Distance Learning

April 1, 2004
Harry R. Carter discusses distance learning and the opportunities that are available to earn a college degree through on-line education.
I have long believed that there is a close tie between knowledge and success. This basic principle, which has guided my life, was driven home by my parents in the early part of my life. College was a prized commodity in the eyes of my parents. I was imbued with a thirst for knowledge and have devoted much of my life to gaining, using, and sharing knowledge. I have pursued this goal throughout my life.

Before going any further with this discussion, I think that an important distinction needs to be made for you. It will allow you to gain a better understanding of why people like me place such great emphasis on gaining a formal education. It is a critical element often overlooked by firefighting personnel. They fail to recognize that there is a difference between training and education.

Training deals with the necessary skills and talents needed to perform the actual tactical tasks during any emergency. People are taught the proper way to do something and then reinforce their knowledge with continuing practice. Things like stretching a hoseline, operating a fire department pumper and properly using self-contained breathing apparatus are excellent examples of skill-level training.

Conversely, gaining an education requires your mind to accumulate new facts to augment your personal, mental database. Gathering, analyzing and distilling these facts into a useable form then allows you to increase your ability to think and to react. Dealing with people, managing budgets and crafting strategic plans are not taught at fire school. We really need more theory in today’s active, ever-changing fire service. Given your busy lives, how are you to gain the knowledge and credential that you need to move ahead in the fire service?

Over the course of the past 38 years, I have spent a great deal of time pursuing knowledge in colleges and universities in a wide variety of locations. Like many in my generation, I came to an awareness of the importance of earning a college degree and worked diligently to reach that goal. For the most part, I was limited to taking my coursework in the standard classroom environment. That is just the way it was back in those days. The schools had the knowledge and if you wanted to gather that knowledge, you had to go to them. That was the classic way.

Fortunately for all of us, this is no longer the situation. In a great many cases, your college education is no further away than the screen of your desktop or notebook computer. Over the past two decades, there has been a move among colleges and universities to take their knowledge to the student. The reasons for this are simple. We Americans now live lives that are exceedingly full and hectic. We have employment obligations, and have the need to squeeze our family obligations into the mix. Many of you in the fire service are working shifts that make it somewhat difficult to achieve your educational aims. It is tough to break away and participate in a formal classroom environment.

Back in the 1970s, Dr. Denis Onieal (now the superintendent of the National Fire Academy) and I were students in New Jersey’s first baccalaureate fire science program. Denis and I juggled our academic responsibilities with our fire department schedules (Jersey City for Denis, and Newark for me) as we dove into the fire science program at the former Jersey City State College (now New Jersey City University). After four very difficult years, we were able to don our caps and gowns and receive our bachelor of science degrees. We then both moved on the garner masters’ and doctoral credentials.

As I stated earlier, I am a firm believer in the need to broaden one’s mind. College not only provides knowledge, but it demands of the student such critical attributes as discipline, dedication and persistence if they are to make the grade. If you think about it, these attributes are also critical to success in the fire service. I know that I would not have achieved the successes I have enjoyed were it not for the time spent in pursuit of knowledge.

Thankfully, it is now a great deal easier for you to gain access to the world of collegial knowledge. Many options are available for those who wish to broaden their knowledge base. In addition to the increase in the number of residential fire science programs, there has been a proliferation of open-learning and on-line educational programs over the past two decades.

My experience in this world is up close and personal. In 1975, I was among the first 12 people to receive a bachelor’s degree from our New Jersey open-learning institution, Thomas A. Edison State College. The administrators reviewed the transcripts from all of the schools that I had attended after graduating from high school. After a strict assessment and thorough interview process, I was granted my bachelor of arts in the social sciences. Oddly enough, at the time we received our degrees, Edison’s institutional concept was so new that they had not yet been accredited. There was a great deal of resistance from traditional schools, which felt that one learned best while sitting on one’s butt within a classroom environment. The issue of accreditation has long since been resolved.

Thomas A. Edison State College has taken a much larger view of the educational process. The school was founded on the principle that knowledge is all around us in the world. How we acquire that knowledge is up to us. It must be remembered that Edison himself gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on his own. Few would doubt that Edison was one of the true geniuses of modern times. Edison achieved his success by reading books and paying attention to life as he lived it.

Interestingly, Thomas A. Edison State College has offered a fire science option under its human services degree area for some time. A similar open learning institution has long been in operation in New York State. The Regents External Degree Program of The University of the State of New York lets mid-career adults earn a degree based upon experience, and previous education. Many other institutions have joined the adult educational effort over the past several years. The key to these educational offerings is convenience. You the student can pursue your degree from the relative comfort of your own home or office.

Lest you think that these approaches to earning your degree are easy, let me offer you a warning. You will still be acquiring textbooks, doing research on line, reading regular assignments, answering classwork related questions and crafting regular research papers. Perhaps the only thing you will not be doing is spending untold hours commuting to, and sitting in, the classroom.

One of the earliest distance-learning efforts undertaken within the fire service came from the Open Learning program at the National Fire Academy (NFA). This program is now called the Degrees at a Distance Program, and offers the ability to pursue a bachelor’s degree without the requirement to attend on-campus courses. Primary among the assets of this program is the fact that the NFA has allowed for the development of a common body of knowledge regarding fire, life safety, and emergency services programs. You can find out about this educational program by logging onto the NFA website (http://www.usfa.fema.gov/fire-service/nfa/nfa.shtm) and clicking on the Degrees at a Distance link.

A number of newer programs have come on- line that also offer fire science courses on the Internet. I recently spoke at length with Ed Kaplan of the NFA on the topic of curriculum, subject matter quality, and the future of distance learning. I want you to know that Ed is one of the strongest proponents of quality, distance learning in the fire service today. During my discussion with Ed, the topic of distance learning came up. He is the coordinator for the Degrees at a Distance program. I asked Ed if he knew of a list of those institutions that provided on-line learning for fire service students. He referred me to the website www.firedawg.com. What I found was an interesting list that had been created by a member of the U.S. Air Force, Technical Sergeant Dean C. Riewald.

Being a U.S. Air Force Vietnam-veteran firefighter myself, I reviewed his site with a great deal of interest. His resume includes time spent as a fire protection specialist, and time spent at the Community College of the Air Force, located at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. I would urge you to avail yourself of the hard work that this man has done for us all. There are some interesting opportunities that you can explore.

Do not limit yourself to the fire service world, and most assuredly do not limit yourself to the associate or undergraduate level. There are a number of outstanding, distance-learning opportunities at the graduate level. You should consider broadening into the world of management, public administration, or business administration. I am personally aware of fully-accredited graduate programs at:

  • Capella University
  • Duke University
  • Norwich University
  • Syracuse University
  • University of Phoenix
  • Walden University

Many people in the fire service make the mistake of limiting themselves to fire courses and degrees. Each of us needs to be able to operate within the broader world. Each of us needs to gain knowledge about such important topics as financial management issues, budgets, planning, management, leadership and public administration.

I am completing a doctoral program in the business school at Capella University in Minneapolis. I was scheduled to begin my comprehensive examinations in April and I hope to enter the research phase of my dissertation process by July 1. You may well become the future beneficiary of my research. I will be studying the impact of leadership on retention in the volunteer fire service. To date, I have completed my mandatory residence work in Virginia and Florida, and have faced some serious academic challenges. Like I said earlier, on-line learning is convenient, but it sure is not easy.

If your schedule and circumstance permit, and you are able to gain admission into a residential program, by all means do so. I can assure you that I made some really good friends during my years at dear old Jersey City State. There is also the added advantage of engaging in an on-going discourse with your fellow learners. All of us in the fire science program at JCSC learned a great deal of added knowledge over a cup of coffee at the old diner down by Highway 440, or over a bit of something stronger at Roy’s on Kennedy Boulevard near the school.

This article is by no means an all-encompassing coverage of the distance-learning phenomenon. However, I want you to be aware that there are opportunities to gain knowledge and earn your college degree that do not involve a great deal of classroom time. Let me reinforce the fact that you will have to work for what you wish to achieve. On-line education may be your ticket to future success in the fire service. Go for it.

Harry R. Carter, Ph.D., MIFireE, is a Firehouse® contributing editor. A municipal fire protection consultant based in Adelphia, NJ, he is a former president of the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI). Dr. Carter is an associate professor at Mercer County Community College and a past chief and active life member of the Adelphia Fire Company. A fire commissioner for Howell Township District 2, he retired from the Newark, NJ, Fire Department in 1999 as a battalion commander. He also served as chief of training and commander of the Hazardous Materials Response Team. Dr. Carter is a Member of the Institution of Fire Engineers of Great Britain (MIFireE). You can contact him through his website at [email protected].

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