Higher Education: Step by Step, Promotion by Promotion

April 1, 2017
Jeff Piechura shares his journey through the higher education system.

The complexities of today’s fire and life safety services are immense. Whether leading a municipal, district, volunteer or authority, these complexities are relative to the needs of the community and its risks. The leadership at every level of the fire agency has a responsibility to be the best they can be to safely and effectively lead people, and manage the resources and risks in serving the community.

Having an educated workforce and being able to lead this workforce are important elements in creating a highly resilient and adaptive organization that can effectively meet the challenges faced by the fire service. In order to meet the need for higher levels of educated leaders and employees, fire service agencies have moved gradually toward requiring minimum educational standards for positions. This effort has been sporadic and not without great pains, particularly when there are incumbents who do not meet the new requirements.

My story

My educational journey—and the efforts to bring the organizations and other leaders into the educational improvement process—was long and, interestingly, not planned out, at least not at first. It happened organically, as the education was needed. Looking back, it’s clear that the process made a huge impact on my career, and it continues to make a difference in all of the members who followed the higher education path, whether by plan or in a more impromptu fashion. With this in mind, I’d like to share with you my higher education story and offer some observations and takeaways that I believe are valuable to anyone in the fire service.

Early days

I grew up living down the street from Phoenix Fire Station 17. That is where my passion to become a firefighter started. The firefighters at the station were always welcoming when I stopped by on my paper route—that’s right a paperboy—to grab a drink of water and a talk. The station, the people and the firefighters’ excitement when the station alert system went off, and the wail of the siren as the fire engine rolled out onto the street, all stirred a passion in me. I wanted to do this when I grew up. 

I started my journey into the fire service one year out of high school. That was 1979. Like many young and impetuous lads of the time, I thought I was ready to join the fire service without any need for formal college education. Like my father—a blue-collar, hard-working soul who had little post-high school education—I figured I could work hard, earn my way into the job, and succeed. While I was working full-time right out of high school, I became a part of the fire brigade that would respond to hazardous material releases. This required me to know something about chemistry. My high school chemistry class did not prepare me for this, so I signed up for a chemistry class at a community college.

I heard about an opportunity to join a reserve firefighter program in the valley. I applied and got the job. I needed to learn about fire dynamics, so I took an introduction to fire science course at the community college. Within six months of becoming a reserve, I was hired on full-time and began learning the job in the field. I needed to study the IFSTA manuals and drill with other firefighters. I also needed to learn more about the whole fire service thing, so I began taking more fire science courses at the community college.

In my first two years on the job, I had taken six fire science courses. I thought I knew what I needed to know for the engineer position that was coming open, so I applied, tested and failed. I needed to know hydraulics and the formulas for fireground application before I could get the position. I took another class at the community college. The hydraulics class helped me to become a better engineer in understanding the theories and practical application of managing the water supply, hoselines and pumps.

I also took the tactics and strategy courses because I knew I wanted to be a captain someday. The tactics and strategy courses helped with how to critically evaluate incidents and manage them safely. When the next test for engineer came, I passed at the top of the list.

Path to officer level

By this time, I had five years on the job and I was ready to climb to the captain’s seat. I tested and failed the written exercise. Writing had always been my weakness, so I took two semesters of writing. On the next test, I passed and promoted into a captain’s position. Now I was responsible for leading people, keeping them safe, challenging them and mentoring them.

I struggled with the whole “leadership thing,” so I took some more classes at the community college. I needed to learn more about how to lead and what motivates people. If I were to be successful, I needed to learn more. After six more semesters of courses, along with mentoring from others and trial and error with those whom I supervised, I started to a get the hang of leadership and what I needed in order to support the crewmembers in their career journey.

After three years of being a captain and continuing to take more classes, and receiving a fire science certificate, I became an instructor for the community college. I taught a fire service leadership class based on a California instructor curriculum developed by Ronny J. Coleman. The course was a video series-based program that offered a new way of teaching and engaging the students in lecture and application of the material. I really enjoyed teaching and wanted to teach different subjects, but in order to continue, I needed a full degree, so I went back to the community college to complete my associate’s degree.

The battalion chief test was coming up so I thought I would prepare myself for this next challenge. While hanging out with a battalion chief one day, I read an article in a journal from the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) that published a guidance document on educational requirements for fire service leadership. This document set the essential criteria for leading people, organizations and thinking critically. The document leveraged the results of the success that law enforcement agencies had gained by requiring minimum educational standards for their leadership positions. The fire service criteria stated that at a minimum: Fire station officers needed an associate’s degree; chief officers needed a bachelor’s degree; and the fire chief needed a master’s degree. I now had an educational career path to follow.

Higher education arrives

The agency that I was with in 1988 did not have any higher educational requirements. If you had them, that was a bonus. I continued to work on my associate’s degree, tested for the battalion chief position, passed and promoted.

Timing was such that in 1991, the Fire District Board of Directors asked me to become the fire chief. I accepted and found that I did not know what I did not know. I had worked hard with some great people to help move the organization forward with some good success. Yet I was still lacking key insights and knowledge of leading an organization in the new times of public funding. Trying to keep ahead of the continuous changes facing the fire service (particularly later in a post-9/11 world) was extremely demanding and taxing on my skill and knowledge sets. I needed more. I had to develop my critical thinking skills to do what is right and what is necessary to be a good leader.

By 2000, I finally completed my associate’s degree and jumped right into the new Arizona State University (ASU) fire management degree program. This was the year that our agency adopted a phase-in program for educational requirements for leadership positions. The phase-in program provided for all fire officers to obtain a minimum of a an associate’s degree by 2005 and a bachelor’s degree by 2010. The agency also provided various levels of performance-based tuition assistance to help.

It was a challenge to bring along people who didn’t want a degree or felt it wasn’t needed. A few people were initially highly critical of the requirement, but were ultimately thankful for the change. Through the efforts of many, we achieved 100 percent success.

I am thankful for the support of the elected officials of the Fire Board, who supported me to implement the educational requirements and provide adequate funding for the employees to participate and grow. The need for the organization’s policy body to support these measures is critical to sustaining the professional development and succession planning of our employees.

In 2005, I finished the ASU undergrad program with a bachelor’s in applied science. I jumped right into the master’s fire administration program. In 2007, the agency achieved accreditation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE). The accreditation process drives organizations through continuous improvement in all facets of the organization, including that the leadership of these accredited agencies needs to follow suit—and we did. By 2011, I completed the master’s program. Every person filling a leadership position in the organization had now conformed to the minimum educational standards.

Key takeaways

As previously noted, my educational journey started, not with a plan, but with the need to achieve the required course work to move to the next level. I did it on a working person’s schedule, with a new family and aggressive career aspirations. It was haphazard to say the least, but in a more organic sense, it worked for me given life, family and work priorities.

In my journey, I met a number of fellow firefighters who had their degrees in a wide variety of disciplines. I have known firefighters with juris doctorate, MBA, education, psychology, chemical engineering and civil engineering degrees, to name a few. They each wanted a change in career and went back to school to obtain their fire science degrees to become a firefighter. For each and every one of them, the key first step was taking initiative.

Taking the initiative toward self-improvement is a key driver in any personal or professional development. In every part of my educational journey, I sought the insights of my bosses and of those whom I call my mentors. No one handed me the “guide”; I had to search for it and ask many questions to find my way, even at the very beginning.

I remember the first college course that I took to help me with the hazmat requirement for the fire brigade. It had not been long since I graduated high school, so studying was not that big of a challenge or readjustment; it was the different styles of teaching and the higher expectations placed on me to be responsible for my own classroom work that was new. I did not have the high school teacher pushing me to finish the projects or lessons. The expectations were fully on me to get the work done if I wanted the credit for the class. That experience set the stage for how every one of my future classes and degree programs were to be. It’s important for firefighters to understand the self-direction and initiative needed for the pursuit of advanced degrees.

The captain’s level is where things changed for me. The skills weren’t focused on quantifiable details anymore, like what I had learned in basic fire science and hydraulics courses. It was writing, leadership and decision-making—more nebulous concepts that I honed in my coursework. The writing course was particularly valuable, and all company officer’s need to understand the importance of having basic writing skills. At this stage of your career, you are completing after-action reports, writing reports for the chief and presenting your conclusions in a written manner like never before.

The writing coursework provided a great foundation for the leadership work ahead. Being a leader is not something that’s easy to teach—or learn—but the coursework helped open my eyes to the types of issues that I would have to face on the incident scene, presenting new programs, and in personnel situations at the station. Although not everyone will have the time to take leadership courses through a college, there are myriad resources available online, at conferences, and in books and magazines to sharpen your skills. Figure out the leaders whom you want to emulate and follow what they are writing or speaking about. This will prove invaluable as you take on more formal/plan-based learning.

The elective courses in all of the degree programs provided me the perspective of the world around me, the critical-thinking skills for developing programs and solutions to challenges, and a greater appreciation of what it means to research topics without bias and with an open mind to the outcomes. In my experiences, elected officials and city/county managers greatly appreciate fact-based and objective reports from the fire department. I have found that the support from policy leaders increases for public safety programs when the presentations are objective, based on facts, have references and solid recommendations based on such.

That was my situation, but what educational path is best for you?

Find your path

Today, the educational path is much clearer for those wanting to grow in their firefighting career. There are many community college fire science programs that offer students certificates of completion, and when the student fulfills the general studies portion, an associate’s degree is given. Many fire agencies are recruiting from these colleges. Some fire agencies will provide basic fire academies for new firefighters, and some fire academies align with community colleges to offer credit hours that go toward a degree.

Once you make it into a fire agency, many have developed career paths for the fire service that outline the educational and training needs to promote or move to, such as fire prevention, public education, administration and leadership positions and roles.

The progressive, agile and adaptive fire organizations that develop their employees for leading the agency into the next generation have minimum educational requirements for each position. Scanning the job postings in the last few years, more and more fire agencies hiring for leadership positions are asking for a minimum degree as a requirement. The area of study for the degree is varied, mostly focusing on public administration, business and, for some areas of the country, fire administration:

  • Administrative support: minimum of an associate’s degree, preferred bachelor’s degree
  • Supervisory lieutenant/captain: minimum of an associate’s degree in fire science
  • Mid-management-battalion/division chief: minimum of a bachelor’s degree
  • Upper-level management-assistant/deputy/fire chiefs: master’s degree.

If the agency you are in does not currently have the minimum criteria established, or, you think it is below the national standards and you want to conform to best practices, then develop your own educational path based on the information above. You will learn to appreciate the benefits of initiative, planning and self-improvement, and so will those who follow you.

Final thoughts

The communities we serve have a high expectation that the people leading and working in the highly complex world of the fire department are well educated and highly skilled to perform the life-saving services they receive. Today’s fire service is nothing like the fire service of the 1980s, 1990s and early-2000s. The increased complexity of effectively managing the risks, finances, resources, people and response are immense. This complexity demands adaptive leadership with highly critical thought processes that challenge the norms and seeks new methods of getting the jobs done safely, effectively and thoughtfully—all of this with the community in mind.

In my humble opinion, the need for higher education in the fire service is essential for every level of the leadership of the organization. The educational experience in gaining knowledge, networking and lessons learned in the direct application of skills necessary for leading and administering a fire department has been and continues to be life-changing. 

About the Author

Jeff Piechura

Jeff Piechura is assistant chief for the Sedona, AZ, Fire District. He was previously the fire chief for the City of Stockton, CA, and the Northwest Fire District in Tucson, AZ. Piechura is a graduate of Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in fire management and a master’s degree in fire administration. His current professional affiliations and accomplishments include: 2015 inductee to the Arizona Fire Service Hall of Fame; past president for the Arizona Fire Chiefs Association; past chairman of the Arizona Fire Service Institute; Fire Chief of the Year 2005; vice president of the board of directors for the Center for Public Safety Excellence; and a former member of the NFPA Fire Department Apparatus Standards Committee. 

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