Professional Designations: Afterthought or Forethought?

Nov. 5, 1987, is the day I first went to the Stoney Point, NC, Fire Department and picked up my application to join. Little did I know that I was starting on the path to a career that has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.

Beginning as a 14-year-old in a department-sponsored Junior Firefighter program, I was fortunate to have many experienced people help guide, mentor and correct me along the way. By the age of 16, I was firmly focused on my goal of going into the fire service as a career. Although the engaged leadership of the department was helping me, there was no real path or map to guide me and show me what I needed to do to progress toward my chosen career. Even with the robust training and certification system in North Carolina, navigating what I would need to attain my ultimate goals in the fire service was difficult and confusing.

When I look back over the past 25 years of my career, it amazes me how many choices new as well as veteran firefighters have to help them develop. As a profession we have come a long way in developing our firefighters and preparing them for the roles they seek, but determining the steps to take to prepare for promotion can be confusing.

A complex profession

One question I hear from new firefighters is what do I need to do to advance in my career? This is not an easy question to answer when you take into account just how complex the fire service has become. The issue of professional development has also been a question pondered at all the Wingspread Conferences since 1976. This is where the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC) of the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) becomes part of the equation: “The mission of the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC) is to assist in the professional development of emergency service personnel by providing guidance for career planning through participation in the Professional Designation Program. The nine-member commission consists of individuals from the emergency services profession, federal and local government and academia” (

When you consider the CPC’s mission statement, it becomes evident that designations are a tool for professional development. So many times, this is not the case when it comes to applicants like me who sought the designation only after they had obtained a certain rank within the fire service. Obtaining a designation in this manner is an afterthought, and it is how a majority of the designees are awarded. The program is still valuable as it challenges you to strive to continually improve yourself, but the process can be used for so much more.

The CPC has recognized the importance of career planning since the inception of the Chief Fire Officer (CFO) designation in 2000. The CPC has continued to look for ways to help fire and emergency service personnel achieve their professional goals. CPC now offers the Chief EMS Officer (CEMSO), started in 2008; Chief Training Officer (CTO), started in 2012; Fire Marshal (FM), started in 2011; and Fire Officer (FO), started in 2009. The diversity of the programs offered by the CPC in the form of professional designations can provide the guidance needed for anyone trying to obtain their career goals in many areas of the fire service.

Setting goals & objectives

So how do we use the designation system as forethought instead of an afterthought? It is as simple as printing the application. Departments or individuals can print the application and use it to help give guidance to someone seeking to improve him or herself and prepare them for promotion.

The various parts of the designation process look to develop the person as a whole and help set goals and objectives for continuous improvement. While each designation is specific to the field it is focused on, there are similarities among them. These include a personal profile and employment information, letters of reference, professional development, contributions, memberships, affiliations, community involvement and technical competencies. The technical competencies are where you find the greatest difference in each designation area. CFO has 20 competencies, CEMSO 18, CTO 15, FM 17 and FO 12. Each competency is derived from National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) professional qualification standards and related fields.

The technical competencies will help a candidate the most in terms of using the application as a development guide. By reviewing the competencies in the designation related to a particular field and promotional process, an individual can “map” out a path to prepare for the job. Once this is done, the individual seeks those opportunities that will help achieve the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) for each one of the specific competencies. It is also important to note that not just one course may complete one technical competency. It may take several classes to meet various contents within the specific competency itself. For example, in Technical Competency 1, Assessment and Planning for CFO, the learning content or KSAs a person must have include:

“Insurance grading, community and general planning, planning methodologies, demographics, economics, environment, climate, culture, ethnic influences, use of fire management areas, collecting and analyzing data, hazard analysis, change process, trends and patterns.”

A single class most likely will not cover all of the areas contained in this competency. The individual must seek out those opportunities that will provide insight to each area. Programs may include college-level courses in economics, planning and sociology. Classes from the CPSE on strategic planning, standards of cover development, so statistical analysis using Excel would be advantageous. Other related courses could be third-party courses from a Global Information System (GIS) software provider, Insurance Services Office (ISO) or the many other programs that are available.

Using this example it is easy to see that the process lends itself to helping a person develop in a coordinated manner. The various designation programs also make mentoring our future leaders more consistent as well. If a department wants to establish a formal mentoring program, the various designation programs are a great place to start. The applications can be used to help mentor a person in the competencies they need to seek out. It also helps the mentor to see where a person may be deficient and show them opportunities where they can give the person assignments that will help strengthen them within the department. This also coincides with the International Association of Fire Chief’s (IAFC) 2010) Professional Development Model that emphasizes the need to mentor future leaders and provide them real world experiences as well as traditional education, training and certifications.

Navigating the process

Recognizing the potential for the designation process to be a powerful mentoring tool, the CPSE and the CPC set out to develop the FO Bridge Process. Anyone who has completed the Fire Officer designation process is eligible to participate, but only a limited number of applicants are allowed each year. This process, simply put, assigns a mentor to a candidate to help them navigate the process and puts the forethought into helping the person achieve their goals and hopefully the promotion they desire.

The rigor associated with the FO Bridge process is evident in the fact that the program follows the CFO competencies – challenging candidates and helping them prepare for significant leadership opportunities before being promoted formally. This helps the current department leadership adequately prepare the future leaders of the organization. Another benefit of the FO Bridge program is that a person who completes the bridge and obtains a position commensurate with a chief officer is eligible to submit immediately for the CFO designation; upon successful review, the CFO designation is awarded.

With some understanding, planning and forethought, we as current leaders can provide a method to our future leaders and help them attain their fullest potential. Using the various professional development models and the designation processes can help to take the frustration out of developing our future leaders and provide them a clearer picture of what steps they need to take to prepare themselves for the opportunities they seek.