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Safety & Health: Do Your Officers Have the Tools to Do Their Jobs?

According to retired California State Fire Marshal Ronnie Coleman, a fire chief is a “…25-year job, with a 10-year master plan, working under a 5-year tenure, with a 1-year appropriation” (CFAI 1999).

Your personnel must be prepared to deal with this ever changing environment of today’s fire service. If your fire department doesn’t have higher-education requirements for personnel who become fire officers, your officers’ positions are just another rung on the ladder that they take throughout their careers. There’s really no substance to your officer-development program.

Hopefully your answer is that you have a well-established officer-development program that includes not only the strategic and tactical training needs for safely operating on a fireground, but also educational needs to deal with all of the other items that happen every day around the firehouse.

In fact, it’s these other items that encompass most of your officer’s time, energy and efforts every day. Yet it’s probably the part that the fire service does the poorest on in preparing current and future officers to deal with.

Every fire officer must know about the Fair Labor Standards Act, OSHA rules and regulations, municipal budgeting, mentoring and the political process if they’re to be successful with their crews and their jobs. These officers will spend more time dealing with these issues than they will with the fireground issues, which most of our training time goes towards.

While this type of education isn’t the most glamorous or exciting to attend, it’s very important for all fire officers, especially the up-and-coming fire officer.

The truth is that if your officer-development program doesn’t include a request component of higher education, you’re setting up your officers for failure inside and outside their own organization. Specifically, you’re setting them up for failure when they go to the governing body to argue, discuss and debate issues alongside people who’ve been schooled in public administration, business management and financial management.

Dr. Burton Clark, retired Management Science Program Chair at the National Fire Academy notes,

You may not need a college degree to ride a fire truck, but you need scientific research acceptable at the highest academic and professional levels to justify the existence and cost of the fire truck, to determine how many personnel ride on the fire truck, and to measure the performance of the firefighters on the fire truck.” (Clark, p. 56)

Yet it’s simply amazing how many chiefs continue to argue today that a college education isn’t necessary in the fire service. They still believe all you need as a fire officer is to know the skills necessary to save the public and the rest will take care of itself.

This notion of education in the fire service is nothing new. In fact, it’s been around since 1868 when Sir Eyre Massey Shaw, fire chief of the London Fire Brigade, compared the necessary education of a fire officer to that of a physician. According to Shaw,

One went as far as to say that the only way to learn the business of a fireman was to go to fires - a statement about as monstrous and contrary to reason as if he had said that the only way to become a surgeon would be to commence cutting off limbs, without any knowledge of anatomy or of the implements required. (Clark, p. 55)

So nothing’s farther from the truth than fire officers don’t need higher education to effectively do their jobs. With the new scientific research about fireground operations, it’s even more important for fire officers to be educated in those things necessary to effectively do their job. Your fire officers must be able to talk the talk along with every other professional they’ll be required to interact with.

Take a look at your fire officer training and education program. If the higher-education piece is missing, do something about it. Make the change and require your fire officers to get their degrees. It will be good for them, the fire department, the administration and the community! Stay safe!

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