The Fire Service and Higher Education: Occupation vs. Profession

April 1, 2006
Younes Mourchid discusses the fire service's evolvement from an occupation to a profession that demands complex skills and knowledge

Nowadays in the annals of academia and in the wards of professional schools, there is a commotion about the concept of lifelong learning and adult education in designing program curricula and in defining degree requirements. The former is generally defined as the process of acquiring knowledge or skills throughout life via education, training, work and general life experiences. The latter is generally defined as the art and science of teaching adult learners, also known as andragogy.

Much of what the fire service relies on in terms of knowledge derives from experience, not empirical research conducted by trained scientists in academic settings. We often hear fire service personnel saying in response to a complex problem, “This is how we do it around here.†Lately, however, the fire service has evolved from an occupation into a profession; a discipline that demands more complexity in the skills, ability and knowledge acquired in academic and formal training settings.

We all know of someone who has taken fire science courses at a two-year college; taken courses at state and local fire training academies and through the National Fire Academy (NFA); and achieved various levels of certification. However, these combined achievements have not evolved in a coherent and planned path. The professional development inherent in these combined achievements is usually uncoordinated and fragmented, resulting in duplications of effort and inefficiencies for students. Although the fire service offers numerous certifications, education and training entities, not all of them collaborate with one another. Most fire service agencies adhere to the same standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), but their application of the standards varies, as funding and local politics vary.

As a result, a call is sounding for collaboration and coordination among all providers of fire and emergency service professional development. There are major tenets upon which a “profession†is founded, including reciprocity for practicing in different states, universally accepted standards of practice and a professional development model. The work accomplished during the NFA’s Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Conferences is one of the first responses to the call for the fire and emergency services to transition to a Professional Development Model.

One entity that maintains a commitment to unifying the fire profession training and higher education component is the National Fire Academy. The NFA’s Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP) is a testament to the exact unified baccalaureate curriculum that the fire service needs. The program is an avenue for fire professionals to take college courses that can be used toward a bachelor’s degree with a concentration in the areas of fire administration or fire prevention technology. The program is offered through a national network of four-year colleges and universities.

The DDP program has recently been incorporated into the Professional Development Model of FESHE Conferences. In the spirit of acknowledging the need for research and in-depth academic training, participants in the 2005 FESHE conference resolved that the creation of a doctoral degree infrastructure holds the promise to increase the professionalism of the fire service discipline and improve the quality of life both nationally and internationally. This is a further indication that the fire service is metamorphosing from an occupation into a profession.

Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA, is a DDP consortium school, which ratified the FESHE 2005 Fire Service Studies Doctoral Degree Infrastructure Resolution. The DDP has been at Cogswell College since 1981. It was designed to give fire service personnel a platform to complete a bachelor of science degree in fire science with a concentration in fire administration or fire prevention technology through distance learning. Courses are delivered via distance or in a residency format. In a resident program, students from the three states Cogswell serves – Arizona, California and Nevada – may take a concentrated course for full credit in a classroom setting with other students and a faculty member face-to-face. This format, besides the low tuition and fees, distinguishes Cogswell from other colleges and universities that offer a bachelor of science degree in fire science administration.

The fire science curriculum at Cogswell maintains high academic standards while addressing the practical problems of the fire service. More than just overviews and surveys, fire science courses teach applied critical thinking skills designed to provide students with ways to analyze and influence approaches to community-based problem solving. The faculty members at Cogswell have a wealth of experience in their specific fields and many are executive fire officers. Faculty members hold graduate degrees and some have written textbooks in their areas of expertise.

Recently, Cogswell acted on its value of teamwork and community service and joined the Sakai ETUDES-NG Alliance administered by Foothill College to take advantage of the course management system “Easy To Use Distance Education System.†Now, Cogswell students and faculty are in a position to use the latest technology developed to serve the goals and principles of distance adult education. In addition, Cogswell faculty and the recently appointed DDP director have made substantial contributions to the revisions of baccalaureate courses led by the NFA.

Cogswell Polytechnical College has made significant strides and contributions to the fire service ongoing transition from an occupation to a profession. Alumni of Cogswell hold strategic positions in the fire service and are thus leading and contributing to this timely transition.

Younes Mourchid, Ph.D., is an associate professor and director of the Degrees at a Distance Program in fire science at Cogswell Polytechnical College in Sunnyvale, CA. He earned a double master’s degree in applied linguistics and speech communication at Southern Illinois University and a Ph.D. in international development education at the University of Southern California. Prior to joining Cogswell, he was coordinator/director of tutoring services at Diablo Valley College and an adjunct faculty member at the University of California.

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