available for random compliance audits. Students enrolled in FESHE non-core courses taken at recognized FESHE institutions are also eligible for certificates. Students must complete these courses with a passing grade and submit NFA’s FEMA form 119-25-2 to receive a student certificate.

 

Institutions lining up

When Joe Guarnera, a firefighter with the Revere, MA, Fire Department, an adjunct college professor and vice chair of the baccalaureate curriculum committee for FESHE, became the Massachusetts Fire Service Professional Development Coordinator, he admittedly had his hands full. As perhaps the only statewide fire service professional development coordinators, Guarnera begin to aggressively promote the FESHE model. “Once I started pushing this idea throughout Massachusetts, with the support of Ed Walker, I could see how well this was received,” Guarnera said.

Today, Massachusetts has two colleges already recognized by FESHE and Guarnera said more are lining up. One school he helped with adoption of the model curriculum was Mount Wachusett Community College. Paul Zbikowski, an adviser and adjunct faculty member at Mount Wachusett Community College, gives the FESHE recognition program high praise – not only for its standardization of curriculum, but because it helped save the college’s fire science program. “Until about a year and a half ago,” he said, “we were getting ready to pull the plug on our program because of low enrollment. We couldn’t attract students. We worked together as a group with Joe Guarnera and started going to the FESHE recognition process, including changing our outlines to meet FESHE courses. We also went to an online delivery for classes. As a result, we increased our enrollment 300% – a huge increase. For a program that was lucky to run one class a semester we are now running three classes per semester.”

Zbikowski continued, “The benefit for the student is that they have a recognized curriculum wherever they go. If a student decides to take a class at another community college, say we didn’t offer the course at the time he or she wanted it, then it would transfer throughout the state. It standardizes the whole process. Prior to this, if you looked at all the other community colleges, nobody really talked to one another about classes matching up. This next spring semester, we are doing a live-in study program where students become auxiliary members at the local fire department. They will respond to calls depending upon their level of training. This will enable the college to assist them with their training and education along with some practical experience.” He said this would not have happened if the college’s program did not experience its dramatic turnaround with its fire science program.

Zbikowski, who is also the president of the Fire Chiefs Association of Massachusetts, said, “One of our objectives at the Fire Chiefs Association is to have standardized, uniform training for firefighters and officers – all the way up through fire chief.” And the recognition program helps solidify this objective.

Billy Shelton, executive director of the Virginia Department of Fire Programs, sees a tremendous need for academic standardization nationwide. He said an aggressive program a decade ago created partnerships between state training in the Commonwealth’s 23 community colleges. Virginia has already achieved standardization.

“I might be in far southwest Virginia and I can take the same courses at a community college that I can take in northern Virginia,” he said. “I think one of the things we need to take a look at is that there are a lot of different college programs out there. And standardization is not a bad thing at all. Firefighters today do not stay in the same state – unlike when I started out some 40 years ago.”

Standardization ensures that degree-seeking firefighters have the same basic understanding provided the FESHE core courses, Shelton said.

“When someone moves beyond the battalion chief level in a fire department, it becomes critical that he or she is able to manage people – that’s very challenging,” he said. “And today’s fire chief is someone who needs to manage and run a business as well as compete with other segments of a municipality such as police, education and public works.”

 

Incentive for colleges

Ed Kirtley, director of Fire Service Training at Oklahoma State University – and the Oklahoma state training director – sees the wisdom of standardization.

“I think it’s beneficial to the fire service any time that a training or educational program can be shown to meet a minimum requirement for the students,” said Kirtley, a former Guymon, OK, fire chief. “The program doesn’t necessarily say that the college is recognized or that the quality of instruction is exceptional, or anything like that. But what it does say is that the institution has adopted a national curriculum and it believes in maintaining a standardized curriculum. That says a lot about the institution.”

Kirtley added, “I think the real benefit is that it gives the colleges an incentive to adopt the FESHE curriculum and follow it. Obviously, there is no money that goes with recognition. The real incentive is the recognition that they are part of a national program. It’s obviously very competitive to attract fire science students out there right now. So this tends to make colleges more competitive. And it adds to the credibility of the program. I agree that college is part of the continuum of professional development. It begins with the vocational aspect and at some point, we transition from the vocational training, which is the domain of the state training directors, and move to college education for further professional development.

“Standardization tends to minimize the repetitive component that training sometimes has. For example, if you know that a FESHE course covers the same learning outcomes, then the student doesn’t need to repeat a specific course. I think it makes the transition from vocational education to higher education easier and more straightforward. In the end, the person to benefit the most is the student.”

Kirtley further explained the value of consistent training and education for current and future fire service leaders.

“I think that today’s firefighters, both career and volunteer, by and large have a very complex job, especially with EMS,” Kirtley said. “For example, look at the role of a company officer who is in charge of three or four people and a half-million-dollar piece of apparatus. At any given moment, he or she can make a decision at the command level that will affect the crew and possibly thousands of citizens. If you look at folks in private industry with that scope of responsibility, they are required to have a bachelor’s degree...That’s not to say that an education by itself will make a good company officer. But it is part of that professional development.”

 

Broadening backgrounds

Massachusetts state director Walker pointed out that state training directors have an inherent stake in all facets of the students’ professional development.

“Our responsibility as state training directors is to ensure that firefighters – all ranks from rookie to fire chief – have standardized training and that the training meets standards,” Walker said. “Our training institution (provides) programs that are really focused on the operational aspect of the job. Even the programs around hazardous materials, fire officer, instructor or inspector really focused on how to do the job, not necessarily the theory or broader picture. As the public safety field is growing, there is more of an expectation that, and demand for, leaders to have this broader background and understanding of the field. I do not believe that all line firefighters need to have degrees, but as you move up through the ranks, the information and perspective that you get from ‘education’ versus ‘training’ is critical.”

He continued, “I already view my role as state training director as having the responsibility to ensure that members of the Massachusetts fire service have the ability to access the information they need – at all levels – to safely and effectively do their jobs...The partnership with the colleges was a logical next step to make sure that there was somebody there to continue to deliver the information where we left off. This ensures a clear path for advancement” – the path of professional development.

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