Two pieces of advice from my father have always stuck with me. The first was that there is a tool for every job. The second is simply that every professional understands the value of their tools and can identify the right tool for the job.
When it comes to the fire service, education is the tool for transitioning throughout your career. There's no doubt that education provides opportunities to maintain a productive lifestyle. Beyond the tactical training we go through to learn how to better protect our communities, it is education that provides an opportunity to really professionalize the service. Having an educated workforce raises the organizational capacity to provide service within the community and to address dynamic and ever-changing threats.
A Profession in Transition
As the fire service transitions from a trade to a profession, academic degrees, such as associate, bachelor's and even master's degrees, are becoming more commonplace. They are often requirements now to advance from firefighter to specialist, officer and eventually chief fire officer.
Further, the value of education is not just in training for a career but also in developing learning, critical thinking and writing skills. Education provides the knowledge to manage budgets, develop public education programs, integrate technology and articulate the department's needs within the administrative structures of government. There are no tactical classes that will teach an officer these day-to-day duties that are not only vital to the operations of a fire department but can also have a significant impact on the community.
Transitioning into the Fire Service
According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 2011 National Fire Experience Survey, there almost 345,000 career positions in today's fire service. That is a rise of about 45% over the past 25 years. For volunteer firefighters hoping to secure one of these positions, training and certifications are the minimum requirements for employment at many career departments.
With hundreds applying for each career position, a degree may be the one item that distinguishes you from other candidates. Having a degree lets a potential employer know you are committed to your career and that you can learn and evolve in an ever-changing environment.
Many fire and EMS academies are partnering with local colleges to offer students the opportunity to apply the training they offer to a degree. However, many of these associate degrees are technical in nature and do not always transfer effectively to a four-year program. For example, an associate of applied science (AAS) degree is a two-year degree that's designed to be a terminal technical degree. It does not always transition well into a four-year bachelor's program. The number and type of credits eligible for transfer from an AAS degree to a four-year bachelor's program may be limited because the degree was not designed to transfer to a four-year degree.
If you plan to go on to a four-year degree program, look for a program that offers an associate of arts (AA) or an associate of science (AS) degree. Also, be sure that the program is compliant with the National Fire Science Programs Committee's (NFSPC) Fire & Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Model Curriculum. This model curriculum was developed by the NFSPC in 2002. It identifies core courses that should be offered as part of an associate and bachelor's degree program in several fire- and EMS-related specialties. Information on the FESHE Model Curriculum can be found at: www.usfa.fema.gov/nfa/higher_ed/feshe/feshe_model.shtm.
Careful planning will ensure that you are able to make the most of the training-to-college transition.
Transitioning Within Your Career
If you're already a career firefighter but you're looking to advance your career or transition into a different sector, there are many options.
As noted, in the past, as you climbed the fire service career ladder, what was needed was extensive experience and tactical training. But the government has been following the lead of the private sector by increasingly requiring college degrees for leadership positions and advancement. Over the last five years, many departments have started expecting chief officers to have a bachelor's degree, if not a master's degree. It's very important to invest in the degree that's right for you and your future needs.
One way to be sure that you are ready for the potential challenges and opportunities in your emergency service career is to make sure that you have an education that drives you in the direction of emerging trends. Firefighters may choose to go into investigations/inspections, fire prevention/public education, terrorism awareness, intelligence analysis, master planning and even emergency disaster management as an extension of their vocation. Many of these specialties require extensive education and training beyond what's found in the academy classroom.
As fire chiefs are now managing multi-million-dollar governmental budgets, an advanced degree can provide a level of confidence and professionalism to the individual and to the organization as a whole. This is why organizations such as the NFPA and the National Fire Academy (NFA) have worked hard to promote education within the fire service. It is an important ingredient in ensuring that all public safety professionals are prepared to advance.
NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications provides a crosswalk for the skills and capabilities that fire officers should possess, from the company officer through chief. The 2014 edition includes language to acknowledge and encourage fire officers to seek higher education as part of their professional development. Some of these skills and capabilities included in the four-tier standard are emergency service delivery, human resources management, community and government relations, inspections and investigations, and administration. A degree can address many of these requirements.
Transitioning Beyond the Fire Service
Another important consideration for all firefighters is what to do when you have reached the apex of your career. Let's face it, most firefighters will not become a department chief—and many don't want to. Further, it's important to determine what to do when your time at the fire department come to an end, whether that comes as part of a planned and successful retirement or suddenly due to injury or other factor.
Not only does an advanced education prepare you for excelling in leadership and decision-making but also for additional career opportunities beyond the fire department. Many times opportunities for education within the fire service lead to opportunities outside the fire service in areas such as public administration, emergency management, intelligence and a variety of other fields now available to those who are well educated and well trained to handle crises.
Consider emergency management, a very natural transition for those retiring from the fire service. As a profession, emergency management is mission-centric and focused on serving those in need. Further, the concepts of prevention and mitigation, operational planning, and response and recovery operations are not new to firefighters.
Education plays a major role in preparing for and sustaining a career in emergency and disaster management by providing the core knowledge and theory behind critical operations. Much of the core activity in emergency management is focused on developing and executing plans, policies and procedures to effectively respond to natural and technological threats.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the estimated growth for the emergency management profession is between 10% and 19% by 2020. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also advises that an overwhelming percentage of emergency management professionals have a bachelor's degree. Many emergency management agencies, at all levels of government and in the private sector, are seeking candidates with bachelor's and even master's degrees for senior positions. Several universities offer bachelor- and master-level degrees in emergency and disaster management.
As another example, many chief officers spend many hours serving as the department's administrator, managing budgets, setting departmental goals and managing human resources. Public administrators are responsible for planning, directing and administering operational activities of public or not-for-profit organizations.
Some universities offer a master of public administration with a concentration in emergency and disaster management. This concentration option allows a fire officer to expand their education to include public administration while also studying emergency management.
The importance of public safety professionals pursuing their education cannot be overstated in light of today's public environment. With the unemployment rate of those with a bachelor's degree at almost half that of those with a high school diploma, it's clear that an education provides a level of stability, flexibility and resilience to a career.
Education provides a tool for transition, a sense of flexibility and stability to a career as you adapt to changing needs and emerging opportunities in public safety and even public administration. An education that supplements your experience and training may provide the opportunity to advance your career or transition post-retirement to a career in emergency management, homeland security, intelligence or even public administration. With the proper degree, the choice is yours.
Sidebar: Online Makes It Easy
Today, more than ever, education is readily accessible to those who seek it. In decades past, a career firefighter had to find coverage or take time off to go to classes. That's no longer the case, as online education opportunities abound. Many firefighters can now return to college and finish their degrees, and even study for advanced degrees, while continuing normal duties in the firehouse. Further, many online universities offer opportunities that are asynchronous, which means that you don't have to be online at a specific time. Having the ability to complete weekly assignments at your pace during the week is a big plus when you are working rotating or even 24-hour shifts.