The Importance of Higher Education in the Fire Service

“You can tell a college kid … but you can’t tell him much,” growled my first company officer. When I entered my service career more than 40 years ago, I also engaged in undergraduate studies at the local university. Yet another colloquial adage that yielded laughter around the firehouse was “Buy ’em books … send ’em to school. What do they do? Eat the books!”

What messages do your superior officers send about higher education? Do they endorse it? Ignore it? Ridicule it? The fire service steadfastly resisted higher education for too many years, and vestiges of that resistance flare up even today. But, the landscape is changing: Leaders are becoming increasingly responsive to the educational imperative to equip front-line responders with critical-thinking tools.

If you don’t have a mentor, turn to the Officer Development Handbookfor professional development guidance. The handbook was developed and published by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).

Tag Team: Education + Training

For too many years, fire service training and formal education were pitted against each other. In the first half of the 20th century, firefighting was considered a physical trade with an established training regimen. Higher education wasn’t even on the horizon yet.

However, in 1944, the G.I. Bill provided money for college or vocational education to returning World War II veterans, drawing thousands of returning veterans into higher education. College enrollments soared, and community colleges sprang up and grew nationwide.

Many returning veterans who entered the fire service also wanted to claim the educational benefits made available through the G.I. Bill, but our system lacked structured fire service education programs. The funding windfall, coupled with interest in the fire service, fueled development of early fire science programs—principally in emerging community and technical college domains, helping higher education creep into the back door of the firehouse.

Concurrently, the patronage system for entry and advancement in local government service came under assault. Beginning with the Pendleton Act in 1883 and followed by the Hatch Act in 1939, merit-based civil service systems gradually followed the federal example and moved into state and local governments.

Some firefighters who combined training with higher education routinely achieved higher test results. Those left behind blamed higher education for circumventing the established system and damaging their careers. In turn, they set the stage for a contest between education and training.

But as higher education gained a toehold in the fire service, the training-only philosophy was supplanted by a new approach. Enterprising instructors transposed established fire training curricula into college curricula so a firefighter could get both training credit and college credit for the same effort. But without planning or coordination, the result was a hodgepodge system that often failed.

Today, we recognize that both training and education comprise essential parts of fire service competency. Consider them side-by-side, and you’ll see their unique attributes and complementary values.

Training

  • What to do
  • Anchored in the past
  • Job skills
  • Application
  • Confront the known

Education

  • What to be
  • Geared to the future
  • Life skills
  • Theory
  • Confront the unknown

Terminal Education

From associate’s to bachelor’s to master’s degree programs, the educational system progressively moves the student toward increasing problem-solving and sophisticated leadership competencies. However, associate degree programs are not all created equal. You can see those differences in the requirements of terminal degree programs, often listed as an Associates of Applied Science degree program.

Terminal degrees combine a heavy dose of technical curriculum with a smattering of general education coursework. And often, general education curriculum—important to your personal and professional development—is set aside.

While credentialing technical accomplishments, the terminal degree offers little in the way of higher education credits transferable toward a higher academic degree. Students aspiring to higher education may be disappointed with the lack of accepted credit hours from a terminal program toward their bachelor’s degree.

Example: You graduate with 90 quarter-hour credits at your local community college in a terminal degree program. A 4-year college degree program requires 180 quarter-hour credits, so you assume you’re halfway there. But sometimes, only 30 quarter-hour credits apply to the transfer.

A lack of standardized fire service technical curriculum intensifies this problem. However, the concerted efforts of the National Fire Academy’s Fire & Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) conference is addressing this problem (see sidebar). College programs at both the associate’s and the bachelor’s degree levels now offer courses based on a standardized model curriculum. So, as you chart your higher education, seek programs that incorporate FESHE model curricula.

Terminal degrees tend to shortchange known benefits of higher education, which promotes the growth of life skills, rather than technical job skills. When you bypass the general education core curriculum, you miss the rich experiences that equip you to adapt and succeed in a rapidly changing world. Don’t shortchange your preparation and put your future at risk.

Degrees Do Not Equal Competency

Too often, aspiring officers are told to “get a degree;” however, we fail to tie job competency to those degree requirements. The IAFC’s Officer Development Handbook addresses this issue. The handbook describes competencies for four levels of officer development, which correspond to Fire Officer 1 through 4 in the NFPA 1021: Professional Qualifications Standard. The handbook also combines the professional elements of training, education, experience and self-development for progressive development.

Within the education elements, the handbook matches the desired competency with educational coursework known to develop that competency. The educational progression is consistent both with the FESHE curriculum and with readily available, reputable associate’s, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs.

Keep in mind that professional success results from competency, not merely from credentials. If you’ve gained competency through your work or through other life experience, you don’t need to enroll in a course or program to revisit that study, unless you specifically want or need the formal credential.

The premier fire officer credential, Chief Fire Officer, is an example. In this professional assessment process, you must witness your competency, whether through showing a formal credential or documenting your work experience. The Officer Development Handbook points you squarely toward CFO designation in all four interrelated facets of your professional development.

Conclusion

Higher education is a valuable and necessary component for successfully leading today’s fire service. You must combine it with your training, experience and self-development to produce a well-rounded skills set.

Gather your resources and establish your plan. Draw from your officers, mentors, college counselors, your fire department’s personnel system requirements, journals and your Officer Development Handbook. With the tools to build a leading role in the fire service, your future is in your hands. I’m depending on you to make our fire service better and stronger.

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