Leadership, Officer Development

Firefighters and Higher Education: Enhancing an Individual, or Checking a Box?

Firefighter

By G. Howard Blythe

Political leaders and municipal stakeholders are under increased pressure to ensure the highest levels of both transparency and stewardship. This has resulted in most career fire departments requiring higher education for executive officer positions. This is in contrast to years past, when fire chiefs were often an individual within the organization who had developed politically more than the rest of the members of the organization. On the surface, this shift to requiring higher education seems to have no drawbacks, however closer analysis reveals many shortcomings in this model that need to be both acknowledged and addressed.

Most glaringly, not all degrees are created equal. This has been the case from the first time two colleges offered the same degree. Some programs are more robust than others; differences may exist in content or in faculty. Higher education has become a big-money business, and as with anything that relates to profits, there is always someone trying to deliver a better product. The problem is that “a better product” is often a cheaper and more expedient route to a degree. When this occurs, there are two unavoidable outcomes. As with any commodity, when the market is flooded, the overall value across the board goes down. Second, buyers who are uninformed end up getting inferior products. Buyers in this case are departments, municipal leaders, and community stakeholders that have hired a chief executive who may have purchased the higher education bullet point on their resume instead of earning it.

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This is not to say that individuals who possess degrees from non-traditional online providers are all unqualified. Many people who attend state colleges go on to become some of the highest earners and performers in their chosen fields. However, if an individual has a degree from any accredited source, and that source represents the lions’ share of what they are bringing to the table, it’s critical to have a closer look at that source.

“If your school can’t play football against my school on Saturday, you may not have really gone to college.” The prior expression is funny but is also rooted in reality. In the age of electronic communications, the educational landscape is rapidly shifting. It is important to evaluate how and where learning is occurring. The traditional institutions that offer master’s degrees in fire administration (Oklahoma State University, John Jay College, the University of New Haven, etc.) are known for providing solid, advanced, and highly scrutinized research-based curricula. Other less traditional institutions don’t have the longer solid background and track record, requiring extra investigation to validate the criteria the curriculum meets.

Our industry is taking steps to standardize degrees in our field through the initiatives of the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education initiative, however, similar to the National Fire Protection Association, the shortcomings of management by committee are ever-present in this process. We collectively tend to look for a one-size-fits-all approach to many situations, and the framework for some of these degree programs are no different. It is difficult to strike a balance between the input of academics and the input of practitioners since both groups feel they know best what is needed.

Another variable to account for in the higher education game is assessing what it is our leaders are educated in. Our profession generally leans towards degrees in fire administration, but if you look at the degrees offered by the United States Naval Academy, many of them are in engineering. You will find no degree in “being a naval captain.” This is undoubtedly because the Navy has figured out that for them, organizationally, it is best to have individuals who can think critically and learn quickly.

Our industry is just now beginning to promote and support innovation to find new ways to understand and tackle old and new problems. Examples of this include current attempts to connect the mental aspects of stress and resilience and relate them to fireground performance, and the continued research into fire behavior and how this information can best be used for field units to quickly gain the operational initiative. Degrees in complementary fields should be given strong consideration when looking at candidate’s education.

When you think of the role a chief executive plays in our organizations, degrees in economics, political science, and psychology are just a few that are nontraditional for the role but could benefit individuals. Much of the traditional firematic training and operational certifications are built around information that has been around for a long time—it just gets reshaped and repackaged. As long as we are hiring chief executives who have come from careers in the fire service, these members should already have a very solid background in the operational side of the organization. This fact should green-light decision makers to look for nontraditional levels of higher education that may bring something new to the organization.

It is imperative for our organizational leaders to educate municipal decision makers regarding staffing levels as it relates to property loss, safety, and exposure to liability. It is also important for department leaders to educate those same decision makers that “graduating” from the leadership development program at Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service is not the same as graduating with a degree from Texas A&M. This is not an indictment of either program, but rather a clarification that they are not the same program and should not be confused. We need to take responsibility for helping our municipal leaders to distinguish the well-rounded, educated leaders from the resume purchasers.

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With all the uncertainty about where higher education levels could lead a person, each individual needs to take responsibility for their education and choose the right program for their future goals. Most all programs, traditional or otherwise, offer some levels of distance learning. If an individual is going to commit time to acquiring a degree to help them in the future, they need to research the degrees that will not only look good but also confer useful benefits. If you are having trouble selecting a program that is a good fit for you, remember the basics. All the military academies are consistently listed among the best liberal arts colleges in the country. When in doubt, don’t be distracted by all the bells and whistles, go for a program that gives you an absolute solid foundation with research-based teachings and analytics.

G. HOWARD BLYTHE is a 19-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York, where he is assigned to Ladder Company 27 in the Bronx. He has a B.A. degree and an M.S. degree. He is a nationally certified fire instructor III and fire officer IV. He is an adjunct Instructor for the State of Connecticut Fire Academy, were he is the Aerial program coordinator. He is a faculty member at the University of New Haven.

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