Company Officer Leadership: Advancing Your Education and Your Career

Wanted: Fire chief. Requirements: bachelor's degree from a regionally accredited institution in fire science or closely related field' master's degree in public administration desired; EFO graduate desired.

Associate's degrees, bachelor's degrees, master's degrees. Degrees in fire science, degrees in public administration. Learning outcomes, core curriculum and what should be in a degree program. Regional accreditation, national accreditation.

What does all of this mean to the fire officer who aspires to become the fire chief?

Why is there a large push for higher education in the fire service and how did higher education evolve in the fire service? How do I get started and what about all the training courses I've already taken?

History and FESHE

In the 1980s, firefighters wanted to obtain a higher education degree to help them with their job knowledge and tasks, but they recognized that courses from traditional college schedules could conflict with firefighter shift schedules. From this problem was born the Degrees at a Distance Program (DDP). Led by the National Fire Academy (NFA) and with partner universities that would deliver courses through the mail, DDP allowed firefighters to complete college courses while working shift schedules.

Fifteen years ago, many in the NFA and the fire service's education and training sectors recognized that professional development for fire officers goes beyond college courses, so they began the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) program. FESHE focused on brining training academies and the two-year and four-year college institutions together in a coordinated approach to higher education.

FEHSE committees, consisting of educators and fire service professionals, work to create and adopt learning outcomes and needed courses to provide a nationally standardized curriculum. This curriculum contains core courses that must be in a FESHE degree program and non-core courses, which are beneficial but not required. This ensures that attending a FESHE-recognized fire science program allows for a consistent educational experience.

Professional-Development Model and Matrix

The professional-development model recognizes that as firefighters become fire officers and promote to higher levels, their tasks change, requiring different kinds of knowledge to be successful. The model depicts the need for training, education, self-development and experience. It also depicts the levels of education needed at the various NFPA 1021 levels of fire officers: an associate's degree for Fire Officer 2, a bachelor's degree for Fire Officer 3 and a master's degree for Fire Officer 4—the fire chief.

The professional-development matrix brings together learning outcomes, NFPA standards, college courses, NFA courses, training courses and credentialing requirements from the Center for Public Safety Excellence. It focuses on creating a bridge between training, education and credentialing.

A primary focus of the matrix involves costs to fire departments. Many current fire officers have spent countless hours in training courses and educational programs only to find that much of the information in both programs was the same. The matrix matches programs such as the IAFC's Company Officer Leadership Symposium with the corresponding competencies and JPRs to ensure the courses count towards an individual's professional-development efforts.

Why Should I Consider Higher Education?

The easiest answer is to prepare for the job before needing to learn the hard way.

As a company officer, you're responsible for completing incident reports, training reports, etc. What credibility will an incident report have to a judge or jury if the English is incorrect or the report doesn't contain the needed information or any pertinent negatives? Acquiring this information and understanding how to reduce information to a well-written report are the basis of some general education and fire-specific courses at the associate's degree level.

Imagine having to start a fire-training or special-operations program in a department. This would require a cost-benefit analysis, a personnel analysis and specifying and bidding equipment to ensure the program meets the needed standards and laws. This is a great deal of information that must be reduced to a report for the fire chief, municipal officials and grant writers.

If you don't understand statistics, proper standards and financial-management systems, how much support will the program receive, especially if you violate standards and fail to spend monies within the law? This information is part of a bachelor's degree curriculum.

Lastly, as a fire chief, your department exists in its current state because of the planning or lack of planning that has occurred up to this point. Firefighters' lives and families depend on your ability to predict costs, gain political support and conduct strategic planning. Strategic planning and understanding external forces in the community that translate into programs within the fire department are information gained through a master's degree program.

How Do I Get Started?

Getting started requires an investigation of what you need from a program, the costs associated and how the program will interact and transfer to other schools, especially if you desire to continue your education to the master or doctoral level. Fire-science programs are offered by many schools; a list is available at the NFA's higher-education website.

Some employers will provide tuition assistance, which requires students to calculate costs and determine a timeline for completing the degree. As with any other industry, costs can vary, but shouldn't be the sole focus of the decision.

The last factor is accreditation. Many articles exist about the difference of regional accreditation and national accreditation. The accreditation type becomes critical when transferring between schools. Traditionally, regional accreditation has been transferable to any other regionally accredited school, so students should check requirements of schools they're considering and choose the school and accreditation type that will suit their needs now and in the future.

A full description of regional accreditation can be found on the USFA's website. USFA also offers a list of colleges.

The last step in obtaining the desired degree is to take the first step and register for a class. Before long, you'll recognize your educational dreams and have the potential to gain a leadership position within the fire service.

Randall W. Hanifen serves as a lieutenant for West Chester (Ohio) Fire-Rescue, an adjunct professor for the University of Cincinnati and a task force leader for FEMA's Ohio Taskforce 1 US&R team.

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