Higher Education Sidebar: Experience and Education Together Make the Leader

Denise Pouget knew she loved firefighting from a young age. She began her career in high school, volunteering with the local fire department at the age of 15. It quickly became her life’s passion, and she spent many years working hard to get the experience she needed to move up in the ranks.

However, she soon discovered that in order to advance to leadership positions, she would need to work hard at something that had never come easy to her: school.

“As I got into the field, I realized there was a lot I didn’t know,” she said. So Pouget enrolled in American Public University (APU) and graduated in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in fire science management. However, her education endeavors did not stop there. In February, Pouget graduated with a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management (EDM), also from APU.

“I’m the last person you would think would have her master’s, but again, if you love what you do and want to get to the next level … that means being prepared. Being prepared means opening your mind to new ideas and information and I think that’s what young people coming into the fire service need to understand,” said Pouget.

Pouget’s education endeavors have paid off. On July 22, 2013, she became the first female chief of the Frederick County, MD, Division of Fire & Rescue Services. Not only is she the first woman to lead the department, but she is also the first to hold dual positions as both chief and director of the Division of Fire & Rescue Services. In these roles, she is tasked with unifying career and volunteer firefighters in the county.


Choosing an educational path

Pouget decided to get her master’s in EDM because the fire service continues to evolve as a multifaceted field. Her coursework gave her a great foundation in planning for large-scale events as well as a better understanding of the role other agencies play during such emergencies. As many fire leaders know, planning has become an increasingly important element in fire service management and Pouget said she finds that the EDM master’s provides her the knowledge and skillset to prepare efficiently for such incidents.

Pouget has had many opportunities to apply her education to her career. For example, during the massive snowstorm that crippled the mid-Atlantic states in 2010 (also known as “Snowmageddon”), Pouget was sequestered for 10 days in the emergency operations center in Alexandria, VA. She applied her EDM studies to improve her understanding of how multiple agencies must work together.

“It was a perfect example of entities coming together to help a little city like Alexandria when we desperately needed it,” said Pouget. “Education did not teach me everything, but it did help prepare me when I was thrust into these roles.”

Now that she has achieved the rank of chief, Pouget recommends that younger firefighters start their formal education as soon as possible.

“Just start doing it little by little and eventually you’ll get there and you’ll be glad you did because it’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” she said. “That’s not to say education is everything but education and experience together makes the leader.”

And she knows she’s not done learning either. “I believe in higher education, and I’m a lifelong learner,” she said. “I never think I know everything I need to know, there’s always something else out there to learn.”