Higher Education: Keep Your Options Open

Glenn James explains how non-fire-related degrees can still help your fire career.

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Are you thinking about pursuing higher education, but haven’t yet because you aren’t interested in the typical fire science or fire department administration degree? Are you worried that if you obtain a degree in another field it won’t benefit you in your chosen career as a firefighter or EMT? These are valid concerns. Going to college and getting a degree is a big decision—it can be taxing of your time, your family and your finances. Your interests, however, may be more applicable than you think.

Look beyond fire and EMS

Many people in the fire service are immediately drawn to a degree in fire science or fire department administration. These degrees are valuable and can certainly provide you the knowledge and skills to be a competitive, well-rounded general practitioner within the service, but they are not the only areas of study that are applicable or important within the fire service. You want to pursue something that will benefit your career, but you may have other interests, too. Studying a subject that is more specific and possibly not quite so apparently linked to the fire service can open up opportunities for you on and off the job, while also filling the service’s ever-growing need for employees with specialized, focused education and training.

Think about it, each day personnel in your department are learning about and doing jobs involving chemistry, budget/finance, supply chain management, written/verbal communications, information technology, programming, managing, and the list goes on. Who is expected to do these jobs? Most likely you are. But who is going to teach you how, and who taught them? The modern world presents new challenges for the fire service each and every day; challenges that may not be best answered with the same solutions that have been handed down through the generations within the walls of your organization. Instead, they may be better answered by individuals with diverse backgrounds, educations, and skill sets; some of which have been gained or influenced by forces outside of or unrelated to the fire service.

Personal accounts

In previous articles, we have discussed some of the general development that is possible when you pursue higher education—regardless of the topic or subject—such as improved higher order thinking, becoming a better practitioner of reflection and communication, and the general portrayal of your determination and good work ethic (I will include links to these articles here for reader reference). This time we are drilling down a little to discuss the potential benefits and applicability of degrees that may not seem to be related to your fire service career, but are just as valuable. Following are a few evidential accounts from local fire service colleagues, that I hope will highlight the importance of educational diversity within the workforce. While these examples are not inclusive of all possible educational routes, I simply want to shed some light on the importance of seemingly unrelated fields of study.

Jen Burrier, a fire lieutenant with the Anne Arundel, MD, County Fire Department, has been involved in emergency services for 15 years. Burrier currently holds both a bachelor of arts in English and a master of science in management of homeland security. When discussing with her the usefulness or applicability of her higher education in her daily fire service career, she recalled several areas in which her collegiate studies have proved beneficial. Burrier during her career has assisted in authoring several successful grant and federal reimbursement submissions, as well as documents for the re-structuring and expansion of the departments Peer Support Program. In addition, she is currently tasked with assisting with PIO duties, in which her background in prose has proven advantageous. Burrier explained that her degree was focused on “rhetoric, writing and language.” It was during this time that she intensively studied “ethos, pathos, and logos during communication.” Ethos, pathos, and logos are the Greek terms which represent and define credibility, emotion, and logic (respectfully), which are the main artistic proofs, or means of persuasion, used in classic written or spoken persuasive communication.

As you can imagine, education and experience in persuasive communication can be a valuable asset in the fire service, especially for those functioning in a leadership capacity, due to the causal relationship between persuasion and motivation or inspiration. Being able to create internal motivation or inspiration within your subordinates or peers in a positive way will always outweigh the alternative of enforcement. Burrier’s education has proven valuable in varying situations including submitting financial aid requests, documentation, and communication, especially during emotionally charged situations; which firefighters are tasked with each and every day.

Similarly, Firefighter Nate Martin has been with Howard County, MD, Department of Fire and Rescue Services for seven years. He currently holds a bachelor of science in sociology/anthropology with a concentration in criminal justice. Sociology and anthropology are two of the main social sciences focused on the study of human behavior, specifically within their own culture or societal structures, and the general relationships that may exist between the two. Martin feels that his degree has served him well in several ways during his time as a firefighter to include greatly increasing his ability to serve as an effective communicator, both in verbal and written communication. One specific benefit Martin recalls is that of the exposure he experienced to many cultures and perspectives that he may not have experienced outside of this collegiate career. “I am able to empathize with the people that I serve more genuinely due to the fact that I have a general concept of their cultural context,” says Martin. This brings up an excellent point, especially if you work in a culturally diverse area, as you may encounter varying cultural or religious beliefs, customs, or societal structures that may necessitate alteration of your approach and/or service delivery. This can be challenging amidst an emergent call for service. Being prepared for, or at least aware of these challenges beforehand can be very advantageous.

“A changing world requires adaptable first responders," Martin said. "Collegiate studies are one of many options for individuals looking to grow and develop their ability to learn and problem solve."

Martin is currently pursuing a master of divinity in chaplaincy. When complete, he hopes to serve first responders as a chaplain. In the tumultuous society we live in and with PTSD and emergency service personnel mental health and safety being such a pronounced topic, this is certainly an area of the fire service that is underserved and in need of much attention.

Firefighter/Paramedic Bridget Weiss currently works for the Annapolis, MD, Fire Department, and has been involved in emergency services for 24 years. However, when not serving the communities of the Annapolis area as a firefighter/paramedic, she does so as a nurse practitioner. She has worked in labor and delivery (neonatal care), preanesthesia testing, and urgent care. Weiss admits that her educational background and the experience that she has gained thorough her studies and work experience as an RN and CRNP has given her the unique ability to assist with training, new program/equipment implementation, and relationship building in a way that she would not be able to without her education. Being a nurse practitioner has given her a unique perspective while working in emergency medical services. Many EMS practitioners treat the acute issue at hand, with little knowledge of what contributed to the condition, nor what happens after we transfer care to the emergency room staff. Weiss, however, is able to assess the emergent situation, from a “whole patient perspective, as this holistic approach serves as the nucleus of much nursing curriculum.” In addition, through her education, clinicals and practice as a CRNP, Weiss feels that she has learned to work with “many strong personalities with varying, and sometimes opposing perspectives and goals, in the interest of doing what is best for the customer.”

Find your interests

As emergency service professionals, quality customer service is the product that we strive to produce or deliver to the end user, or citizens that we serve. It is easy to become tunnel visioned when operating on an emergency scene, whether it be fire or EMS based. Having an education background that looks at some similar issues, but from a broader, higher level, more holistic view, can greatly benefit you in crafting the optimal customer service experience on each and every call.

The benefits of higher education are not limited to the aforementioned areas, whether they are directly related to the fire service or not. Specialty degrees or training aimed at fields of study outside of emergency services are valuable and the demand for them will only continue to grow. These alternate areas of study not only lend themselves to your success as a general practitioner in your fire service career but also make you an asset to special assignments or projects. The world in which we operate is growing evermore complex each day, and higher education is a good avenue for professional development to help you keep pace.

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