In the days of vaudeville, there was a scene that often occurred that had a classic ring to it. Someone would collapse from a medical emergency and the master of ceremonies would cry out, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Chances were that there would be one because of the limited entertainment options of the era. In a modern context, I have personally been on aircraft where the flight crew has uttered the same request. In this case, the answer was usually that there was not a doctor but someone trained in basic life support who responded.
Let us imagine that we are at a large fire service conference. Could we ask the same question: “Is there a doctor in the house?” The answer is probably yes. And most of you know exactly who you are and how hard it was to obtain that doctorate. So, why raise it in this column?
My answer is simple: In spite of what we have done to raise the bar in the field of education, we do not have a capstone degree that is broadly available to our best and brightest. Achieving a doctorate in our field, fire administration, is somewhat difficult. We have a lot of doctors in our industry, but they may not be focused on fire administration.
Where is the incentive to go through the rigors of getting a doctorate in fire and emergency services? And how accessible are these programs? Yes, there are programs out there. But, if you are a chief officer in West Hickup Falls, South Dakota, what sort of program is going to be readily available to you?
Of course, one of the responses to that concern is to look on the Internet for a long-distance program. And that is a viable option, but it comes with limitations-not the least of which is that the numbers who register for courses online and the numbers who complete them are not as high as we should expect.
So let me shift to a comparison of our peer groups, specifically criminal justice. Do they suffer from the same deprivation? Hardly. Go the Web site www.criminaljusticeprograms.com/programs-by-state/ and look at the number of programs that are available to the upwardly mobile and aspiring chief of police. Again, this is not certificate envy on my part. What I am comparing is the construct of our system in comparison to our peer groups. We are not competitive with law enforcement, and I would submit that we are not competitive with the educational levels of city engineers, human resource directors, and city managers either.
The Medical Field
Then again, I have actually heard it stated that being a fire chief does not require any type of college degree and that thousands of fire chiefs are doing their job without having any degree at all. You know what-that is true, too.
Maybe we are about to face the same dilemma that the medical profession faced about 150 years ago. According to the United States National Library of Medicine, the first organization of medical professionals was chartered in 1766. By the early 1800s, there were regulations, standards of practice, and certification of doctors. By 1847, the American Medical Association was formed. It was 40 years before the fire chiefs formed their organization, the National Association of Fire Engineers. By the late 1870s, there were 62 medical schools in the United States. Event after event followed that has placed a set of criterion in place to be a medical doctor. In contrast, how many colleges were involved in education of fire chiefs in the 1870s? There wasn’t even a study of the body of knowledge about firefighting until Chief Ralph J. Scott did one in 1928.
Where is any requirement on the fire service to possess a doctoral degree? Do we need such a requirement? Is there really any reason for post-graduate degrees in an occupation where the lack of a degree is not considered a liability by the hiring organizations?
I will leave the discussion open for now. But it has got to be answered in the next few years if the fire service is to have a true top-to-bottom educational framework. Is there a doctor in the house? What kind of doctor is he? And does the doctorate provide a knowledge base that increases the fire service’s efficiency or effectiveness?