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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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One thing I think is over looked a lot of time is personality.  Do they have the personality to lead effectively ! I personally would rather have an officer that has experience and a personality to lead. Those that believe will follow!

Great topic!

Your friend,


Feel free to join the group called "HazMat Placards to Success" Or "like"

Thanks Todd

Great article Chief!

It takes a good education that is a combination of book work and experience along with that indescribable quality that makes people WANT to follow you. It is a combination of likability, toughness, fairness, and respect that is so hard to earn.


Wayne Zeman said:

Great article Chief!

It takes a good education that is a combination of book work and experience along with that indescribable quality that makes people WANT to follow you. It is a combination of likability, toughness, fairness, and respect that is so hard to earn.

Totally agree on this topic.  I started as a volunteer at age 13 so i started learning the job before I was even in high school.  Got hired at a early age then went back to get my degree and it has helped me in other areas of the profession I will eventually get to use as I go for promotion.  

The degree offers some intangibles for the enthusiastic firefighter who will USE the habits and education to supplement his/her experiences and actually apply some of what they learned.  If they do not utilize the benefits from a formal education it will be worthless.

At the same time, 30 years of experience is not necessarily a benefit either.  It all depends on what that person does with his/her "experience."  Practice doesn't make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.  If we do it wrong for 30 years, that time means nothing from a leadership persepective.

Being able to apply both education and experience as an offcer or officer candidate would be ideal.  But, ultimately it's about making th right decisions in a consistent manner coupled with having a passion and enthusiasm for the job, and learning from both positive and negative experiences that will form that persons effectiveness.

Just my thoughts.


Experience gives you the ability to make good decisions, it gives you the personality to lead, it makes great leaders.

Education gives you a piece of paper.

There is nothing wrong with education, but it only works when partnered with solid experience. Experience will always be the trump card. 



The question cannot be answered unless we ask 'what do we expect to gain from a formal education?'

If we hope to hire and promote leaders and innovators, then a formal education has proven to be a decent indicator of future success.  BUT, and this is where I believe the fire service has failed miserably, using the simple completion of a degree or training program as evidence that someone should be selected to advance is pure laziness on our part.  

Awarding points for education and experience is based on the faulty notion that those two things will be used by the candidate during his or her career.  A member with 30 years may have learned nothing, just as a member who has 6 years of college and scores of technical schools in his portfolio may prove to be as useless as the paper he carries.

Where the fire service needs to improve is in the actual testing process.  Set the bar high.  Make the tests difficult and challenging.  If your organization desires the qualities attained by a formal education, then make that candidate demonstrate their grasp of what they were taught.  If your organization desires experience, have the test reflect that.  

If every testing member started at 0 points and had to 'earn' their way to promotion, then only those who truly GOT something from their years on the job or time in the classroom would benefit.  Those who simply collected certificates would not.

Finally, the associates degrees in fire science have portions of fire officer training in them.  I would bet my last paycheck that the 18-20 year olds who are taking these course, most even before they have a job in the field, are retaining almost none of the vital information provided in those classes.  When their time comes to move up in the ranks, they will get credit for a class they took years ago but never truly understood.

 Full disclosure, I have an associates degree and several other qualifications.  I would gladly lay down all of my points in any promotional exam.  I am confident that I could earn the points I deserved.  The points I wouldn't get, I obviously wouldn't have deserved.


Soapbox is broken.

Thanks for your insight. Very much appreciated

I believe that both of these attributes are needed to make a truly "good" officer. Experience is definitely the key, especially when it comes to strategy and tactics training, and running a fire scene. There is absolutely no classroom task or project that can prepare you for making the split second decisions needed to effectively and efficiently run a fire scene. But, as we all know, running a fire scene isnt the only aspect of being an officer. There is also the day to day, dealing with personnel and the public aspect of being an officer. This is where I believe that formal education can be very beneficial to an officer. Lots of "old school" officers, who are no doubt great officers, and are the ones every fireman wants to work with, will tell you that when it came to dealing with personnel issues, especially in the new "nicer kinder" fire service, they had to learn by trial and error. They had to learn essentially the hard way that you cant just jump in every probies a** and tell him what a maggot he is, and break him down, to build him back up. In this day in age, just not everyone learns like that. And the unfortunate part of it is, when you do that, eventually someone is gonna yell discrimination, or preferential treatment, and then you have a law suit on your hands. I believe that formal education is essential when it comes to the day to day personnel issues of the fire dept because within these curriculums, are many theories, and approaches that have been formulated by guys who have studied how people work, and have experienced the trial and error of how people react to different attitudes and management styles. If you are taught these theories, or approaches to leadership and management, you can subtract some of the risk you take dealing with different personalities every single day, and therefore take some of the unfortunate legal risk out of being an officer. So yes, when it comes to day to day of an officer, formal education can be very very beneficial, but when it comes to running an emergency scene, 99% of the time, cold hard fire experience is the answer.

Brandon - thanks for your comments


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 .

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