A senior fire official I know once surprised me by saying that the National Fire Academy was a "bunch of bull…!" Not surprisingly, he's never been to the Academy. His comment, however, brings to light the feelings some may share while others claim that a good education means you can merely pass a test.
As the fire service evolved from a blue-collar job into a profession, the need for education also advanced. First examples were in EMS, where EMTs and paramedics received their education and were then required to recertify.
Over time, we've seen the same theory applied in the fire service, primarily in technical rescue with hazmat team members, dive rescue and recovery, and other response teams. It may be the number of drills or responding to a defined number of incidents—to serve, you must meet the requirements.
The latest is the accreditation process, where to maintain accreditation requires continuing education and participation. It's not a one-time deal like some certifications; the accreditation process itself examines the education and experience of the applicant, as either a department or an individual.
All of us know officers who've had no formal education and yet their leadership and command skills were never questioned. We knew who they were and we trusted them.
On the opposite end of the scale is the well-educated officer who didn't know how to apply the skills he or she learned: book smart, but not street smart. A deputy chief I worked with always asked, "What have you done since?"
Graduating the Executive Fire Officer program or obtaining a BS degree is an admirable achievement. These days, however, we have to factor in the liability factor. That includes this chief's "What have you done since?" philosophy.
On the Witness Stand
If you end up on the witness stand or in a deposition, your experience and your education will be questioned. It will be scrutinized if there's a large dollar loss, injuries or death of a firefighter or civilian.
If you haven't done anything in the years since getting your degree, your education will be questioned: Tactics change; new equipment is delivered. What about ICS and NIMS?
As bad an experience as testimony may be, it becomes harder to defend yourself without documented continuing education. The higher the rank structure, the more your education and experience will be questioned.
Ask yourself: do you want to be the incident commander on the stand without credentials?
There will be a day when a department, incident commander or safety officer is found liable—guilty—because there was no documented incident action plan on a first-alarm structure fire response. These expectations necessitate the needs for aides or an incident-management team.
"We didn't have time." "We didn't have the resources."
No answer reflecting a failure to follow required or recommended standards will be sufficient to satisfy the legal team on either side.
In Line for a Promotion
Finally, how does education factor in during the promotional process? Does your department advocate education, advertise educational promotional expectations and use education as part of an evaluation or professional development process? If you fail to meet your own department's requirements, the department and the interview team loses credibility. It also sends the message: education isn't as important as we said it is.
When considering education as a requirement or as part of the promotional balance, don't lose credibility or limit yourself by developing strict educational guidelines. Develop a balanced approach; allow certain experience and types of education in lieu of a BS degree or advanced education.
Finally, if someone has been promoted with the stipulation that educational requirements must be met in a defined period of time, make it a realistic timeframe and stick to it!
Just Do It
A remarkable number of classes are available from the National Fire Academy, FEMA and the Emergency Management Institute, as well as through local and regional resources. These classes are available at no cost to your department other than loss of personnel from the duty roster.
With the cost of college so high and the time needed to get a degree or to work around the schedule of classes, the National Fire Academy is an obvious alternative. From fire prevention, incident management and executive development to its new managing officers program, a department can tailor education based on its needs or the student's responsibilities.
With respect, that doesn't sound like "bull..." to me. It may make the difference on the incident scene or on the stand.