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Experience or Education - Is One Better Than the Other?

It seems to me that the fire service struggles with a debate that is taking on many similarities to the fog vs. solid stream debate. This debate is newer but is discussed with the same vigor. It is a debate about education in the fire service and its importance in comparison to experience.


As departments continue to increase education requirements for entrance and promotional tests, this debate grows. One side argues the importance of education while the other argues the importance of experience. I get it…I argue both sides of this debate myself.


I joined the fire service for many reasons. One of the less important reasons, but one nonetheless, was that I could have a fulfilling job without attending a bunch of “useless college.” I argued against increasing the entrance requirements in our own department many years ago because it would cut out such a great group of potential firefighters – the carpenters, electricians, mechanics, etc. that are so important to our operations.


Having said that, I continued my education because of my interest in the fire service; I wanted learn more about what I do and that was one way to do it. I was the “non-traditional” student that goes to college forever because I only took one class at a time. I was in college so long that I started in an era of writing papers on a typewriter and mailing them but finished in an era using video conferencing to create a virtual classroom with students and teachers from around the country.


So, where does that put me? Well, I still argue both sides of this debate. I have struggled with explaining why I will argue experience is important one day and education is important the next like a living Jekyll and Hyde.


But, I realized that I was trying to debate what so many other people seemingly try to debate. The feeling is that the debate should decide that one is better than another is. Since that is the feeling, it means one group of people – the experienced or the educated – are going to be a second-class citizen at the end of the debate. That is just not true however. In no way, shape, or form is one better than another is. This is where I think the debate goes off track in the fire service.


A quick note - I'm generalizing to keep this piece shorter. I realize generalizing is imperfect. I'm also using the words strategy and tactics in a comparison to why and how. Again, I realize it's imperfect but it is a generalization that helps illustrate the discussion some.

Experience is essential to effective operations. An experienced person – seniority does not equal experience by the way – is the bedrock of operations. An experienced person is the first to recognize a potential problem, changing conditions, or to provide a “common sense” solution. An experienced person has multiple tools for any given problem in their toolbox. An experienced person knows how to do many things. This makes an experienced person very adaptable at the tactical level. This is an enormous asset to any company, incident commander, and department. However, experience does not always teach why we do something.


That is where education steps in. People who are educated, and only educated, do not know the how. An educated person does not have years of experience – tools in the toolbox – from which to draw during an operation. An educated person, however, can explain why a certain tool caused the outcome it did. This makes an educated person adaptable at the strategic level.


In essence, it is simply a different way of looking at the world. One is not better than another; it is just different. Here is an example. An experienced person easily internalizes the department’s mission. Without much thought, an experienced person carries out the department’s mission in day-to-day tactics because it comes naturally. On the other hand, an educated person more easily internalizes the department’s vision. Without much thought, the educated person sees in generalities what may help the department in 5 or 10 years but that person may struggle with the day-to-day execution of the department’s mission.


That is not to say an experienced person cannot learn the strategic level of thinking or that an educated person cannot learn the tactical level of thinking in any way. Both are very capable of learning the other but it does not come naturally.


Which person would you rather have in your department? I hope you would answer, “It depends, but both are important to the department.” I would also hope that you may answer, “A person with both would be perfect.”


The reason a person with both is perfect is because one is not more important than another; one will not become a second-class citizen to the other. A firefighter or captain with experience is the cornerstone of our operations; that is the person who is going to see the obvious and bring it forward. An experienced chief is important because it, hopefully, will ground the chief so he or she “remembers where they came from.” However, education does play an increasingly important role in today’s fire service in general but particularly as a person moves up the ranks. The expectation is that an officer, including company officers, can be good at the mission but guide the department and the people who work in that department toward an outcome 1, 5, or 10 years down the road.


I could be wrong but I think the fire service as a whole would benefit from coming to the conclusion that one is not better than another is. Neither group is a group of second-class citizens. Instead, we should pursue what is important to us at our rank and where we want to be in our career in the future while supporting the decision of others. Hopefully, that will give us the combination of experience and education that we need to succeed; a combination that will satisfy the politicians, the public, and our own members who want to see the fire service stay successful in the future.

-Dane Carley

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Comment by Bobby Halton on February 8, 2014 at 4:29pm

Dane, I enjoyed your post, my friends in the US Marines always remind me that regardless of your rank "every Marine is a rifleman" I think the fire service would be well served to follow a similar path "every firefighter is a nozzleman first" . Education is the fruit of success it is something every man and woman wants but in varying degrees. The degrees matter in how involved we become in management and administration each organization sets those degrees as fits the local needed. I hope we always value the person first the contribution second and accomplishments third. Thanks for a good Saturday read! Bobby 

Comment by John K. Murphy on February 8, 2014 at 11:42am

Great article. Wrote a similar one last year and on the balance, we learn as we become more experienced.

Is formal education better than street smarts? It's a combination of both but when you are facing a fire or rescue, experience and a great skill set is the preferred pathway. The learning never stops in this profession.

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