Making Education Part of Your Backup Plan

Feb. 1, 2014
Leischen Stelter explains why a firefighter pursued a degree as a backup plan.

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.

For example, if you are assigned to the arson unit, it is important to learn about investigations. Getting a certificate degree in criminal justice may be extremely beneficial as you will learn the techniques and terminology of law enforcement. Similarly, someone is in the hazardous materials response unit may want to pursue a certificate in environmental science, which may provide insight into the field as well as make one more marketable when transitioning to another career.

When you find something that strikes your interest, a college degree can take it to the next level.

“Formal degrees can help bridge experience and expertise,” said Anthony Mangeri, who is also an assistant professor at AMU, and has a master’s degree in public administration. Mangeri combined his 25 years of field experience and training as a volunteer firefighter and EMT with formal education to help him transition to emergency management and eventually into teaching.

“You have to realize that you are building yourself into a career where you’re expected to be dynamic,” Mangeri said. “You have to understand field operations, write and think critically, and you have to be able to interact with a variety of stakeholders so you must have those communication skills.”

Applying education directly to your career

James McLaughlin has learned firsthand how critical it is to develop expertise and skills beyond technical training. McLaughlin has been a firefighter for 25 years in the Warwick, RI, Fire Department, a 215-person department. He worked his way up to battalion chief and was recently promoted to assistant fire chief. Education played a very significant role in his career advancement and also gave McLaughlin the knowledge and confidence to take on such leadership roles.

He was initially inspired to go back to school soon after becoming battalion chief, when he was given emergency management responsibilities as a collateral duty.

“I realized I needed to educate myself about emergency management – it’s its own world,” he said. He started taking college courses and once he started, he realized he wanted to get a full degree. He enrolled in American Public University and graduated in 2012 with a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management.

In his current role as assistant chief, his education continues to benefit him. “I’m in a whole different career now,” he said. “I was a fireman and now I’m totally administrative. More than ever, I can see how my formal education has helped.”

For example, once a week McLaughlin attends city council meetings where he interacts with other heads of city departments and advocates for the fire department. “No matter what your specific degree, education helps your communication skills, both written and verbal,” he said.

It has also helped with his research abilities. “The last thing you want to do is go up in front of the council and ask for something that you don’t have the details about,” he said. “My degree really helped me, and this transition would have been a lot more difficult if I didn’t have an education.”

Charter had a very similar experience after getting a degree in public administration. “Education helped me professionally in that it gave me the ability to look at things critically and taught me how to support my arguments and positions whatever the issue happened to be,” he said.

Honing these skills has become more critical as municipal budgets have shrunk and resources have dwindled. “You can no longer go to an elected body and say ‘we need this equipment’ – we are now playing in the arena with everyone else and competing for the same resources,” stated Charter.

It is becoming more and more common that higher-level jobs require bachelor’s degrees and many times departments often prefer candidates with master’s degrees. Charter recommends looking outside your department and beyond your region to see what requirements are trending nationally.

Such requirements played a role in inspiring McLaughlin to pursue his master’s degree. “Many fire departments are getting more and more into minimum requirements for promotion,” he said. “If you want to go up the ladder in the department, you need to have ‘x’ amount of education.”

McLaughlin said the hardest part for many of his peers is taking that first step and enrolling in a course. He just forced himself to jump into it.

“Don’t wait,” he advised. “The biggest problem is that people get caught up with their families and kids and you say you’re going to do it and then all of a sudden you just didn’t do it.”

Start with just one course, he advised, and become comfortable with school again. The effort you put into it will be well worth what you get out of it.

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