Let’s get right to it: without a college degree or advanced professional certifications, such as Chief Fire Officer (CFO) or Executive Fire Officer (EFO), your chances of becoming a fire chief in today’s fire and emergency service are quickly fading into the sunset.
This sounds harsh, but it's quickly becoming a reality, whether you think it's fair or not. If you don't believe me, simply check out the educational requirements in job postings on the IAFC website and you'll see what I'm talking about.
What are managers looking for in their next fire chief?
For at least the last decade, the fire and emergency service has gradually become more of a profession in that the bottom line must provide the appropriate level of service your citizens demand but at a cost they're willing to support through taxes.
The traditional notion of what a fire service should be—simply responding to emergency calls—was handed down from generation to generation before the 1980s.
Today, however, you're expected to come to the management table with the skills and education that will allow you to play in the same decision-making game as the city/county manager, attorney and finance, budget and human resources directors—all of whom are required to have attained a degree in their chosen field.
How do you do that? Start by demanding more of yourself and your profession through attaining and requiring higher educational and national certifications as part of your promotional process. Here's a great opportunity for you to lead by example and show those coming up through the ranks that higher education and professional certifications are the future for today’s fire officers.
What took us so long?
So why has it taken so long for the fire service to be held to the same professional standards as other public-service leaders?
- Tradition – "A high-school education was good enough for those who came before, so it must be good enough for me." Times and expectations of fire service leaders have changed, and you need to realize and embrace the new normal that within fire service management, education is here to stay. It's time to get on board the education and professional certification and standards train or get off at the next station and let a new generation take over.
- Public perception – What was once a strictly blue-collar profession, from the rookie to the fire chief, has changed. But many don't realize that running a fire department today is no different than running any other corporation. Until the public and elected officials demands such excellence from their fire department leadership, you must take the lead for your agency.
- "Good ole boy network" – “You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours.” This idea has died in most parts of the country in terms of leading in the fire service. However, there still exists the belief that the one who remains the longest must be the most fit to become the next fire chief. You must eliminate this archaic thinking and reward those who go the extra mile to make the future of fire service leadership equal to the standards set for lawyers, doctors and city managers alike.
What can you do about it?
Please, don't sit back and expect someone else to take the lead in this change. Be proactive and start making the fire service a better profession than you found it. Change starts with you!
- Lead by example and work with labor and human resources to gradually build an educational component into your promotional requirements. With today’s online colleges making it easier for the computer generation to obtain degrees, there's no excuse for accepting anything less than the best from your brightest rising stars.
- Encourage your department members to attend the National Fire Academy and take part in the great learning programs offered at little or no cost to the attendee or department. Dr. Denis Onieal, superintendent of the NFA, told attendees at the 2012 Executive Fire Officer Symposium that “the future is now and the NFA is here to prepare future leaders in the fire service to accept the challenges we all face in this difficult economic climate throughout the United States.”
- The EFO is the pinnacle of higher education within the fire service. Encourage officers to apply and become part of an elite group of graduates who are prepared to take on the challenges the fire service is facing today and well into the future.
- Become active in professional organizations such as the IAFC and the National Society of Executive Fire Officers (NSEFO). These groups and others are accepting the challenges facing today’s fire service and developing a roadmap to ensure you as leaders are prepared for whatever tomorrow brings.
There's no time like the present to start to shape your future and that of the fire service. Wholeheartedly accept the challenge and demonstrate your commitment to improving the caliber of your fire officers for the future.
Patrick Kelly is the president of NSEFO and a professor at Columbia Southern University.