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This issue is driving me crazy! As a matter of fact I can't even believe it is an issue. WHY! Someone explain to me why a fire chief or battalion chief of district chief in the Anytown FD needs to have a college degree to do the job. I know dozens of successful and bright chiefs from all across America who don't have a college degree and run some of the most productive and efficient departments. I know many chiefs in my own department who have never set foot in a college classroom and command the fireground like Patton on the battlefield. College is not bad, but there is no reason at all to require it for folks in the fire service. There are hundreds of seminars and conferences conducted every year with quality training and education for interested fire service professionals. At the very least, if you require college for promotion or appointment, allow firefighters and officers to document and submit the training that they do have and accept those accomplishments on a par with Math 101 and Astrology. If you think I'm off-base here please write in so I can set you straight!

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Chief I don't think you are off base at all. I have a degree and I know it doesn't do a thing for me on the fire ground....but I am a Chief in a small town that has grown from 3000 people to 23000 people in less than 6 years. That makes my job largely administrative trying to do battle with every other department in my Town for money. My bosses have degrees (Town Manager and Council) and the preception of my degree I believe helps when trying to discuss important issues. The whole college experience has helped also. I took a lead role in a couple of organizations while attending college and that gave me a great jump start in a number of areas including on how to deal with differing personalities who are after the same goal. Going back to the fire ground though I would say everything I have learned has been by my short list of mentors who have provided me with more valuable information than the printed piece of paper I received 20 years ago.
Is a college degree a measure of our critical thinking skills and our abilities to digest, learn, understand, document, discuss and present information? Absolutely.

Are those same qualities not what we're looking for in today's fire chief? Although a college degree is a good measuring stick, it is not the only relevant measurement when assessing a fire chief.

In fact, I am ‘enjoying’ some first hand experience with this subject right now. As one of my goals for 2008, I chose to become a student again after a lengthy hiatus from a formal learning environment (we’re talking decades kind of lengthy.)

My goal is to earn a degree in emergency management. It’s not a requisite for my current position; it’s just a personal goal of mine – one of those “because I can” kinds of things. And, my goal has always been to further myself as a professional.

I approached the first college of choice armed with several previously earned college credits, hundreds of hours of state and national certificated course work, an AmeriCorps scholarship and 27 years of experience in emergency services.

I was summarily dismissed with the news that I would have to follow their curriculum verbatim and retake courses like ICS-100, ICS-200, NFA PIO, etc. – and for an entire semester each if you could imagine enduring that – in their classroom setting in order to “earn” their degree.

Needless to say, that conversation ended abruptly.

I think most firefighters would surely choose a seasoned veteran with a high school education over an inexperienced graduate student to lead them into battle.

However, I also believe that the so-called “piece of paper” can be of value in dealing with issues off the fireground, issues that require effective organizational management skills. That too requires experience to be truly effective. And in the fire service, we know that the majority of the challenges we face are back at the firehouse – not on the fire scene.

College degrees are simply another national standard used to define our professional qualifications. I believe that even the NFA EFO program requires a bachelor’s degree as a pre-requisite.

I agree with you that a master’s degree in calcium anthropology, (the study of milkmen), is useless in determining the outcome of an incident. Regardless of where the education comes from or in what form, it needs to be relevant.

Being a fire chief or any other kind of leader requires a fine balance of book smarts and street smarts. Whether you’re light in one category or another; neither is useful without the ability to effectively communicate your ideas.

Our systems need to be flexible enough to recognize the value of course work and field experience and must be able to assign equivalent values to these assets.

My goal is to find a learning institution that offers me the most value for my real life and fire service experience, certificated coursework and demonstrated performance in a college setting.

I’ll let you know how I do.

Thanks for the discussion Chief.

PS – I had to laugh at your comment: “If you think I'm off-base here please write in so I can set you straight!”

I’m glad to see you’re keeping an open mind about this!
Lots of guys have similar stories about their degrees and what the degree has helped them with. It still is distressing that we require chiefs to attend college, and that is YEARS of study and testing, so we can feel equal to their city manager or labor negotiator. I know there are lots of other positive experiences going on at college as well, such as the organizational experience you cited, but again, many of those same types of situations can be experienced at state fire schools, the national fire academy and other quality fire service conferences and seminars. As I have said I have absolutely NO PROBLEM with college or folks that have a college degree, but I wish the folks who require it for fire service personnel would find a way to credit the work that many firefighters and officers do at the academies and conferences I mentioned above.
I had the good fortune to be able to attend a four year college right out of high school. I enjoyed it, and I learned a lot while there.
Has it helped me put out a fire? NO. The fire ground is not academic, its more like a battlefield than a classroom; and If the classroom were relevent on the battlefield, college students probably wouldn't have been exempt from the draft. We learn how to put out fires from good instructors and mentors within the fire service. And as I'm sure you're aware, the fire service has no shortage of good instructors and mentors, many without a college degree. Having said that, there are a number of degree and certificate programs available all over the country and on line pertaining to many aspects of fire protection and administration, and I would encourage anyone who can learn through these methods to do so given the opportunity. But not everyone learns through the classroom, and yet these others still contribute vastly to the fire service. Therefore, I don't believe that a college degree is, or should be required, of a fireground chief.
However, once a chief moves from the fireground to a predominantly administrative position, I can see where the college degree can be helpful. Even so, I'm not sure it needs to be mandatory. I know of many leaders of large departments and organizations that have no more than a high school diploma or even a G.E.D., yet they still thrive. Part of that is because they are "natural" leaders, and part of it involves surrounding themselves with the right people. The fire service has many such "right people" for a chief without a college degree to surround him (or her) self with.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to sound off on this topic. I've noticed this is the subject of the August roundtable and I've been hesitant to reply since I'm a volunteer chief and the question seemed to be geared toward the paid service.
Tiger Schmittendorf wrote "the so-called “piece of paper” can be of value in dealing with issues off the fireground, issues that require effective organizational management skills."

Sometimes this is the case. I do believe that a 4 year degree can teach organizationsl management skills to kids that have never had to utilize such skills. Yet, as adults old enough to be fire chief officers, you either have these skills or you don't. You probably developed them while studying for all of those promotional exams and by dealing with some of the knuckle heads that we have dealt with while perfecting our skills as managers and leaders.

The fire ground is not a place that the formal educational experience will help unless that degree is possibly a degree in fire protection technology where there has been heavy emphasis on building construction, fire science, and adminstration / management classes. But a bachelors degree in non fire related areas should not make one candidate better than someone without said un-related degree.

Chief Salka is right in the aspect that there are great fire chiefs out there with very little formal education (paid or volunteer). We should not require the 4 year degree just to get our foot in the door. We should look at the individual who is knocking on the door, instead.
Set me straight- or at least point me in the right direction....

Sit next to a guy who manages a 400 million $ city budget who spent 6 years or more getting a degree in finance and public administration, or a guy with a budget of 40 million and a high school diploma. Who is going to the respect or belief that they know what they are doing with the dollars in hand? Politics like it or not play a major part of being able to "do the job" of chief. How you are perceived by the city council or mayors office (did they have to do college?) has bearing on the ability to get the job done. Are you seen as a "peer professional" by the rest of the department heads or are you just a fireman with a high school diploma. Having all the tools you learned on the street at your disposal is just as important as the degree-- I shudder at the thought of a HR manager with a degree in public admin. try to do the chief's job. Can't be done. However the challenges of budget, personnel, legal, staffing, labor/management, and city government can't be learned ( and held up to the same professional standards of other municipal officers) by being on the street.
All that said....have at it, cause life is short and I have too much to learn.

You are absolutely correct! I am just saying that I think it is a joke that we have to have the same educational credentials to be treated as an equal. Additionally, many folks in the fire service get college degrees fresh out of high school in subjects ranging from astronomy to law enforcement. These unrelated degrees offer little assistance to the aspiring fire chief yet they qualify him for the position! Then there are the folks that go to the "Totally ON-LINE" degree program. They never leave their living room and when they are done, they have a college degree. No rubbing elbows with professors, no interactive social experiences, no nothin! And that degree too qualifies us for the top job. Give me a break!
I concur. It is irresponsible to look solely at either as "qualifying" to do the job. If the continuing education we get in the fire service is taken into account I would think there are more hours there than most other department heads or city/county managers have under their belt. If the training hours are added in.... probably hundreds of times what is learned in 4 years of "Higher Education". Holding city hall or council to that kind of measure is most likely never going to happen.

B/C Salka
Thank you for the great job of opening this vital discussion on the need for higher education in the fire service at every level. Nothing works better in motivating firefighters to achieve loftier goals than telling them they can’t do it and that their bosses have no right to make them do it.
I think it is something in the genes of every firefighter where we have to prove that nobody can stop us or even hold us back
By opening this discussion you have clearly opened the door to allow demonstration of the importance and need for higher education in the fire service. Through this discussion, you have again given voice to many who understand the importance of having leaders with higher education in every size and type of fire department.
We as successful leaders really know that we can not successfully serve our communities if we fail to effectively compete for the limited funding that is available to support our mission. And we understand the important part that higher education plays in preparing us for that effort.
Unfortunately, up to this point in the discussion no one has pointed out that many of the advanced educational courses taken in the fire service are creditable college level courses. Those courses can and do qualify as part of degree work for those that want to apply them to their degree work. Many colleges including the Empire College of the University of the State of New York do so every day.
I hope to see you at FDIC next week.

I will be teaching Thursday, April 10, 2008: 1530-1715 in room 202-203.
The class is:
The Fire Chief's Tool Box
 How the “System” REALLY works
 How to Make the “System” work for your department
 How to get the budget your department really needs
 This class will benefit everyone in your department at every rank

I will also be signing copies of my book at the Fire Engineering Books and Videos booth during FDIC.
Stay safe
Ron Graner
Fire Chief (retired)
I am in complete agreement. There is no better atmosphere for learning the trade of firefighting than the fire ground. And no one can teach someone to be a LEADER, it is a personality trait that requires respect, shich can only be earned. Mostly by doing and proving. I have seen a lot of people come out of college I wouldn't follow down a sidewalk, much less a burning house. I have also seen a lot of people that look like they just fell off of a hay wagon somewhere but are excellent decision makers, and don't suspect where the fire might go, they KNOW where the fire is going and exactly how to stop it.
Hi Chief; although I have some college degrees, it did not remove the stupid. Believe it has certainly helped me in some of my roles, which might have otherwise taken many hard knocks. Have followed by chiefs in the department that learned it the other way, including years of military service. They remain my mentors and the education provided by them was as vital as anything obtained in college.

Know physicians I don't want to touch my child. So just because they passed medical school does not make them a good doctor or person. Think society gets too wrapped up at times on the shingle and forgets there is more to it. If the choice is between the chief with a degree or one with experience, prefer the one that has done it. Ideally, we must recognize the best candidate is one that has invested in both.
I agree and disagree. I too feel that a college degree has little to no effect on how an individual will handle a fire scene or any other scene for that matter. However I do feel that promoting education is the way to go now and in the future. The knowledge we aquire in the classroom does better equip us to deal with the ever increasing administrative functions at the battalion and/or district level. It also ensures we are ready to take the next step when or if it comes. Lets face it. The pepole we will work with on a daily basis, the people we must argue against for more funds, better laws, different policies, etc.. are all college educated out the whazoo. I feel that I will be better prepared, and as much as we hate to admit it, better accepted by those making the decisions if I follow through with my education. I must reccomend that others do as well. We face a transition in the fire service much like that of the military. The young, inexperienced college educated individuals are replacing the old salty dogs with all those years of experience. We cannot afford to lose that knowledge and ability. Unfortunately we all know firefighters don't willingly go along with change so for now it appears that the industry has chosen to drag these experienced, capable officers along, kicking and screaming, by placing more educational requirements on promotions and available positions. It is tough and I feel we will lose many great chiefs as a result but I also feel the fire service will better better for it in the future.


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