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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We have talked a lot about how valuable education is in the fire service, but examining its relative worth should provide useful data. I’d like to examine the relative value of higher education emanating from the chief's office and compare it to what's being offered from the county manager's dais. Of course, the level of support might be measured in money or promotional prospects, higher education has some position in all jurisdictions...we’re just not sure to what extent.

“Will the public be interested in supporting higher education?” is another question in my mind. Studying the public’s perception of the fire service based on its level of understanding of what we do would be great too.

I agree that the central question is to what level of support chiefs and their bosses want to provide higher education. The study (thus far) will not look at pay for performance in the upper strata of fire service leadership, merely at the potential for better leadership via education. And as you point out, the public sector has funded higher education in a belief that it makes better managers and executives, so some body of evidence exists to support this linkage.

Coleman: From my perspective, there are three really critical elements in the discussion of how higher education fits into our world. The first of these is the idea that we have to even be educated in the first place. Where did that start? In my files, I have documents that go all the way back to the 1920s that declare that firefighting was a trade occupation. Individuals such as Ralph Scott and the early members of IFSTA (International Fire Service Training Association) supported the idea that firefighting was a manual skill. If you fast forward to the days of the first Wingspread Conference in 1960, someone suggested that we need to be “educated” instead of just being trained. We can trace the development of most of the community college programs from that date.

My second point is based on something I have heard Dr. Onieal state many times over and over again, and that is we are not truly a profession until we can tell people what it takes to be there and we can pull their license to perform. That is very true for a physician, an attorney, even an engineer, but it does not exist for a fire chief.

Simply asking the fire service what it needs to become more professional is self-serving. In my opinion, the only people who can truly assess our level of professionalism are those that are hiring us. They have a different perspective on everything. Years ago, I did a survey of all the parties who had been selected as a fire chief in the previous year. I sent them a task sheet for them to prioritize their informational and occupational needs and to place them into a priority list. I sent the same list to the city managers. Without belaboring all of the other points that this survey created, there was one main observation. City managers ranked some tasks to be extremely high and others to be relatively low. The fire service survey came back with the same phenomena, but the two lists were reversed. In other words, what fire chiefs thought was important, was not important to city managers and what city managers thought was important, the fire chiefs placed very low.

The last comment I would make is that raising the bar on the education of the future fire chief is really being driven more by our internal desire to look and sound like a professional much more than it is being driven by a demand from the public that we demonstrate these skill sets. I don’t even pretend to have an answer to this phenomenon anymore other than to suggest that if we want to be perceived as professionals and to have an education that is equivalent to our peers, we are going to have to raise the bar for everybody and hold the bar steady for an entire generation to complete it.

In summary, this is a problem of monumental proportion that is not going to be brought to a head by a series of email exchanges. The more we talk about it, the more I think we define what our true needs are going to be in the future. Just looking back on the past, I feel that we have been seeking something, but lack a consensus as to what that something really is. Do we really need a highly educated person to lay fire hose? Can we really afford to have someone managing a multimillion-dollar budget who doesn’t understand finance? Every time I look at the model of who we are, I am reminded of the military model where the infantryman is at the bottom and the general is at the top. Very few generals got there strictly through tenure and experience. Perhaps this dialogue will continue to focus on the need to clearly identify what being an officer is all about.