Higher education is a hot topic in the fire service. This topic spawns some very heated discussions when it comes to hiring processes and promotions. The talk often centers on hiring a firefighter who has a degree over a firefighter who just meets the basic requirements, due to the extra points awarded for having the degree. What about formal education being a requirement for promotion? A great firefighter with 15 years on the job is not eligible for promotion but a firefighter with 5 years and an associate’s degree is? Some cry that policy is completely unfair; unless you are the one with the degree. Why the sudden emphasis in college degrees? Does a degree make you a better firefighter? How is this new vision on higher education going to change our fire service?
How did we get here?
Why are we seeing more and more firefighter applicants with degrees? In my state, high school students who meet certain academic and community/school involvement guidelines receive two years of community college tuition free. I see many enroll in a fire academy though the community college right after high school. They can easily complete the academy along with additional required classes and graduate with an associate’s degree in Fire Science before the age of 20. Now you have an applicant who is 21 with their Firefighter and Haz Mat certifications, EMT, and an associate’s degree. While they have little to no experience, they may be more educated than some of your senior company officers. On the surface they sound like an ideal candidate!
Let’s say you are the hiring manager for a large department. You have 1,000 applicants who passed the written and move on in the process to hire for 15 positions. A simple move would be use education as a tool to thin the herd. If you add 10 points to the overall scores of those with an associate’s degree you now create some separation. What about those with a bachelor’s degree? Or even a master’s degree? Should they not get even more credit? While it is up to each organization to determine how and where to apply this preference, I feel that a candidate having a degree does warrant some additional consideration. Is it a free pass to the front of the line? No.
What about firefighters already on the job who are attending college courses at the same time? Many departments support this and offer some type of financial support for higher education. It is certainly possible for a 2 or 3 year firefighter to have bachelor’s degree in Public Administration, Industrial Health and Safety, or Emergency Management. Often these firefighters will have more formal education than some of their long serving chief officers and maybe even the fire chief.
Not only are we seeing more and more candidate firefighters with degrees but many organizations are requiring advanced degrees for promotion. A department may require an associate’s degree for company officer and a bachelor’s degree for chief officer promotions. Often departments that go this progressive route give a long range date in the future that such requirements will be implemented. Again, these requirements can thin the pool of prospective officers or having a degree may be worth additional points or consideration in the promotion process.
Does it make you a better firefighter?
So then the question becomes does a degree make you a better firefighter? I do not believe that a college degree makes you a better firefighter on the job than the next person on the eligibility list that does not have one. We must remember that the job of a firefighter, and even that of a company officer, is what we traditionally think of as a blue collar job. We perform manual labor. We operate equipment. We work outside, in the heat or cold or wind or snow, and we get dirty. Does that sound like a corporate white collar job to you? Do you hear of many investment bankers or insurance agents getting work related shoulder surgery or retire with a medical disability?
My point is that the ‘old guy’ on the department that says, “College boy (or girl), you can’t put out the fire by showing it your diploma!” is probably right. But, look at it from his view. He probably came on the job 25 or 30 years ago without any college education. He may have taken an EMT course once he was on the job but certainly didn’t need it to apply. He probably took a written test, some basic type of physical test, and had an oral interview. His training was mostly in the academy, in the station, and on the street.
What you will find is as his generation of firefighters and officers are retiring, those moving up in the ranks currently have more formal education. Do you need a degree to drag hose and pull ceiling? No. Do you need one to move up and compete in the current environment? Probably.
What is this doing to our fire service?
There may be some of us who have thought or even heard someone say, “Fire Chiefs today will hire a kid with a degree in basket weaving before an experienced firefighter with no degree.” There are certainly many things a Chief, Manager, or Administrator considers when making a choice of who to hire. Is education one of those things considered? Probably so. If you agree that a college education does not make a firefighter better at performing their essential duties then why do so many organizations give them preference? And what is this doing to our fire service?
Here are my personal feelings: the fire service is one of the few professions left where the basic requirements for an entry level position are a high school diploma, driver’s license, and social security card. Granted, many departments also require some type of basic fire academy, EMT, or paramedic; but in the biggest departments in the US it is often very basic. Now, look at those same departments, their chief officers are typically all highly educated. There may still be a few hanging in there without college educations but the vast majority will have bachelor or graduate degrees in public administration, business, communications, leadership, or more recently homeland security. Like other professions, formal education along with experience in the industry are keys to promoting up through the organization.
So why is this important? Because there is much more to do in the fire department than drag hose and pull ceilings. Those two tactics are essential to us fulfilling our mission but what about all the “other stuff?” Other duties such as budgeting, scheduling, payroll, insurance, long term planning, capital improvements, ballots issues, bonds, human resource management, workplace safety and security, workers compensation, and on, and on, and on. At some point in your organization the work goes from tactical, such as handling daily incidents, to strategic such an managing people and planning for the future. Having advanced degrees prepares leaders to tackle those problems in the future. A firefighter on the line may not need that degree but as his or hers career progresses and their role in the organization changes they certainly will.
The next step?
My advice is to go to school. To the younger readers, you will never have more time and college will never be cheaper than right now. Take it from a guy who was working 40 hours a week in an administrative position and married with three little kids; the time to go to school is now, not later. If you are on the job already, use your time in the evening to study. There are several great online programs—take the leap to get started and finish. If you want to move ahead in your career, a college education shows your department’s leaders that you are committed to improving yourself. If you are still applying to departments, having a college degree to add to your resume will help you stand out from the crowd. If you are a brother or sister currently in the grind and going to school while you work, my heart goes out to you. It is work, it takes a lot of time, but it is absolutely worth the effort.
Our fire service has changed. We will always need firefighters in the trenches doing what needs to be done to serve our citizens. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a career riding backwards on an apparatus. I offer this advice to those trying to come on the job or to those wishing to more up in their department. Even if it isn’t required, a college education will better your opportunities in the future.