The NFA's Degrees-at-a-Distance Program

Aug. 1, 2005
Bill Lowe and Joanne Hildebrand review an option for fire service professionals interested in obtaining a college degree, which is one critical element for climbing the fire service career ladder.

Ask recruits reporting to their first day of training, "What are your career goals?" and many will respond, "I'm going to be the fire chief!" A reasonable follow-up question to these enthusiastic, and slightly naive, recruits would be, "What action steps must you take during your career to develop your knowledge, skills, and abilities for being appointed a fire chief?" This question would likely generate blank stares from both the recruits as well as many senior officers.

Unfortunately, far too many firefighters leave their career development to fate or last-minute urgency when preparing for upcoming promotional examinations. While there are an array of career-climbing tactics and strategies, most fire service leaders agree that obtaining a college degree is one critical element for climbing the fire service career ladder.

As the director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI) at the University of Maryland, and past president of the North American Fire Training Directors, Steven T. Edwards is often asked, "What levels of education are required for certain positions within the fire service?" For a company officer, he recommends a fire service associate's degree; for a battalion officer, a fire service bachelor's degree; and for chief officer, a master's degree in a general management field is desirable.

"The higher you ascend within your fire department, the better an educational foundation you will need," Edwards said. "Similar to a building, the higher it is, the stronger a foundation it needs."

Despite the growing need for college degrees, firefighters have experienced two problems in accessing college-level education that other members of the workforce do not generally have: prospective students in the fire service are too geographically scattered to warrant the attention of many existing educational institutions, and fire service personnel work on schedules differing from those of almost every other group of potential students.

Addressing Accessibility

The fire service has long recognized the fact that a single fire department cannot combat the ravages of fire alone. It is only through mutual aid, or "partnerships" with other fire departments and community organizations, that the nation's citizens are protected. Borrowing from this valuable lesson, the National Fire Academy (NFA) has joined in partnership with seven U.S. universities to provide the Degrees-at-a-Distance Program (DDP) as an affordable, obstacle-free gateway of opportunity for members of fire service and allied professions to access advanced education in fire science through distance learning. The NFA also hosts the annual Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Conference, which provides a unique venue to representatives from colleges and universities and local fire service training agencies to address emerging issues in professional development and to foster educational programs specifically designed for the fire officer of the future.

The DDP schools offer 13 upper-level courses specially formatted for distance education, using tools such as online delivery via the Internet, course guides specifically written for independent learning, CD-ROMS, and video programs. Most schools offer credit for life experience and provide internship opportunities. In addition to degree programs, certificate programs are available. Even if a student is interested in taking only one course for career or personal development, upon successful completion of that course the student earns a NFA course certificate.

Accessible education for members of the fire service is making a difference. Students from as far away as Australia have earned degrees by way of DDP and moved on to assume leadership roles in the profession. According to a survey of University of Maryland University College (UMUC) Fire Science graduates, 60% of the graduates surveyed have advanced in rank, 75% have increased their income and 45% have earned a fire-related professional certification. Nearly 37% are enrolled in graduate school and 24% have earned a master's or doctorate. UMUC's fire science graduates are typical of all DDP school graduates in that they teach, publish articles and write books; they chair national conferences, and participate in the consensus standards-making process. They also participate in the national arena and become the leaders of America's emergency responses services. Matthew Stevens, Dan Quimby, and Melissa Helgesen are three such leaders.

Educational Role Models

Matthew Stevens comes from a family of firefighters, beginning with his grandfather, who was a volunteer firefighter in St. Mary's County, MD, and including his father, who is the chief of the Waldorf, MD, volunteer department. After graduating from high school, Stevens decided to pursue his dream of becoming a state fire marshal, and began this journey by enrolling in the local community college, where he earned an associate's degree in fire science while serving as a volunteer firefighter in Waldorf. But, he knew he needed a four-year degree to realize his dream.

Enrolled as a full-time DDP student at UMUC, he took on an often grueling schedule, working a variety of part-time jobs in addition to answering an average of 80 volunteer fire calls each month. But, as Stevens will eagerly admit, the hard work paid off. Recently, at the age of 22, he was appointed deputy state fire marshal (beating out more than 200 other qualified applicants), a job that combines fire prevention with investigation and law enforcement. And, according to those in the firefighting business, landing that job at such a young age is a testament not only to Stevens' outstanding achievement and commitment, but also to the exceptional education he received at UMUC.

Daniel Quimby already has a bachelor's degree from Thomas Edison State College and a master's degree in criminal justice from St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, but wished to increase his career opportunities in the building safety and fire-related construction field by earning his second bachelor's degree in fire science at UMUC.

A former police officer, Quimby is now the executive general manager of maintenance and emergency management for the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and performs volunteer planning and logistical work with the Pennsylvania Urban Search and Rescue Task Force. Quimby earned academic credit through UMUC's Prior Learning program for his on-the-job experience. He believes that education has been a critical component in all of his jobs, adding that it is particularly essential for first responders, who must function in a "can-do atmosphere" at all times.

Melissa Helgesen lives in Verona, WI. A former sheriff's department employee, Helgesen is now a captain in charge of fire inspection and prevention, and incident command at the Verona Fire Department. Helgesen came to UMUC for the higher education that would give her greater professional perspective and opportunity for advancement. "The highest degree offered in this region is an associate's degree, so it was good that I could do it at a distance," she said.

Helgesen previously earned an associate's degree in police science at a local community college. She was able to apply many of those credits toward her UMUC degree and also gain credit for some of her work experience through UMUC's Prior Learning program. Helgesen, who graduated in 2003, said the flexibility of UMUC's distance education program made it possible for her to keep up her busy lifestyles and work her classes into her schedule.

"I just loved the flexibility of it," she said. "It's the only way I could really do it."

Curriculum and Contacts

In all, there are 13 DDP courses covering a broad and balanced range of interests and professional needs. Courses draw on and include the study and application of statistics, psychology, sociology, management, law, political science, economics, mathematics, engineering, and a number of special fields, such as hazardous materials, arson investigation and fire research. Further information about the Degrees-at-a-Distance Program may be found at

Don't waste another moment evaluating the many resources for enhancing your career competencies for acquiring the prestigious title of fire chief. The effort and interest taken today will pay enormous dividends when competing in promotional examinations.

Bill Lowe, MIFireE, EMT-P, is a captain with the Clayton County, GA, Fire Department, where he has worked for 26 years. He has a doctorate in human resource management, a post-doctorate in marketing management, and will complete the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officer Program in October 2005. JoAnne Hildebrand is the academic director of fire science at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), holds the rank of collegiate associate professor and chairs the National Fire Academy Degrees-at-a-Distance Higher Education Consortium. She received master and bachelor of arts degrees, magna cum laude, from the University of Maryland at College Park. She received the UMUC's 2000 Stanley J. Drazek Teaching Excellence Award.

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