Wanted: Fire Chief.
Minimum qualifications: B.A. in Fire Science or related field, Executive Fire Officer (EFO) or currently enrolled in the program through the National Fire Academy. M.A. in Business Administration or related field preferred.
Does the above ad sound familiar? It should. Today’s firefighters must consider their education if they intend on moving up the ranks. The fire service has finally begun the process of picking leaders who understand the complexity of the organization, who their employer is and how that relates to the fire chief’s position.
Have I surprised you with this beginning paragraph? I hope so, because I want you, especially young firefighters, to read the rest of this article. Every firefighter has a career goal in mind when they’re sworn into the service. But over the past 20 years, what we have traditionally meant by the terms firefighter and fire department has changed drastically. And that means those of you who entered the service with the goal of reaching the upper ranks may not be prepared to do so, because the education we gave you in recruit school is no longer current. How will you prepare to take the helm of an ever-changing department and know what it takes to oversee its operation?
Behind the Times
We’ve been talking about the importance of education beyond high school for more than 30 years. Growing up, I was told that “the secret to getting ahead is education,” and that “no one can ever take your education from you.” I know these statements are probably very familiar to you as well.
However, the fire service has been slow to reach its educational potential. Police departments in my area require applicants to possess associate’s or bachelor’s degrees to apply for a police officer’s position—something that’s common in police departments across the United States. Yet, we all know of many fire chiefs who have never completed their bachelor’s degrees. Have we fallen behind the police departments?
We must now begin to ask for more of the fire service. We must support firefighters who wish to continue their educational studies in colleges and universities. Most important, once they have completed their degrees, let’s get them started at the National Fire Academy (NFA) to complete courses that will assist them in running our fire and emergency services departments.
If you’re a firefighter or officer looking to advance your education, check with your employer to see what assistance is available. Many departments offer tuition assistance. Note: In some cases, you may need to sign a 5-year contract so that you don’t leave as soon as you acquire your degree. We must prepare our firefighters and fire officers to lead when the current generation steps down. We must be sure they have the resources necessary to make them tomorrow’s leaders. Have you done what is needed for you to become a leader? Have you set a course of action to prepare yourself to take the helm when asked to do so? Let’s walk through some of the steps.
Let’s consider what’s needed to move fire and emergency services departments forward. As for occupational requirements, you must complete the courses required by OSHA/state regulations. Have you checked with your local community college to see if these hours spent learning your job will go toward hours in a college degree program? It may surprise you how many hours of credit you receive. There, now you’re started! Begin taking your required classes so you can get them out of the way and move on to the more interesting stuff.
Are you required to be an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic? If so, look at the number of college credits given for these courses. You will definitely be well on your way to receiving your associate’s degree. Throw in your required classes and you may be there!
Now that you’ve earned college credits learning how to do your job, it’s essential that you continue with your degree. One nice thing about continuing is that by achieving your associate’s degree, you learn to study again, which will assist you as you continue. In addition, shift work—whether it’s 24 on/48 off or 24 on/24 off—is easily compatible with a school schedule. A number of universities around the country offer online classes, making it even easier for you to complete your degree.
You have now completed your associate’s degree in fire science or a similar program. What’s keeping you from going on and getting your bachelor’s? You’re halfway there!
For you to stay committed, you must choose a degree that means something to you as well as advances you in the fire service. What should you look for in a degree? You should consider that as a chief officer, you will be required to do budgets, personnel evaluations and related paperwork, purchases, planning and speeches to the public, to name just a few. A degree in business would be very beneficial. Other choices that work well are human resources or community planning.
Are you beginning to understand how important education is for you to move up the ladder in your organization? Your degree will open many opportunities in your career. With a college degree, you will be considered for roles that are more important within your department. If my department is working on a tax issue, I immediately look for a member with a degree in speech to make presentations to the local taxpayers. If the budget is running tight, I turn to someone who majored in business and minored in accounting. Do you see the valuable experience you would gain by receiving these kinds of degrees?
While attending classes for your bachelor degree, familiarize yourself with the different offerings at the NFA. Most colleges and universities will give credit for these classes. In addition, NFA classes prepare you for future leadership roles. There are numerous officer-training classes available to assist firefighters in making their move up the promotion lists.
Once you complete your bachelor’s degree, you may think you can rest on your laurels. Think again. It’s now time to work toward a master’s degree. Need an extra push? Remember the ad at the beginning of this article: “M.A. in Business Administration or related field preferred.” A master’s degree will give you that extra qualification needed to get the position you dreamed of acquiring: fire chief.
What kind of master’s degree should you choose? In addition to business administration, consider psychology, human relations, education or public administration, to name a few.
Remember: Your master’s degree credits don’t have to come from the specific degree program. The Executive Fire Officer program offered by the NFA provides graduate credit accepted in many master’s programs. In addition, many university-sponsored “staff-and-command” schools provide graduate credit. For instance, at Eastern Michigan University’s staff-and-command school, credit is given toward either your bachelor’s program or master’s program—it’s your choice. My recommendation would be to put it toward your master’s.
Once you have become a chief officer, it’s time you put together your resume, your portfolio and certificates and apply for the Certified Fire Officer designation through the Center for Public Safety Excellence. Your ticket is now “punched” for your future.
Why Higher Education?
Why is a degree so important in the fire service, and how can you put it to work for you? First and foremost, a higher education degree is important for promotion, especially to the chief level but increasingly to the company officer level as well. But a higher education degree will also make you better at your current job, because it makes you a better leader in your department.
To achieve your degree, you had to conduct research online, find your way around an academic library and most importantly, collect your thoughts and put them down on paper so that they make sense to the reader. These are the very same skills required of a chief officer. You must be able to research a subject in a controlled and concise manner and present an analysis of the issue so the stakeholders understand what you’re talking about. Sound familiar?
Your education can be even more directly applicable to your job, too. Many degree programs allow students to work on research projects specific to their departments. The results of these reports can be immediately applied to your organization. This will definitely impress your boss and those who look up to you!
Another way higher education pays off: As you progress in your career, you may choose to teach at fire academies and conferences around the country. There, your bio will be on display for all to view. If your bio reflects a solid, experienced, educated individual, you are likely to receive additional offers for instruction and consulting work.
Finally, higher education is beneficial even beyond the chief level. When a fire chief or a fire officer decides they want to pursue another occupation, possessing an advanced degree can open doors to jobs such as city manager, human resource director or head of finance. The experiences you received in school, as well as being in charge of certain parts of the department or the entire department, can qualify you for city or town leadership positions. I’ve personally seen a police chief become the interim city manager because they had more education than other department heads. The future is now. We in the fire service must begin to be noted for our education and experiences, and thus tapped for these various important jobs.
The Last Piece
Is education the only thing you need to succeed? Obviously not. Education is the foundation of individual potential, but practical experience and skills are necessary as well—and no one can do it alone.
Throughout this article, I’ve emphasized the NFA programs. By attending the NFA, you will form friendships with officers in other parts of the country experiencing the same issues. I’ve found that when I have a problem, the answer is often only a phone call away. Amazingly, this too is part of your education process. The learning that goes on long after you’ve left the NFA is almost as valuable as the formal education within the classroom.
The last piece of the puzzle for your education: Join professional organizations and attend conferences. Chief officers should be members of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Also, consider making a presentation or teaching a class at one of the major conferences. This will help you forge even more connections, which will greatly assist you in dealing with the day-to-day challenges facing your department.
I believe every firefighter should consider working toward a bachelor’s degree at the very least. Once this is completed, the path to a master’s degree will be paved for you.
As you remain active in the different professional organizations, your abilities will be noticed and your chances for promotion become so much easier. You will have opportunities to mold your department. You may have an opportunity to serve as an interim director at the city or town level. The list goes on, and it’s due to your education!
I know there are some great leaders out there without the educational background I’m preaching about. But with today’s changing environment and ever more complex technology, education is the key to making a difference as an individual in your department. Please, heed the warning and begin working toward your degree.