Not Your Father’s Fire Service: Why More Departments Are Requiring College Degrees

For generations, rising in the ranks of the fire service was mostly dependent on a firefighter’s training and experience. In most cases, promotions were based in large part on tenure, and a firefighter’s performance in the field.

That is all changing though, as a growing number of fire departments now require a minimum number of college credits — and college degrees, in some cases — in order to qualify for promotions. In the city of Baltimore, for instance, candidates for captain must have at least 15 college credits, battalion chiefs must have 30 credits, and deputy chiefs need at least an associate’s degree. By 2019, those requirements will increase to 30 credits for a captain, an associate’s degree for battalion chief, and a bachelor’s degree for deputy chiefs. In all cases, those credits and/or degrees must be in a subject relevant to their work in fire service, such as fire science administration or public administration.

Other cities are following Baltimore’s lead, a move that is somewhat controversial for rank-and-file firefighters, due to the time and expense inherent in earning a degree. However, leaders in the fire industry say that the increased education requirements are a necessity, and they have very good reasons for that.

The Changing Nature of the Fire Service

Over the last three decades, the role of the fire departments in communities has changed, and along with it, the expectations of the professionals working in them.

One major contributor to the increased educational standards is the presence of EMS in the firehouse. Given the educational requirements for EMS providers, many departments wish to achieve parity between them and the firefighters; in fact, matching the requirements of other municipal departments, including the police, is a major driver of fire degree requirements. And given that more than 80 percent of the typical fire departments calls are medical related, and not for actual fires, leaders are keen on training their teams to respond to the unique medical and financial circumstances and requirements of those calls.

Another factor that’s driving more firefighters to classrooms is the overall shift in culture in the firehouse. Many firefighters report that in the past, education wasn’t always valued in the firehouse. In fact, a firefighter could even face ridicule for taking courses, with other firefighters mocking their commitment to academics and dismissing their achievements. That has changed considerably, though, as more firefighters are entering the station with at least some college experience under their belts.  Having a degree is no longer an anomaly, and the sight of a firefighter using his or her downtime to study has become commonplace.

Leaders Have More Responsibility

It’s not only the changes in the culture of firefighters that are leading to new requirements, though. The actual work has changed as well, even beyond the changes to the types of calls that firefighters receive.

Fire officers are being called upon to handle budgeting, logistics, human resources tasks, purchasing, and community relations, among other tasks, in addition to having a keen understanding of fire science. Some communities have resorted to hiring leaders for certain departments who have no experience in actually fighting fires, because they need someone who has the skills and knowledge required for certain tasks. Looking back at Baltimore for another example, one department hired a logistics chief who had never fought fires specifically because she had a master’s in finance. By earning a college degree, firefighters have a better chance of qualifying for leadership positions, as they have the knowledge required to do the job.

Life After the Fire Service

While some firefighters spend their entire career in the firehouse and retire after 30 to 40 years, there is a growing number who retire from the fire service and move on to different careers. However, many have found that life outside of the firehouse is difficult without a college degree, as they don’t qualify for many positions that they would otherwise be well suited to, even with decades of experience fighting fires.  A college degree opens doors that would otherwise remain closed, giving firefighters not only the option of advancing in the fire department, but also to do other things after they retire or leave. Some fire leaders have even moved into other positions within the community without retiring thanks to their experience and knowledge; for instance, some fire leaders have served as city managers or directors of other departments, simply because they have more education than other candidates.

In addition, holding a degree — in particular an advanced degree — can also open doors to additional opportunities, including teaching and consulting roles. Experienced, educated firefighters and leaders are often asked to present at conferences or teach college level courses themselves, giving them the chance to not only increase their earnings, but to prepare the next generation of fire professionals.

So, while in the past, a high school diploma or even a GED was enough to work in the fire department, that’s rapidly become the exception rather than the rule. Because most fire departments are now offering resources to help firefighters earn degrees, there is no reason that fire fighters shouldn’t be well educated.

Author: Claire Stewart

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