By Ronny J. Coleman
One can troll the Internet today and find hundreds of articles about training and higher education in the fire service. It is a topic that has been written about on all levels of the profession and yet, at the same time, we never seem to come to a conclusion as to what educational levels really mean to the future of the fire service.
There have been numerous attempts to articulate a point of view that a higher education degree should be required for fire chiefs, yet most fire chiefs still only possess a high school diploma. We have not achieved a status of professionalism that is equivalent to the city engineer or finance director. Yet, America’s fire problem has continued to expand. Is there a correlation between this lack of educational orientation and America’s fire record?
We keep talking about education and its relative importance, yet we have not achieved a deep penetration of educational requirements in the fire service. We continue to express concern about major fire loss, yet we seem to not provide a solution.
I noticed that America’s fire record parallels our interest in improving fire service training and education. Every time America’s fire problem reaches devastating levels, one of the outcomes is aimed at improving firefighter education. Look at the history books. There were numerous severe conflagrations in the 1920s and, as a result, the fire chief of Los Angeles issued the first study of a firefighter’s occupation, a precursor of all professional standards used by the fire service.
If you examine the body of knowledge at that time, there was a contention that better trained and educated firefighters would lead to a reduction in fire losses. Starting in the 1920s, there was an outcry for improved fire training and education. This is when the International Fire Service Training Association first became an influence with the Red Book series.
Then World War II occurred, and fire losses were obscured by the massive industrial development that occurred to support the war effort. There were no outcries during the war years about education in the fire service. Rather, the emphasis was on developing a fire service that was well trained but not necessarily well educated.
Then the war ended. In 1947, President Truman convened his commission of addressing fire in the United States.1 The conference is where the three Es—education, enforcement, and engineering—were coined to highlight the successful use of the fire prevention campaign. The majority of the ’47 conference focused on fire prevention and code enforcement.
On a parallel track, if you look at the creation of most of the sophisticated training and education systems, they had their origins in the ’50s and ’60s. From 1947 to 1973, the fire service marshaled its resources for the ever-continuing problem of fire loss.
Yet, the problem did not go away. In 1972, President Nixon created the Commission on Fire Prevention and Control.2 Out of that conference came two parallel observations: Fire loss was still a serious concern in the United States, and there was a need to create a more positive educational environment. Out of the 1973 report came the creation of the National Fire Academy; and, this report resulted in the development of a data system established to provide an analysis of the entire fire problem.
America Burning was revisited in December 1987. Had the American fire problem disappeared by this time? No. In between these efforts to provide national focus, a parallel process began called the Wingspread Conference. On a 10-year cycle, the Johnson Foundation began to place emphasis on training and education as a means of resolving America’s fire problem. America Burning Revisited noted that “the public local officials and the fire service have yet to come to grips with the fact that America’s fire problem may be a misnomer because it now includes emergency medical services, hazardous materials response, and all those other emergency problems dealt with on a day-to-day basis by our nation’s fire departments.”
Nowhere in the report is there an emphasis on the wildland-urban interface fire that emerged in 2017. The pendulum continues to swing. America gets concerned about its fire problem, talks about what needs to be done, but fails to achieve an outcome that controls the problem.
Do we need better trained and educated officers to cope? Yes. Have we achieved an agreement on how to accomplish it? The answer is only a qualified maybe.
1. 1947 Truman Conference, President Truman’s Fire Prevention Conference, May 1947.
2. America Burning, report on the National Commission of Fire Prevention and Control, May 4, 1973.
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the state and national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree in vocational education, a bachelor of science degree in political science, and an associate of arts degree in fire science. He is president of Fireforce.one, a consulting firm in California.