Matching a Degree with a Career Path

Nov. 1, 2020
Mike Wieder explains how different versions of the same fire-related degree put the onus on the individual to confirm the suitability of a school's program with one's career goals.

In its earliest days and for a long period of time after, firefighting and the fire service, in general, were viewed simply as a trade. Firefighters joined a fire department and typically received some amount of on-the-job training. In many cases, that likely was the only formal training that they received as they progressed through their career. Promotions within the department were based mostly on experience and, in some cases, popularity.

As time evolved, towns and cities became larger and required greater and more sophisticated levels of fire protection. In addition to fires, communities were confronted with hazardous materials, large-scale events, terrorism, growing emergency medical services issues and numerous other concerns beyond the dangers of fire. Often, the fire department was required to take on these challenges. By necessity, the fire service evolved from a relatively simple trade into a more complex profession.

This transition necessitated a greater level of training and education for the members at all levels of a department. Individual departments, local and regional/county fire academies, and state fire training agencies blossomed and met these needs. The U.S. government met some of these needs with the development of the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, MD. Was this enough?

Most true professions require some level of formal higher (college) education for its members to succeed. Today, a wide variety of fire service-based higher education programs prepare individuals to take lead roles in the modern fire service. There are various levels and types of fire-related degrees. How to select the one that is right for you could be challenging.

Levels of degrees

The concept of fire-related college degrees isn’t new. In 1903, the first college degree program in fire protection engineering in the United States was initiated at the Armour Institute in Chicago. This program later became part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, which continued to operate the program until the 1980s. The second known fire-related college degree was developed by Oklahoma State University in 1937. Originally a two-year associate degree program in fire service technology, it evolved into a bachelor’s degree in fire protection and safety engineering technology in the early 1970s. As time and society evolved, more fire protection-related degree programs were founded, including large ones at Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Maryland and Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

According to the National Fire Academy’s Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education program, today there are more than 480 fire-related college degree programs that are offered in the United States. These range from two-year associate degrees to full doctoral degree-level programs.

  • Associate degree or associate in an applied science (AAS): Numbers-wise, these are the most common types of fire-related degree programs in the United States. On average, these degrees require the student to complete 60 credit hours of work. Each class typically accounts for three credits hours; thus, 20 classes must be completed to get the degree. If the person attends as a full-time student, this course can be completed in two years. The vast majority of these degrees are offered at the community/junior college level. Completion of this type of degree might be required to be hired or promoted on a career department.
  • Bachelor of Science (B.S.): On average, these degrees require the student to complete 120 credit hours of work, which should take four years or so to complete if enrolled full-time. The actual content of these degrees varies from fire service/science content to fire protection engineering-type content. This level of degree might be required to progress to higher levels in a career department or to work for a fire protection engineering-type company or organization.
  • Master’s degree and doctoral degree: Fire-related master’s degrees and doctoral degrees typically are aimed toward those who want to pursue a career in fire department administration or fire protection engineering. A small number of U.S. institutions offer these degrees.

What is your career goal?

When determining what type of degree or school is best for you, you must do a self-examination of what your career aspirations/goals are. If your goal is to become a firefighter or company officer in the general region where you reside, check with local fire departments to see what hiring requirements they have. They might specify a certain degree or, at least, a certain number of credit hours toward a degree to take the entrance examination. Associate degrees commonly are required.

If you currently are on a fire department and have career aspirations to promote up the management chain of the organization, take a look at what the minimum professional requirements are for the various levels of the department. In many cases, a bachelor’s degree of some type will be required for these positions. Although fire-related bachelor’s degrees exist, there are substantially fewer than there are degrees at the associate level. In some larger cities, bachelor’s degree programs, although available for anyone, are tailored toward preparing members of that city’s fire department for promotion to higher ranks. Graduating from this program might increase a person’s possibility of promotion within the department compared with one’s chances after earning a degree from another program. It also provides the individual with the opportunity to develop relationships with other future officers and leaders of the department with whom they will collaborate later in their career.

It should be noted that enrollment in these programs isn’t limited to members of the department for whom they are tailored. Anyone who meets the program/university entrance requirements can be admitted to the program and successfully graduate from it. Although this might increase a person’s ability to get hired on that specific department, the information that’s gleaned will be extremely beneficial to pursuing a career in any other fire service organization.

There might not be any bachelor’s degree program that’s easily accessible to where you live and work. In that case, you might want to take a look at online degree options. However, before enrolling in an online program, check with your department to determine whether that is an acceptable option. As long as the online degree is formally accredited, it should be.

The fact that a particular degree program is accredited by a reputable accreditation agency shouldn’t be overlooked. College degree accreditation by an organization, such as the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology, ensures that the degree meets recognized requirements for credible higher education degree programs. This is much in the same way that fire training courses are accredited by the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress or the National Professional Qualifications Accreditation Board. Degrees that are bestowed by a nonaccredited institution might not be recognized as meeting the degree requirement in a hiring or promotional process. Filling out an entrance or promotional application isn’t the time to find out that your degree isn’t worth the paper that it’s printed on.

Another possibility: A bachelor’s degree in another field of study might be deemed appropriate for promotion within the department. Such fields include public or business administration, accounting and management.

The degree that suits you

Once you choose your intended career path and goals, the next step is to select a university program that best suits your desire. If you find one or more possibilities, contact the fire program chairs at each of the schools and arrange to visit electronically or in person. You want to learn more about the programs and how they might fit into your career goals. Some basic questions that you might ask include:

  • Is your program tailored toward municipal fire protection (fire service), industrial fire protection or some hybrid of both?
  • Is your program tailored toward full-time students, or can part-time students also succeed in it?
  • Does the program require full in-class participation, or can it be a hybrid that allows both in-class and online attendance?
  • Do you have supplemental training opportunities, outside of the basic curriculum, that allow students to gain additional training/education?
  • Can you provide examples of the location and types of jobs at which graduates of the program are employed?
  • Do you have alumni who I may contact to see how they feel the degree worked for them?

The last three questions are of particular interest. You want to make sure that the degree will get you where you want to go. For instance, simply looking at the course plan for a particular school might not represent what the school’s graduates are doing after they graduated. Looking at what graduates of the program are doing out in the real world might allow you to see that you would be heading in the correct direction should you choose to enter that program.

Some colleges and universities can provide the opportunity for students to take NFPA Professional Qualifications certification courses, such as Fire Fighter I, Fire Officer I and Fire Inspector I or emergency medical service certification courses that are outside of the required degree course curriculum. Although these certifications might not count toward a degree, this is a major benefit to students who are seeking a career or promotion in the fire service upon their graduation.

For example, one current bachelor’s degree program’s primary focus is on industrial/private fire protection and occupational safety. It offers only a couple of for-credit fire service-related classes. However, the school provides numerous opportunities to obtain accredited fire service training certification outside of the curriculum program while you are in school. Historically, a significant percentage of its graduates go on to successful fire service careers.

Choosing a career is one of the most important decisions that any person will make in his/her life. The next big decision is how you are going to get where you want to be. In that respect, choosing the fire service career path is no different than any other career choice. 

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!