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What makes you a better Fire Officer - Experience or Education?

Are work experiences better than a formal education in the fire service?

Will the impact of a higher educational degree affect the firefighters positively and advance our profession? I have always told High School Seniors during career days, after graduation from high school their real education begins and it never ends regardless of their profession.

This education question has a definite yes and definite no answer and hopefully answers the questions you have and will have value in determining the need for advanced degrees for either entry level or promotional purposes in your department.

So the question is - are you a better firefighter or fire officer because you have a degree or an advanced degree OR do your years of experience as a firefighter or fire officer TRUMP the formal education process? How many of our brightest leaders and pioneers in the fire service start out with a degree and then learn their profession? OR did they learn their profession, make major contributions to how we perform out jobs then get a degree as they were interested in the academics?

Let's start from the beginning when a high school education or GED gets you through the front door of the firehouse to begin the best job of your life. After the testing process and you were hired, your fire education begins in recruit academy, EMT training and the all too familiar probationary period. We learn a lot about yourself and your chosen profession during this first year and in most departments, the education process continues throughout your fire career up through the ranks to the Chief's position.

The educational overkill for entry level firefighters, we are beginning to see are preliminary qualification requirements adopted by some organizations that including the requirement of an Associate in Fire Science to become eligible to take the firefighters test. Is this a really necessary to become a firefighter or should it be a requirement to become a fire officer?

In my experience, having a fire science degree should not be required for the initial training of the firefighter, instead a requirement for promotional purposes. The entry level Associates Degree requirement prevents a number of otherwise qualified candidates from taking your entry level tests. They may be qualified individuals who may not have the resources or availability to obtain that education. SO, the answer to the Associates Degree requirement for entry level testing and training, from my experience is a NO; it should not be a requirement for entry level testing or hiring. If a qualified candidate has an Associate’s Degree or higher, then so much the better for the candidate and the department, but do not make this a requirement for entry level testing.

The second to fourth year of the firefighter’s career is the most important part of the initial learning process in order to be an expert in your profession. This where you obtain your education; from the streets while responding to emergency and non emergency jobs and learning from your crew and other experienced firefighters. Many firefighters are thinking of promotion during this period of time and should begin the educational process by obtaining an Associate’s Degree or advanced degree in the Fire Sciences, a bachelors degree in management and organization or other similar education to make you eligible for promotion and possibly a better fire officer. These are all based on the pre-requirements and testing requirements of your organization.

Here is something to think about: even though you may have a degree and may be a terrible officer, the attainment of a degree does nothing to make a difference in your management or leadership ability or likability. I agree with the concept that a degree does not proffer a level of leadership quality and it may check a box determining the ability of the firefighter to learn new skills and possibly gaining the skill and knowledge to be a better leader. Again, the lesson of leadership is learned from the streets and from experiences.

When attaining the position of leadership, remember the experience you had with prior officers - what type of officer do you want to be working for and to be that officer. It is important to provide the best traits of all of your best officers and leaders and forget the bad leadership examples except to remember not to emulate those horrible traits. Your firefighters will love you for that.

The addition of a degree as a part of your qualifications as an Fire Officer places the profession and you in a better place in our industry. For these reasons, I say YES to an advanced degree either an Associate’s Degree, Bachelors and even a Masters degree in an appropriate and relevant field for the fire service profession.

As you assume the mantle of leadership to include the possibility to be the Chief of the Department, we begin to see additional advanced degrees and certifications. I know there are many Chief Officers with a high school education who are wonderful and inspiring leaders. Many of those Chiefs were the pathfinders in our profession and we are all grateful for their contributions and dedication to the service. Advanced degrees were not for them but I suggest officers or officer candidates attend the National Fire Academy's Executive Fire Officers Program for a specialized program that will assist you in your leadership style, traits and competency.

In today's fire service, our desire is to become more "professional" in relation to those other professions we interact with every day. Many of our top fire service leaders have Masters and even Doctorate degrees providing the credibility we are attempting to achieve in our profession. I applaud those leaders in obtaining those educational qualifications and there has been a vast improvement in the quality of leadership in our industry.

From my perspective when looking through the eyes of the elected officials, most of whom have degrees or advanced degrees, there seems to be a level of respect if the Chief or Fire Officer has the same degrees as those they interact with. I know from personal experience as a Chief Fire Officer, my advanced degree and fire experiences opened more than a few eyes and doors with the elected officials when discussing serious matters relating to the fire services. Not all of you will obtain or desire to obtain an advanced degree, but having a degree or advanced degree levels the playing field when dealing with elected officials.

It is also my experience, when looking through the eyes of the firefighters, it makes no difference if you have a degree or how many you have; they are looking for leadership traits that instills confidence that you are competent enough to lead them through the toughest fire, the toughest budget discussions or labor negotiations and that you are a fair, impartial and inspiring leader. The firefighters and other officers look to your strength and courage in leadership and not so much in your stack of degrees hanging on your wall.

Remember, the real test of quality leadership is not necessarily the degrees obtained, but what we learned on the streets as firefighters working for both good and bad leaders of our profession, learning from those experiences and finally getting the chance to apply our own leadership style when given the chance. Obtaining advanced degrees is the topping on a great career further advancing the profession in the eyes of our peers.

My final thought as to what makes a great fire officer is the combination of experience and education. All fire experience is an education; every personnel interaction is an education and life itself, parents, family, community or your church is an education. The classroom provides the educational process of how to learn. How we use those processes in the field and managing your daily activities as an officer makes the real difference in how effective you are and how that effectiveness advances our profession.

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Thanks Mike - experience is a great teacher mentored by our peers. 
 
Mike France said:

A combination of both and some degree of Mentoring from those who came before you make you a Better Leader , something I learned when coming up throught the Ranks .

Experience!!  And I do not mean years with a department, we have all seen the person with 1 of year of experience 15 times which does not equal 15 years of experience.  Firefighting is a trade just like plumbing, electrical, HVAC, mechanical, welding, etc.  It requires experience to have a true understanding of the job.  Degrees are nice pieces of paper but the greatest asset I see from a degree is:  that person stuck with it and didn't quit.  It is more proof of character than anything else.  An entry level firefighter with a Fire Science degree would probably scare me a little since it is likely they will THINK they know more than they actually DO.

I agree with your final thought.  As a volunteer Asst. Chief, I have an Assoc. Degree in chosen field of work (HVAC).  But after 21+ years I still read books, articles and attend courses to try and improve myself.  Sometimes the problem with standards are that once someone reaches that standard they think they are finished and have little desire to further their education.

Thanks Chief. Good insight.

Ron Becknell said:

Experience!!  And I do not mean years with a department, we have all seen the person with 1 of year of experience 15 times which does not equal 15 years of experience.  Firefighting is a trade just like plumbing, electrical, HVAC, mechanical, welding, etc.  It requires experience to have a true understanding of the job.  Degrees are nice pieces of paper but the greatest asset I see from a degree is:  that person stuck with it and didn't quit.  It is more proof of character than anything else.  An entry level firefighter with a Fire Science degree would probably scare me a little since it is likely they will THINK they know more than they actually DO.

I agree with your final thought.  As a volunteer Asst. Chief, I have an Assoc. Degree in chosen field of work (HVAC).  But after 21+ years I still read books, articles and attend courses to try and improve myself.  Sometimes the problem with standards are that once someone reaches that standard they think they are finished and have little desire to further their education.

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