Some of the more interesting attributes of the fire service are the backgrounds and stories behind every firefighter. I've known well-educated firefighters with graduate degrees and trade school backgrounds or just high school diplomas. Regardless of education pedigree, all of them joined the job and have had overwhelmingly successful careers. This is likely because many fire department promotional systems weigh internal factors (time on the job, fire service coursework, certifications, etc.) heavier than external education.
The education of firefighters is a complicated topic since we recruit people from all stages of their lives and require a basic level of education to test. However, common amongst some of our members is that we attract people to join the fire department at ill-timed moments in their lives, causing them to join the department with half-completed college coursework or none at all. The result is that many departments have many firefighters who have either never attended college or have only partially completed any coursework towards a degree. I'm the first to admit that having a college degree does not make you any better of a firefighter, fire officer, or human being.
However, the desire to further one's education and validate themselves academically isn't something to dismiss based on that one acknowledgment. Our departments should do whatever we can to encourage our members' growth of knowledge and education. They should cultivate an environment that supports or rewards those working to further their education while leaving the decision to do so with the individual.
The environment firefighters work in today has many ingredients for educational success, which is a game-changer from the fire station decades ago.
A diploma and the experience of obtaining an education can never be taken away from someone. They can serve as a "diving board" for advancement within the fire service or another career after retirement. Common obstacles to education include the apparent variables of time, money, and incentive; however, I'd submit that also serving as a barrier are the emotions of fear and anxiety. These play into the process more than we'd like to admit. Starting or completing a degree can seem daunting. Still, like most big accomplishments, it requires the firefighter to understand that it is a process that will involve "chipping away" at the coursework one semester at a time.
I'm inspired to write about higher education for two recent experiences I've had with professionals and their stories involving higher education. The first story involves my wife. When I first met her, she had only a few semesters of college completed and had to discontinue any college work for more important reasons, namely keeping a roof over the heads of her young son and herself.
Like many firefighters who joined the department with some college credits, it took her years to reengage the goal to complete her degree.
The experience she had is not unique. While some are blessed with a life that leads us down a linear path that includes college after high school, many must adapt and overcome circumstances that life throws at them before even considering such a luxury as higher education.
She battled the before-mentioned emotions of self-doubt and anxiety about returning to the classroom and contemplated whether a degree was essential for her path in life. Like many mothers and fathers in that situation, she even felt guilty about spending money on her degree, knowing that we could use the money for other family-related priorities. She consistently chipped away at her degree plan, class by class, and semester by semester. She taught me that having a blind focus on the future is as important as any other attribute when dealing with a multi-year goal like education.
Even as her successes at work (she works in healthcare administration for an extensive hospital system) accumulated, her drive to complete a degree never faltered, nor did she allow that success without the degree to be an excuse to suspend her work or take the easy road. She had grit – something firefighters possess plenty of – and determination. After ten years of tedious work, she now has a framed piece of paper on her office wall that signifies she never gave up.
The other story involves a company officer in my department. This company officer has taken the time to make college attainment a personal project and serves as a quasi-college counselor for our organization. While he completed his degree several years ago, he possesses within him a need to guide and encourage those other firefighters without degrees to continue their education. I suppose he recognized that the fire department isn't always friendly to those seeking to better themselves, and he's adopted the role of being a mentor to those working on their degree. Nothing replaces the words of support and careful tenacity of a company officer "steering" a young firefighter.
He's identified pathways to degrees within our state that are cost-effective. He regularly emails the entire department to share the information or remind them about enrollment periods in local colleges that offer classes conducive to firefighter schedules.
The company officer's interest in his brother and sister firefighters helps shape our department, and I think it has a positive impact on morale. While many members don't take the Captain up on his offer to help with education guidance, it plants "seeds" in many of their minds that manifest in the future as other elements of their life iron out. No one asked this Captain to start such an endeavor; instead, he identified a problem and mustered a solution that he continues to share each semester.
The takeaways for me about these two stories have relevance to the fabric of the fire service and the future to come for our profession. Just like we expect career-long fitness and physical readiness, we must also support and provide career-long learning and educational attainment opportunities for our firefighters. Establishing an environment that recognizes the anxiety of such activities and celebrates the achievements of our members is essential.
Recruit firefighters are an audience for information about opportunities and should be made aware that modern firefighter schedules are more conducive than ever to continuing higher education. This might even be a recruiting strategy in a disruptive and competitive job market! Most importantly, if we want to help individuals working towards a degree, I think it comes in encouragement and reassurance on a personal level. Higher education isn't for every firefighter, but we have an obligation and responsibility to support those who desire to attain such a goal.
Tom Jenkins serves as the fire chief for the City of Rogers, Arkansas, a position he has held since 2009. He is a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Follow him on Twitter @tomcjenkins.