Executive Officer Leadership: Formal Education Needs in the Fire Service

The fire and emergency service is a dynamic profession, and it’s up to each member to continue to improve.

The fire service has done a good job of providing training to its members; however, until recently, the fire service as a whole has not put a lot of emphasis on formal education. The fire chief and executive-level chief officers usually promote up through the ranks, learning the skills of firefighting and receiving the training that goes along with that.

Once someone reaches the executive level of the fire department, the skills of being a firefighter aren’t needed as much, yet the skills of a business executive are. Today’s executive-level chief officers are focused less on firefighting skills and more on skills of finance, budgets and political and administrative issues.

The necessary administration knowledge of a professional fire chief is gained through formal education. It imparts knowledge on how to become a critical thinker administratively, and it increases the knowledge base from a nontraditional area of the fire service. Formal education also teaches students to look at problems from different angles as well as how to use data and to address problems using logic to resolve them. Formal education also provides the needed education to prepare future leaders to accept the challenges the fire service will face in the future.

A great example occurred a few weeks ago. A neighboring chief officer attended a department-head meeting representing the fire chief. This meeting included the city manager and all of the other department heads for that city. This is a weekly meeting to discuss and share issues happening within their city. All of the other department heads have earned master’s degrees or doctorates, and in most cases a master’s degree is the minimum qualifications for the position. The chief officer later shared that he felt that some of the discussions regarding the budget and human-resource issues were a bit above his head.

In past years, the fire chief didn’t need an advanced degree and wasn’t on the same formal education level as the other department heads.

That’s changing as more and more fire chiefs have advanced formal education. Fire chiefs have always been respected, but having an advanced degree adds a level of professionalism and respect in a department-head meeting and throughout a community as well.

Currently, many programs available are to members of the fire service in education development and formal education. A few programs are the National Fire Academy-Executive Fire Officer Program, Naval Post Graduate School and the IAFC’s Fire Service Executive Development Institute. There are also many traditional and online bachelors, masters and doctoral programs available.

The fire service has always been respected for what firefighters do for their communities. However, one way to improve our desire for professionalism is to increase our formal education to stay on par with other professional organizations. Fire chiefs are essentially running corporations and they need the education to be successful in today’s business world.

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