Getting Educated About Being COLLEGE Educated

Aug. 1, 2004
Ron Wakeham and Bill Lowe discuss how to determine which program is best for you in and the benefits of having a college degree.
The fire service is slowly, although most certainly and with more momentum, evolving from loosely organized but dedicated volunteer fire departments into career public safety organizations. Expanded public expectations in the post-9/11 era and the realization that a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) incident can occur within the United States is causing community leaders to evaluate the ability of fire departments to respond to catastrophic events.

As part of this evaluation process, it’s apparent that firefighters possessing more educational credentials and certifications in various occupational specialization areas will enhance the delivery of quality public safety services. This article seeks to educate firefighters of all ranks on the many aspects and issues for earning college degrees.

The fire service can be proud of its many service innovations, such as EMS, public safety education, paramedic engines and advanced rescue capabilities, but the authors suggest equal attention to firefighters’ educational development is warranted. While fire service leaders have for years advocated that civilians should be more educated regarding community safety and fire safety topics, the messages challenging firefighters to acquire more education has not been promoted with the same passion. Law enforcement leaders have generally done a much better job instilling into their culture that college education is an important career accomplishment for police officers and sheriffs’ deputies.

The topic of education for firefighters is often debated in fire stations, as firefighters ask their officers, “I’d like to consider going to college. What are your thoughts regarding the career benefits for earning a college degree?” Unfortunately, too many fire officers will respond that they do not view educational credentials as important for achieving a successful fire service career. This viewpoint is in direct conflict with the preferences that most public and business organizations have a strong preference for leaders who possess strong academic credentials and strong business expertise.

Command in a Complex World

Increasingly, fire officers face dwindling or unpredictable resources, new and sometimes unrealistic public expectations, demographic changes, political and labor union oversight, and uncertain and interconnected external issues. Fire officers are more directly involved with human resource management, financial management, public relations, implementing technology and addressing world events than ever before. As practitioners, fire officers must be at the forefront in developing new methods improving the operational safety of firefighters’ roles and practices. To stay proactive and visionary with the ever increasing demand for critical analysis and planning to forecast future fire service needs, fire officers’ educational requirements must increase.

Today’s and tomorrow’s performance competencies will require fire officers to possess a broad spectrum of theoretical and technical skills to strengthen their expertise and credibility. For many fire officers, the acquisition of this knowledge involves attending a regionally accredited college or university. During this academic journey, the destination is reached after mastering course and program objectives.

Many officers will decide to select a program addressing topics such as fiscal policy, public administration, public relations, human resource development, labor negotiations and other professional skills. Firefighters and fire officers should carefully evaluate how academics can help them advance within their professions, enhance fire service operations and safeguard their communities.

Educational Benefits

The authors strongly endorse the fire service benefits gained when more firefighters pursue college degree programs. It’s important for firefighters to understand that pursuing a collegiate program is expensive, time consuming, intellectually demanding and emotionally frustrating. Conversely, it is also personally and professionally rewarding, offering expanded opportunities for career paths within or beyond the fire service. Moreover, it typically increases a person’s salary-earning capabilities. The benefits of attending an accredited college or university include the following education outcomes:

  • Increased communication expertise including public speaking, listening, reading, and writing skills
  • Expanded individual and group problem resolution and critical thinking expertise
  • Awareness and appreciation of the arts and literature as related to human interaction
  • Knowledge of embracing a scientific approach when confronted with challenges
  • Appreciation of the many personal, social and cultural elements of interacting in culturally diverse communities and workplaces
  • Pursuit of lifelong learning

Depending on the educational institution, classes are offered in a variety of formats. Some are geared to working professionals and are scheduled on weekends only, while others are held at various times throughout the week. More programs are being delivered entirely via the Internet using distance education technology versus the traditional on-site, classroom method. This section discusses the various academic degrees and offers generic suggestions as to what degrees are desirable for firefighters seeking various career paths.

Associate’s Degree

Community colleges (also known as junior colleges or two-year colleges) offer firefighters a convenient, less intimidating and easier admission process than trying to attend a traditional four-year college. From the authors’ 50-plus years of accumulated fire service and college experiences, most firefighters should start earning college credits by attending their nearby community colleges. It is the authors’ opinion that all firefighters should possess an associate’s degree either as a minimum requirement for employment or within four years of being hired. Firefighters who commit to taking one course each term could easily accumulate sufficient credits within four years to earn a two-year college diploma.

While earning an associate’s degree would be a great accomplishment for many firefighters, there is an additional long-term benefit from earning an associate degree, and that’s pursuing subsequent college programs beyond the two-year level. Both of the authors earned their associate degrees never intending to eventually earn their respective doctoral degrees. One community college promotes its program to students “seeking to complete an associate degree, transfer to a senior college or university, prepare for immediate entry into a career, pursue personal goals or enhance current workplace skills. Our curriculum specializes in liberal arts and professional preparation and promotes international and intercultural understanding.”

Derwin Daniel, coordinator of fire management at Georgia Perimeter College in Decatur, GA, recommends to his fire service students, “Start as early in your careers as possible before you develop significant relationships, commit to part-time jobs, prepare for promotions and lose the education expertise acquired in high school.” He also encourages students to put some long-term thought into their college programs advocating “always consider the value of your degree path toward potential post-fire service careers.”

The following areas of concentration offered at the associate degree levels complements the general duties and responsibilities of firefighters at most fire departments. Fire science, emergency medical services, business, and communications are some of the fundamental degrees firefighters should consider when beginning their academic journey.

Bachelor’s Degree

Possessing a bachelor’s degree is the standard for representing possession of a college degree, signifying the accumulation of four years of college education completing a formal degree program. A bachelor’s program prepares students for supervisory and mid-level management positions, and upgrades their skills with administrative, management, planning and legal knowledge for advancing to a higher level.

While an associate’s degree is a good initial step, it will take an additional two more years of college courses beyond the associate level to earn a bachelor’s degree. A firefighter who has an interest in pursuing a promotion or a specialized fire service career track such as inspection, investigation, hazardous materials, emergency management and emergency medical services should develop a personal timeline and activity chart to pursue a bachelor’s degree. If upon entering the fire service, a firefighter does not possess a bachelor’s degree, he or she should strive to start a program soon after completing recruit training.

Firefighters seeking a bachelor degree must have met the educational institution’s basic educational pre- requisites in selected liberal arts and humanities courses as well as core courses in their degree specific area. At this level, firefighters desiring a station-officer position might consider a degree in health and safety administration, accounting/finance, information technology, education, engineering, psychology, urban affairs or political science.

Dr. Walter Green, associate professor and program director of emergency management at the University of Richmond, advises, “We’re a credential-based society, so having more and more different skill sets in people’s vocational tool box is paramount. Educated professionals generally offer quicker identification and faster resolution of problems and issues. When evaluating program choices, don’t select the easiest program, but select the program offering the greatest growth potential.”

Master’s Degree

Possession of a master’s degree, also known as a graduate degree, is a truly impressive academic, personal and professional accomplishment. Master’s degrees generally require an additional one or two years of college courses beyond the bachelor’s level. With graduate degree programs, there’s an expectation and demand of advanced academic excellence and accomplishment. Graduate-level courses generally are taught by instructors who have doctoral degrees in their respective academic fields. Furthermore, at the master’s level, earning a C is a failing grade, and earning too many C grades results in academic expulsion.

The authors’ recommendation is that firefighters with the career interest in being chief officers should accept the enormous challenges for pursuing a master’s degree. It will be expensive and require much effort, time and mental growth as students develop their administrative and managerial skills to a higher level of excellence. A master’s program will involve completing several courses in research design and methodology. This research expertise is further refined by students who generally have to complete their own research thesis projects as a graduation requirement.

Again, for those firefighters who wish to advance into chief’s positions, a master’s degree program should be strongly considered. This professional degree provides specialization in a chosen field of study. Programs such as organizational psychology, business administration, public administration, economics, marketing, human resources or political science may prove to be beneficial to chief officers.

Professional Degree

Professional degrees are defined for the professions such as medicine, dentistry, law and ministry. While it may seem like such an academic would have limited interest for firefighters, that’s just not the case.

The authors are familiar with firefighters who have accepted the challenge to attend medical school or law school. As the administrative aspects of managing fire service operations become even more complex, officers possessing extensive training in law and medicine are a valuable fire service resource.

Doctoral Degree

While it may sound completely beyond the scope of an article discussing fire service education to include doctoral degrees, a number of firefighters possess or are pursuing this terminal degree. Terminal signifies that there are no degrees available beyond the doctoral level. The doctorate is awarded for completing an advanced course of study generally culminating with publishing an original research paper called a dissertation. A typical doctoral degree takes six or seven years of study beyond the master’s degree to obtain.

Dr. Burton Clark, National Fire Academy program chair for management science, advocates the development of a doctoral program specific to the fire service. The authors endorse Clark’s interest in the pursuit of more doctoral-level research of fire service issues. Additionally, the authors suggest that firefighters with an interest in teaching college full time, directing a university fire science program, or becoming fire service consultants will want to seriously consider accepting the challenge of earning a doctoral degree.

Fire officers who want to share knowledge and explore innovative theory development should consider pursuing a doctorate. Business, public administration, financial decision-making, personnel/human resource management and organizational psychology are but some of the paths firefighters can take to obtain a doctoral degree.


Establishing your personal goals and deciding on a course of action to achieve your goals is essential. Pursuing advanced degrees strengthens you as an individual, and enhances your ability to be more effective in your career. There is simply no substitute for the knowledge gained from advanced studies.

An appreciation of the important differences between associate, bachelor, master, professional and doctoral degrees provides more information to make informed decisions regarding future academic interests. If the fire service is to survive and thrive, its officers must be highly competent, educated and motivated to confront complex public safety incidents using a more educated viewpoint and solution process model.

Ron Wakeham, DPA, is the former fire chief of Des Moines, IA; Bangor, ME; and Norfolk, VA. He has a doctorate in public administration and is a graduate of Harvard University’s Senior Executives in State and Local Government Program, the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer (EFO)Program and the University of Virginia’s Senior Executive Institute. Bill Lowe, DBA, is a captain and shift supervisor with the Clayton County, GA, Fire Department, where he has worked for 25 years. He has a doctorate in business administration and is pursuing the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program.

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