Why do I need a degree to work in the fire department? How is a degree going to help me in my fire service career? These are the two most commonly asked questions when the topic of higher education comes up. Discussions on the need for higher education in the fire service have been ongoing since the first Wingspread conference 50 years ago. While the fire service has been slow to embrace the need for higher education, the demand for educated fire service professionals is now greater than ever.
The higher education debate often comes up during hiring processes and promotional exams when points are awarded for degrees. Many argue that a college degree does not guarantee you to be a good firefighter—or a good leader—and I agree with that. However, I would counter that the higher education process provides you with skills, knowledge and abilities that you will not garner in a recruit academy or other fire service training. The higher education process forces you to work on time management, prioritization, project management, research methods and communication skills, both oral and written. All of these skills are valuable tools no matter the rank or role you hold or desire within your department.
While having a degree does not satisfy all of the knowledge and abilities that are necessary to excel in your career, it does complement your fire service training and experience. These acquired skills obtained from higher education can be beneficial at different stages of your career.
If you are looking to obtain an entry-level position in the fire service today, know that the competition is getting tougher with each application period. Many departments are now giving points for degrees, as they understand the skills that accompany someone who has completed a degree program.
A firefighter having a bachelor’s or even master’s degree while riding the backseat on a company is far more prevalent than it was 10 years ago. With the number of financial assistance programs and demand for degrees in various work fields, there has been a roughly 25 percent increase in college attendance over the last decade, putting more college-educated people in the entry-level pool.
Every degree program requires some type of writing and oral communication course, which often shows in a candidate’s interview process. Having an impressive accumulation of fire service training is a valuable commodity to have, but you first have to put together a competitive résumé, cover letter and possibly
At some point in your career, you are going to be in a position to promote. When this happens, you are going to encounter a promotional process where your higher education could help you excel. Similar to hiring practices, most promotional processes award points for holding a degree. These same promotional processes often contain some form of written exercise, oral presentation, in-basket project or communication practice—all skills you work on, even subconsciously, during your pursuit of a degree. Couple these skills with the points obtained for having the degree and you should feel very confident entering any promotional process assuming you have the necessary experience.
If you are successful in your promotional endeavors, you will find that the aforementioned skills are now more important than ever. While the safety of the crew under your watch is and always will be the most important thing, you will find that your biggest challenge as a company officer or leader in your organization will be the 95 percent of your time that you are not on a call. Whether it is the management of inspection and preplan files, recording of training records, completion of run reports or oversight of items such as inventories, leave requests and other projects, you will need to call upon a skill set that you are not going to learn in a fire training course.
Time management and organization is a common challenge for many company officers, as they have spent the majority of their career learning to be a good firefighter and have been offered little to no training on how to do the other 95 percent of their job. Having the educational background and experience to fall back on will help you in this learning curve. Writing skills, time management, prioritization and organization are all skills used during the pursuit of a degree; now you just need to fine-tune them to fit your current assignment.
At some point in your career, you will come to a point where you see the last step in your career path. When promoting to a chief officer position, you will find the amount of administrative work that comes with these positions is exponentially greater than that of company officer. No one truly understands the work transition that occurs until they have to do it every day. Chief officer positions require more work in data analysis, research, and report development and delivery—skills that you would acquire and polish in a degree program.
In previous promotional processes, you may have been given points for a degree; however, for these chief-level positions, degrees are not just desired, they are required. There was a time when the police chief and fire chief of most communities was someone who had worked their way up the ranks. Unfortunately, these chiefs were often the only department heads within their city or county administrative who did not have a degree. Does that mean a chief officer could not be successful without a degree? Not necessarily, but to think that they get the same credibility as other department leaders who hold a degree from elected officials and citizens would be a naïve perception.
Citizens and elected officials today demand their department leaders to be educated, well trained and on par with others leaders in their community and across the nation. If you read the International City/County Managers Association text on Managing Fire and Emergency Services, you will find the following quote: “There is perhaps nothing more critical to the future of the fire and emergency services than embracing the value of higher education for developing the next generation of fire service professionals, both career and volunteer. One way of distinguishing education from training is that education teaches students not just what to learn but also how to learn.”
Couple that statement with a review of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) pyramid and the shift at the National Fire Academy now requiring a bachelor’s degree for admission into the Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP), and there is no denying the importance of higher education in the fire service. Having your degree sets the example for others in your department and hopefully encourages them to pursue their own. Simply saying education is important is not as effective as obtaining it.
I will close by saying that having your degree does not promise you a successful fire service career. Your degree will open doors for you from your first day until your last day and even after retirement depending on your plans. That said, you still have to put the time in to learn the other parts of your job in order to be successful. Having a degree without the knowledge and experience of the job will earn you the label of the person with a lot of book smarts but no practical knowledge or experience. That label is hard to overcome so do not forget that it is a balancing act of higher education, practical knowledge and experience that will bring you the most success and is prudent to being a well-rounded professional.
If you already have your degree, that’s fantastic. Start working on the next step, whether that is a professional designation, EFO or another degree. If you don’t have your degree, it’s not too late; there are a number of online programs available for working professionals. It’s not important when you start or how long it takes; what matters is that you finish.
The fire service wants to be looked at as professionals, and our citizens and elected leaders expect that out of us. If we truly want the title and respect of a professional, then we have to acknowledge that status starts with education.