Experience Versus Higher Education

When I started writing this article, I thought back to the earlier days in my career and the coffee-break conversations in the dayroom. Many of the newer firefighters were pushing for education stipends while the established firefighters were looking for increased pay for longevity.

The arguments always revolved around what was more important: experience or education. The conversations always ended with "we can't put a fire out with a book," countered by "if we're to do our jobs better and be considered professionals, we need to be more educated."

When I started my career in 1975, there was very little formal education in our field and we were forced to rely on experience to get the job done. The problem with relying solely on experience was that we were still doing things the way we had done them in the past.

Back in 1873, Captain Eyre Shaw, a chief officer in the London Metropolitan Fire Brigade, made the following comment on the need for formal education after visiting several fire departments in the United States:

"When I was in America, it struck me forcibly that although most of the chiefs were intelligent and zealous in their work, not one that I met even made the pretension to the kind of professional knowledge which I consider so essential... The day will come when your fellow countrymen will be obliged to open their eyes to the fact if a man learns the business of a fireman only by attending fires, he must of necessity learn it badly... I am convinced that where study and training are omitted, the fire department will never be capable of dealing satisfactorily with great emergencies."

As I look back, much of what Captain Shaw said was true. There was limited formalized training and higher education specifically designed for the fire service. Experience was the standard tool used to evaluate the worth of a firefighter, even to the point that many departments promoted solely on the amount of time a firefighter had been on the job.

Wingspread II Conference on Fire Service Administration, Education and Research in 1976 recognized these shortfalls and documented the need to incorporate education and professional development into the fire and emergency service by noting that there needs to be a "means of deliberate and systematic development of all fire service personnel through the executive level."

The rest is history. From that time on, the fire service was committed to educating and training its workforce. Today there are many fully accredited colleges offering higher education, with coursework from the firefighter level to the senior fire executive. FESHE (Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education), through the National Fire Academy, has developed a model curriculum that many of these colleges follow or draw from when putting their curricula together.

In addition, we now have technical certification requirements based on national standards, such as Firefighter I and II and Fire Officer I, II and III, to name just a few. This allows the fire service to meet the technical requirements of the job and standardizes training for many of the day-to-day responsibilities.

The knowledge we gain from combining higher education and technical skills will give us the necessary means we need to advance our careers and evolve as a true profession.

So how do we get there? The IAFC Officer Development Handbook refers to the National Professional Development Model developed by the USFA. It outlines the mix of technical skills and educational needs to be successful and for career advancement. The FESHE model outlines in great detail a curriculum for undergraduate and graduate courses for those in the fire and emergency service.

If we look at these documents, the picture of professional and educational development becomes much clearer. We still have the need to meet minimum training standards, such as FF I & II, Fire Officer I through IV, etc., but higher education now plays a major role in career advancement.

So getting back to the experience-versus-education argument, experience is more important than ever, but now we're gaining our experience through an established body of knowledge, not just from responding to fires.

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