Higher Education: Assessing Higher Education's Role in the Fire Service

For the better part of the seven years, I have been looking at the importance of higher education in the fire service. I’ve done this through numerous articles in Firehouse ® Magazine that have provided rich anecdotal evidence that indicates some...


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Onieal: Ah…The elusive “value of education debate…” The President recently proffered the thought that colleges should be evaluated on the salaries of their graduates. If the scope is narrow enough, the limitations well defined and using previously developed measurement tools, a comparison between/among departments might be possible.

 

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Snodgrass: Talking with colleagues today, I was reminded that the city managers and county administrators who hire fire chiefs might be the other target of this investigation: they set the groundwork for relevance of higher education in the fire service

Thiel: It’s really at least two different topics: one, what is the value of higher education to a fire department, presumably assessed by the fire chief, but possibly by others in the chain of command; and two, what is the value of higher education to a prospective fire chief’s appointing authority, generally a mayor, manager, board chair, etc.

Kaplan: Perhaps this study should be two-pronged: an examination of the hiring practices of the fire chief and his/her city manager or mayor. This could reveal some important differences in attitudes towards higher education within jurisdictions and their effects on performance. On the one hand, a city manager with just a high school diploma might be less willing to support a fire chief who wants to require some level of higher education for promotions. Conversely, a mayor who, like most of his/her department heads, has an MPA (master of public administration degree) can create pressure on a fire chief to pursue the same (not an uncommon motivation, by the way). Testing the hypothesis that higher education improves the performance of a fire department and the public it serves, elusive as it may be, might be best assessed by looking at who’s driving the push for education, the city leader or the fire chief. Taking it one step further, if both are in sync one way or the other, are there measurable effects on fire department performance?

Broman: At first look, this type of research makes sense and I support/encourage it. When I come under the influence of pragmatism, I ask myself, “Who is the audience here?” or “Of what benefit will this be to the cause of fire service professional development?” I also ask, “What is the result if the research is inconclusive?” I hasten to add that you should not misunderstand; I shall always be a strong proponent of higher education for the fire service. I have encountered some of the most assertive “naysayers” and have concluded that they tend to make the case for higher education by displaying their narrowness or ignorance.

The process of higher education requires at least two major resource investments; i.e., time and money. In my mind, the practical question before both fire service members (potential leaders) and/or hiring authorities is whether the results are worth the investments. By my observations, business (private sector) has consistently opted for higher education (even to the extent of stipulating to the quality of the education) because there is a clear, measurable return on the investment in terms of business outcomes; e.g., profitability and growth.

Again by my observations – including recent experiences in a consulting role – is that the customer (the public) is interested in LESS service (lower cost) and has NO interest in rewarding high performance management/leadership with competitive compensation. So, if the research shows that higher education produces better leadership, more effective management and better outcomes, how does that affect the contemporary public thought/attitudes/decisions?

 

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Snodgrass: From my experience, I'd have to agree with you in terms of the public wanting to pay less for more. Taxes, subsidies, assessments and user fees, which I believe are of the same ilk, are not popular. But the public expects fire service professionals to solve all their problems – from a momentary bout with gravity to providing advanced life support (ALS) in an attempt to save a loved one who is clinically dead, to making sure the nearby chemical plant is up to code and when it does have an emergency, that residents are protected. Not to mention the expectation that the fire department will bring the right resources, command structure and competent crews to extinguish a fire that threatens the commercial lifeblood of a community.