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Michael Charter didn’t originally decide to get an education because he loved school. As a new firefighter, fresh out of the military, he was initially motivated to pursue a degree because he wanted to make sure he had a solid back-up plan.
“If something happened to me, if I fell off a roof or something and I wasn’t able to fight fires anymore, I wanted to still be able to provide for my family,” he said.
So he went back to school and earned a bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, and that’s when he discovered he actually really liked school. He liked it so much that he decided to get his master’s and doctoral degree in public administration.
Formal education as a career asset
While many in the fire service may not choose to pursue quite that level of higher education, it is becoming increasingly important (and often required) to have a formal education in order to advance in the fire service.
After 16 years, Charter is still an active firefighter. He is currently a captain with the Spokane Valley Fire Department in Washington as a safety and training officer and a technical rescue team (TRT) member. He hopes to continue moving up the ranks with the ultimate goal of becoming battalion chief.
In addition to supporting his career in the fire service, he has also used his education to help educate others. He is currently an associate professor at American Military University, teaching courses in fire science management, emergency and disaster management, and homeland security. As a professor, he offers advice to students about how education can help with a career in the fire service and beyond.
• Choose a degree that expands your career options. When deciding what degree to pursue, Charter recommends choosing a degree that broadens your skill set as well as your perspective. “You really want to leverage your education for future opportunities,” he said.
For example, his public administration education combined with his fire service experience provides him many more opportunities in the public sector. “Getting a BA and MA in fire service is great, but it really narrows your options,” he said. “Look outside the fire service, because you’re not going to be a firefighter forever.”
• Take a balanced approach between professional training and formal education. Firefighters often get caught up in focusing on the technical aspect of the field and do not spend enough time diversifying their skill sets.
“I see it all the time in my department because it’s fun to go out and do rope rescues and things like that and it’s comfortable for a lot of people because that’s what they do on a daily basis,” said Charter.
While this type of training is great in terms of response effectiveness and building the capabilities of the department, it is important for firefighters to also take the time to build additional skills.
“Taking a balanced approach between higher education and professional training and certification is a good approach,” Charter said. “If you focus on one too much, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you’re behind in another area that you should have done earlier in your career.”
• Figure out what level of education you need. What you get out of your education is ultimately up to you and based on your own personal motivation. The first step is to determine your career ambitions. If you want to stay in the fire service, start looking at advertisements for desirable jobs. What are the requirements? What level of education is preferred?
The value of certificate programs
Diversifying your education is very important, especially if you have pursued specializations in the fire service. Consider obtaining a certificate degree (typically six academic courses) in an area that complements your specialization. Certificate programs are a good way to build your expertise in a certain area, demonstrate to an employer that you are interested and invested in a certain topic, and ease your way back into an academic mindset.