Chief Qualifications

Question: In Europe, it is not unusual for fire chiefs to have PhDs. Given that some fire chiefs in the United States run very large organizations, is it acceptable to have a fire chief who has only a high school diploma? What should be the level of education for U.S. fire chiefs?

Every individual, LIKE every situation, is unique. In many areas of the fire service, one size does not fit all. For example, there are 1,000-, 1,250-, and 1,500-gpm engines; 1½-, 1¾-, 2-, and 2½-inch attack lines; and smooth-bore and combination nozzles. Think of the different sizes of ground ladders an aerial carries.

It’s hard to make hard-and-fast rules for the fire service as well. A variation of tools provides for better fireground evolutions. Different management principles and leadership styles are needed in different situations. Again, one size does not fit all.

So, should specific standards and qualifications be required for the position of chief? Should a department with a $750,000 annual budget be led by an individual with the same qualifications as a department with a $75 million annual budget? Can a “book-smart” chief run a better fire than a “street-smart” chief? As I said above, every individual, like every situation, is unique.

—John “Skip” Coleman retired as assistant chief from the Toledo (OH) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is a technical editor of Fire Engineering, a member of the FDIC Educational Advisory Board, and author of Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer (Fire Engineering, 1997); Managing Major Fires (Fire Engineering, 2000); and Incident Management for the Street-Smart Fire Officer, Second Edition (Fire Engineering, 2008).

Craig H. Shelley, fire protection advisor, Saudi Arabia

Response: As I look back on my career of 40 years, I can see vast changes in the philosophy of education in the fire service. In my early years, only a high school education was required for entry level and promotions. As my fire service career progressed, educational requirements for promotion also progressed; now many departments require college credits for entry-level positions. If you were to ask me 40 years ago if I thought a college education should be required, I would have answered with a resounding no.

Now, I am a firm believer in college credits for promotion and college degrees for chief officers. A chief officer in today’s world must be more than a “firefighter’s firefighter.” He must be a negotiator, an accountant, a budgeting expert, a public speaker, a politician, a health and safety consultant, and a fire service subject matter expert. Much of the knowledge and skills required cannot be obtained on the job. I strongly believe that a chief should have at least a bachelor’s degree; a master’s is preferred. Also, the degree field should be in a subject related to the fire service—fire service administration, public safety administration, or fire protection engineering, for example. It would be beneficial to have a fire protection engineering degree to enhance a chief’s ability to understand the various building structures and fire protection systems that may be required in the buildings in the fire district. I feel that the education leading to my degrees has helped me tremendously during my later career years in resolving complex issues that have arisen throughout many and varied assignments.

Thomas Dunne, deputy chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: FDNY requires a bachelor’s degree just to go to the battalion chief level. I have argued against that prerequisite; in my opinion, the safety responsibility of that job calls much more for proven fireground experience than academic achievement.

However, the position of chief of a department is a completely different situation. A department chief’s decisions affect the organizational, financial, and political future of an entire bureaucracy. He provides the image of the department and is the most visible liaison to the public and other government entities. In that role, he must effectively deal with people in and out of the fire service.

A bachelor’s degree should be a minimum requirement for such a position. Although a degree in itself does not guarantee that someone has the necessary qualities, the process of earning that degree signifies a certain level of preparation. That process requires commitment, intellectual energy, and an ability to analyze concepts and problems. It immerses one in an institution with people who have different perspectives and can foster an ability to think outside the box. These are all attributes you would want in your chief.

There are many people who have extensive fire experience and many who have impressive academic backgrounds. My ideal candidate for a chief of department would be someone who has both. A chief should have the experience of performing under the pressure cooker of the fireground and at the same time display the perspective and intellect needed to provide leadership and vision for the organization. Requiring a bachelor’s degree is a good starting benchmark in determining who may be up to that task.

Michael T. Metro, assistant chief,
Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department

Response: I most certainly see a trend in job announcements where the minimum education for a chief is a master’s degree, and other organizations are strongly recommending it. Today’s fire service is a complex service with complex challenges. The level of education from the chief down to the firefighter needs to reflect that if we are to increase the professionalism of our service. The chief should have a master’s degree.

Bobby Shelton, firefighter,
Cincinnati (OH) Fire Department

Response: I have looked at announcements in various trade journals for ranking fire administrators; most of them require at a minimum a bachelor’s degree. Is it right to have that prerequisite? I think that depends on what the chief is going to be doing. Will he be involved in just the administrative management of the entity, or will he be involved in running the fire department? I have always felt that the best education is life. Ideally, someone who comes up through the ranks and has done the job should be the best candidate, but often that is not the case. Education in and of itself is not the answer. How many times have we encountered individuals who can study, pass a test, and get promoted and yet not have a clue? It goes a lot deeper than letters behind a name or a piece of paper. I know some chief officers who are incredible managers with no paper; conversely, there are some chiefs who have the alphabet behind their name who are a menace on the fireground. It depends on the person and his abilities.

Steven Westcott, firefighter,
Perkins Township (OH) Fire Department

Response: “Knowledge is power.” This saying was instilled in me in grade school, long before I decided to join this profession. It is the very foundation of every career in the United States and provides the stability needed for success. But, where does this concept fit into today’s fire service, and how can it be implemented? Gone are the days where one- or two-day classes, basic certifications, and a high school diploma can fully meet the demands and expectations of the fire service, specifically executive fire leadership.

Although fire chiefs having PhDs would be an outstanding attribute, I hardly imagine that ever becoming a nationwide norm. However, I do believe that the need for higher education from an accredited university is not. For a governmental organization in today’s society, the fire chief interacts on any given day with mayors, departmental heads, commissioners, and administrative officers, who most likely have master’s and bachelor’s degrees themselves. That alone proves that the fire service is no longer a blue-collar job—it is a profession.

With more complex personnel issues and economy-caused budget constraints, a fire department is now a business similar to a major corporation that competes with other businesses for scarce resources and sometimes scrutinizing public judgment. College degrees and advanced education provide fire officers with the knowledge and skills they need to compete and succeed in this environment. Years of service alone no longer satisfy the needs for effectiveness as a leader and fire administrator. It’s now a matter of what was accomplished in that time that is useful against the myriad of obstacles faced today.

For the line firefighter on up, knowledge and education should grow exponentially from associate’s to master’s degrees for chief officers. Those opposed to this position say you cannot “throw books at the fire.” I agree and disagree. It’s not just the knowledge gained, the new tactics studied, or the proven strategy from lessons learned. It’s the ability to budget for resources or properly handle personnel issues and the self-actualization of knowing you are constantly improving yourself daily, preparing for what lies ahead.

Brian Cudaback, battalion chief,
Arlington (TX) Fire-Rescue

Response: I achieved my education late in my career. I have recently come to realize how higher education contributed to shaping my leadership style. I do, however, believe that PhDs are a bit much. On the other hand, I believe a high school diploma is hardly enough. The middle for me is an undergraduate degree or, in some cases, even a graduate degree combined with a solid working knowledge of the fire service and a familiarization with city and federal government. Having spent the past four years in the National Fire Academy (NFA) Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP), I am a huge advocate of that curriculum and believe in leveraging the EFOP certification in lieu of a graduate component. I am just not yet convinced that a master’s- or a PhD-prepared chief makes a more capable one. The balance is struck for effective fire service leaders when they are well educated in both the practical workings of a fire department and its municipal partner, combined with an undergraduate degree in a related field. Our fire service is in sore need of an identity in the field of graduate-level education. The NFA EFOP and Grand Canyon University’s MS in executive fire service leadership are fine examples of where we as fire service leaders need to be headed.

John Salka, battalion chief,
Fire Department of New York

Response: For the life of me, I still have not figured out why we need a college education at all. Some of the most skilled and passionate firefighters, officers, and chiefs I have worked with do not have a college degree. These folks attend FDIC every year and sit through hours of quality instruction and days of realistic hands-on training. They study their department’s tactics and procedures manuals and work hard at learning the particulars and specifics of their fire department’s operations. The only reason they don’t have a college degree is that their knowledge and the classes they have attended are not “approved” or accredited by the college elite.

Firefighting is not a white-collar job. Regular folks like tradesmen, military people, mechanics, and all sorts of other hard-working folks have done well—no, fantastic—in the fire service for decades without a college degree. To take this a step further, those same people do really well at handling tools like the halligan and the ax. They can drive standard transmission vehicles, change a tire, mix an oil/gas fuel for a motor, and use a ratchet to adjust the belt on a saw. Additionally, many people who do have degrees have it in some unrelated area of study such as criminal justice, public administration, astrology, and other areas. If a fire department or city wants its upper-level chiefs to have specific skills and abilities, it should provide or make available programs for these folks to study those skills. Whether it is report writing, public speaking, or strategic planning, it can be learned as needed and required. If I see one more advertisement for a college degree in a fire magazine, online, or in the mail, I am going to explode!

J. Rodriguez, lieutenant,
Miami-Dade (FL) Fire Department

Response: Today’s chief needs to have some higher education. In any case, education should never be discouraged; however, education does not replace experience. When I say experience, I mean experience in the fire service as a whole, in every aspect of the job. We need to have chiefs who have gone through the ranks—chiefs who have spent time in the firehouse, on the fireground, and on the rigs doing the job. This is the only way a chief can be in tune with the needs of his people. Granted, education is needed at that level, but not at the cost of true job experience. We cannot afford to lose touch between upper management and the troops. Having the experience is the only way we can avoid losing touch.

Dave Walsh, chairperson, Dutchess Community College Fire Science Program, Poughkeepsie, NY

Response: As the chairperson of a college fire science program, I could be accused of being slightly biased. So rather than give my own thoughts, I’ll simply ask a few questions:

  1. What does the military do regarding college requirements for its officers? Is the fire service that much different from our outstanding military services? Is the fire service in a constant battle (emergency and otherwise)? (General H. Norman Schwarzkopf had a master’s degree.)
  2. Do our supervisors and managers run a business, deal with personnel issues, plan for the future, deal with budgets and paperwork, need to play nicely with others, and delegate tasks?
  3. Is there more to today’s fire service than putting the wet stuff on the red stuff?
  4. There is no substitute for experience; can we say the same for education?
  5. What level of experience/skill/knowledge do the troops in the trenches (firefighters) deserve/expect of their bosses?
  6. Should we be talking about this for more than just at the chief’s level?
  7. What does the public think our bosses should have as far as education (or do they already think they have it)?

Like many issues today, there is no cut-and-dry answer (yet). But, at least we’re talking about this issue—that’s a start.

Matt Weil, captain,
North Oakland County (MI) Fire Authority

Response: Given that some chiefs in the United States run very large organizations, is it acceptable to have a chief who has only a high school diploma? The short answer is no. I equate the chief with the CEO and his officer staff as the board of directors of a large company. The chief should have education comparable to that of a person running a million-dollar-plus-a-year business. Things have changed.

The fire service has lagged behind in “business management” techniques for years. It really shows, and the reason may be that we have accepted the oldest guy standing, the most popular member, or—worse—someone who was a part of the “good ol’ boys club” as the leader without a thought about formal educational background, past management positions, or even a professional resume. The fire service has not been held as accountable in the past as we now are. These days, with governments having the “deepest pockets” in lawsuits, less funding available (at least in Michigan), and more requirements to meet (do more with less), we have caught up with the business world in a hurry. We need to manage all of our resources with much more attention, expertise, and precision.

I think we all realize that the job of chief is far beyond putting the wet stuff on the red stuff. There are customer service, union, city hall, personnel, OSHA, and training issues that all need to be properly managed. In essence, fighting fires is on the back burner, and the need for “professional business management” and great firefighters is here and now. Some organizations have hired business managers who work directly for/with the chief to handle department business short of operational decisions. This position is usually a civilian position, and the person usually has a business background but no fire experience. The firefighters we are hiring are smarter and more highly educated; most have college backgrounds and a greater expectation of their leadership.

I am not advocating that all chiefs have a master’s in business administration and a bachelor’s degree in fire science. However, they should have a business management background, college education, fire officer experience, and the intuitive knowledge to make the right decisions in the office and on the fireground and to surround themselves with smart, or smarter, people and listen to them.

Paul W. Eichler, captain,
Anne Arundel County (MD) Fire Department

Response: Although it is always desirable for any executive to have multiple and varied educational experiences, I do not think it is necessary to have a formal call for fire executives/ chief officers to have a college degree before they step up to head their department. The educational opportunities that exist within and outside of the service provide ample choices to expand a person’s knowledge, skills, and abilities. Also, a person working to move up the chain will be exposed to various topics within his own jurisdiction. Do you want to learn how to develop a budget? Hook up with the department’s officer in charge of fiscal management and the jurisdiction’s budget analyst for the fire department. Do you need to learn about safety topics? Obtain information from the National Safety Council, the Fire Department Safety Officers Association, the National Fire Protection Association, and the local Risk Management office.

I would rather talk to the chief officer who is well versed on local, state, and national emergency services issues than the person who falls over his transcripts.

Kenneth Morgan, battalion chief,
Clark County (NV) Fire Department

Response: The fire service is not the grunt and guts it was in the ’40s, ’50s, or ’60s. Don’t get me wrong: It is a more dangerous and more demanding job; however, it is evolving (because the world around it is evolving) and becoming more complex. The fireground has changed, fires are hotter, and they move differently in buildings. Contents and construction have changed, and tools and equipment are more elaborate. We are not just firefighters—we are EMTs, paramedics, hazmat specialists, high-angle and low-angle trench confined space specialists, among many other things. This is only half of the story.

Changes in day-to-day management are more complex today. We are dealing with issues that we would not even have considered 15 or 20 years ago. There are legal issues, grant compliance, OSHA, human resources, HIPPA, and fiscal management. These are just a few of the issues that have made this profession more comprehensive and complex.

In the early years, this was a less glamorous occupation. Now it is a professional career with incredible responsibility and intricate issues that require an understanding of all facets as they interact. As the occupation transforms into a professional career, so must its personnel. Many organizations have addressed this issue and now require education (as in the UK) for entry and promotion. Much of this education is at or above the bachelor’s level in disciplines such as public administration and engineering. Our society does not allow a high school graduate to design a building. The public demands safe buildings, so these engineers must have several years of school, followed by several years of practical experience, before being allowed to operate independently. Shouldn’t the public expect the same from individuals who make life-and-death decisions on a daily basis?

If the fire service is gong to operate at the same level as other professional careers, we must set the bar higher and educate our people accordingly. Fire service professional organizations have also observed this transition. The NFA has accredited programs for education and provides college level credit for many of their courses. Many colleges and universities have educational programs geared toward the fire service. Postgraduate programs are now available for fire service-oriented education.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs has developed a progressive scheme as a model for educational development because of the evolving nature of our profession. That model indicates the amount of education based on the administration level. Education levels should be at a minimum for chief officers, but since each community’s dynamics are different, the level should be appropriate for each community. Further, we must consider education gained through experience while maintaining that minimum level of formal education.

Mike Bucy, assistant chief,
Portage (IN) Fire Department

Response: This is an area of much debate in many of the fire departments I visit. My department has no formal requirement for the chief’s position. I think the education question can be put in perspective. I recently went through a fire chief assessment center; having a bachelor’s degree in management helped me tremendously. There were no surprises. Could someone without the education have made it through? I don’t think so. So for this particular department, if the assessment center is reflective of its operations, the higher education is needed. Yesterday’s fire department didn’t require much knowledge of such a wide array of topics. Today’s fire department requires that we do so much. The bookwork of a formal education doesn’t prepare you for a whole lot. The process of the education does. That is the whole essence behind a college degree—to learn how to do things, and with others. For a long time, I sat in my career with a degree that mostly went unused. Today, as an assistant chief and a prospective chief, I am glad I have that education under my belt—not to meet qualifications but to be better prepared for the future of the fire service.

T.L. Fitzgerald, assistant chief,
DeSoto (MO) Rural Fire District

Response: Higher education is very important; however, I am not sure that it’s crucial. I have worked for a chief since 1979 who has little more than a high school diploma, but he is one of the most intelligent, articulate human beings you will find. He treats his personnel with respect and is involved in all aspects of emergency services, including serving as regional coordinator for state mutual aid, a local representative of our State Fire Chiefs Association, a board member of our county’s 911 center, our county’s LEPC chairperson, and our representative in the town Rotary and Chamber of Commerce. He can spell, and he’s awesome with grammar and punctuation. He is not bad on the fireground either.

I would ask what a PhD would do for us if he were to get one. I believe in education, but we have many heavily educated leaders and still lose 100-plus firefighters each year in the line of duty because we cannot make good basic common-sense decision.

Robert L. Ridgeway, chief,
West Palm Beach (FL) Fire Department

Response: This issue has been studied and analyzed many times, and the answer has been the same for the past 20 years or so: Chiefs need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree to serve in the position. The NFA, the Center for Public Safety Credentialing (CPSC), and NFPA 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, recognize this (minimum) standard. Modern chiefs have to interact with a number of other professionals each day, and a lack of formal education would severely hinder their ability to do business.

Mark Cessna, captain,
Hutchinson (KS) Fire Department

Response: Having a chief who has only a high school diploma is acceptable, but it is the exception and not the norm. I will use my father as an example: A high school graduate and an Army veteran, he was hired by the Hutchinson City (KS) Fire Department in 1948. He fell into a profession he loved and took it upon himself to learn as much about it as he could. In the early ’50s, he was hired by the University of Kansas as an instructor in the fire science program. He then served as an assistant chief at the Naval Air Station in Hutchinson and as base fire chief of various Air Force bases in the United States, Canada, and Guam and on the fire protection staff of the Air Force in England and the United States. All along the way, my father urged my brother and me to go to college. He could see then that if a person did not have a college education, it was going to be very hard to compete for leadership-type jobs in the future.

The educational level for hiring a chief should be a preference, not a requirement. Your hiring process should be designed to eliminate individuals who do not have the skills—whether a college grad or self-taught individual.

Edward M. Roche Sr., firefighter (ret.), York City (PA) Fire Department

Response: The department has 84 paid firefighters and about 40 volunteers. The chief and his assistant chiefs have high school diplomas. I believe they should have at least a bachelor’s degree in fire science. I am a 70-year-old retired volunteer firefighter (55 years) and have a bachelor’s degree cum laude.

Tony Tricarico, captain,
Fire Department of New York

Response: Having a formal education is never a bad thing. Having a large organization like the fire department being run by a person who knows how it works, who has experience on the line, who has laughed and cried with the brothers on the fireground, and who has witnessed the beating heart of what the fire department is all about is not a bad thing either. FDNY has been run by some truly great people who have had “just” a high school diploma. On the other hand, it has been run by some educated people who zipped through the ranks and never really felt the heartbeat of the organization. They did a horrible job at the helm.

If a formal education is required to rise through the ranks of a fire department, the learning should be focused on building construction, fire science, public administration, and perhaps medicine. To allow one to rise through the ranks ahead of another person based solely on education is not always the right thing to do. If a person has a degree in music or mathematics, how does this make him a better candidate than a person who has years of experience working his way up through the ranks and who knows the needs of the department?

Michael Walker, district chief,
Oklahoma City (OK) Fire Department

Response: I consider myself pro-education, but I am concerned that too many believe that a formal college education should be the predominant method of measuring qualifications. We all know people with the diploma on the wall who aren’t anymore qualified than the Jake who made it up through the ranks and learned at the School of Hard Knocks.

Richard Wilson, lieutenant,
Bartlett (IL) Fire District

Response: I can see chiefs having just a high school diploma. They are the individuals who make it up through the ranks in their organization and have loads of hands-on training in managing incidents. The question arises: Can they manage a multimillion dollar budget? If they have overseen budgetary items within their tenure and have taken advantage of the education out there now for fire officer III, I believe they can manage an organization for a few years.

On the other hand, I would not hire a chief without a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. I would also require my assistant chiefs to follow suit. Times are changing, and so is the job at the top. Our leaders should be the best qualified and educated to lead. I would not have as much confidence in a leader with all book knowledge and no street smarts or with all street smarts and no book knowledge. The fire service has done a great job thus far joining the two areas to create a certification that will work and mold our future leaders.

Mike Armstrong, captain,
Roanoke (VA) Fire-EMS

Response: The chief’s responsibilities are similar to those of a CEO of a private business. Even the chief of a small department is responsible for developing and managing a multimillion dollar annual budget and leading a group of career or volunteer personnel. The management principles of 20 years ago are proving obsolete. Today’s workforce is composed of younger, smarter workers. New recruits are coming into the fire service with formal education. They deserve competent leadership and accountable management.

A chief should achieve at least a bachelor’s degree. Many of today’s retiring chiefs are being replaced with individuals with degrees. If you read the job advertisements, you will see that a bachelor’s degree is becoming a standard requirement, with a preference toward a master’s degree. The same ads also state the preference for someone who has completed the Chief Fire Officer Designation and EFOP. Both programs require a degree for candidate eligibility. The NFA will be upgrading the EFOP requirement to a bachelor’s degree in 2009.

I have heard some say that a degree does not put out a fire. That may be true. But, just because someone is a good firefighter or pump operator does not mean that he has the skills to lead an organization, manage a multimillion-dollar budget, or write a successful grant application.

Randall W. Hanifen, lieutenant,
West Chester (OH) Fire-Rescue

Response: The education levels of chiefs depend on many factors. As can be seen in job postings, education has become more important as a prerequisite. The position of chief today often is more of an organizational executive than the top firefighter. Solid business principles as well as an understanding of the fire service are needed for success. I have seen great chiefs who have had only a high school diploma, but it is likely that they have spent many hours studying the business principles needed to run a successful organization. The United States Fire Administration through the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education Program, in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the NFA, have created the National Professional Development Matrix. The matrix can be viewed at http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/nfa/higher_ed/feshe/
feshe_strategic.shtm#models/
. This matrix outlines the education levels suggested for the various ranks of the fire service. Based on the current matrix, it is suggested that a chief have a master’s degree. I believe we will see the day when many chiefs will have a PhD; the fire service and the educational community are creating curriculums for these programs. As with all other aspects of our profession, leaders will strive to enhance their knowledge and education as well as that of their replacements to continue to improve the service we deliver to the public.

Skip Kirkwood, chief of EMS,
Wake County (NC) Department of Public Safety

Response: A high school education is not sufficient for a chief officer except in the smallest of agencies. Successful chief officers need to be many things—leader, manager, decision maker, advocate, change agent, communicator, teacher. They must also have credibility outside of fire and EMS circles. Although a certain level of charismatic leadership may be developed on the job and through life experiences, the remainder requires education. A chief officer’s duties and responsibilities have as much an outward focus as they do inward toward the department. That outward focus involves interacting effectively with elected officials, city and county managers, business leaders, and other educated professionals. A chief has to be able to write, speak to large audiences, and develop and deliver presentations. Decisions need to be based on complex factors including quantitative analysis.

The environment in which we work is complex, and our competitors (other departments and services) are staffed and headed by educated people. (The basic librarian has a master’s degree, the school superintendent almost always has a doctorate, the highways chief is often a professional engineer, the social services staff have master’s or doctorate degrees, and a city or county manager usually has an MPA.) If fire and emergency services are to effectively compete in this arena, their leaders must be comparably educated.

Robert Lorenz, chief (ret.),
Forest View (IL) Fire Department

Response: A chief has to be skilled in managing, budgeting, public relations, labor relations, and tactics and, therefore, must gain as much knowledge as possible, regardless of the department size. Large departments should require a degree in fire science; medium departments should require a degree or lots of background. Small departments don’t always have the resources, but classes, seminars, and online classes can be required. The more knowledge, the better equipped to do the job!

Joseph M. Stapp Sr., training officer,
Overland Park (KS) Fire Department

Response: It is unacceptable for the chief to have only a high school education. No matter what the size of the department, higher education is a must. Many within the fire service community have worked very hard so that the service could achieve professional recognition. The first step in obtaining this recognition is to outline and follow a formal educational process. The USFA and the NFA have done this in the Professional Development Model.

All of the accepted professions have adopted formal education criteria. Today’s fire service deals with things past generations of firefighters never even heard of, yet alone mitigated—advanced life support, hazardous materials, technical rescue, weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. We must produce the best and the brightest in the field to lead us safely home.

In his research paper “Analyzing the Role of Education for Enhancing Employment and Promotion of Fire Department Personnel,” A.R. Marjala (Reference Marjala, A. R., 2005; retrieved from WWW.STILLALARM.COM) surveyed 397 people relative to their level of education, and the results were no surprise. The breakdown was as follows: 42.3 percent had an associate’s degree, 26 percent had a high school diploma, 24.4 percent attended “some college,” 19.3 percent had a bachelor’s degree, and 7.01 percent continued on to complete higher degrees.

Marjala surveyed the same 397 respondents about promotional opportunities based on education level. Sixty-one and a half percent said they believed they would be passed over for promotion because of their lack of formal education. The results indicate that the majority of fire service personnel who participated in this survey believe that they would be passed over for promotion if they did not have some form of higher education.

The value of advanced degrees in the fire service far outweighs the disadvantages. Fire departments have a substantial financial investment in equipment and facilities, not to mention personnel. Would you allow someone to control and invest substantial sums of your capital if they had little or no higher education aimed at obtaining the highest result?

Skip Heflin, captain,
Hall County (GA) Fire Services

Response: Our department does not require a degree for any level of promotion. We are in the early planning stages of such a policy, however. The overall trend has been to require a degree for promotion; some departments require an associate’s degree for hiring. There was a time when we did not require EMT certification to promote; now we require not only Intermediate EMT certification for any promotion but paramedic certification for captain and higher. It is a natural progression to include a higher education degree for promotion. The chief is the leader of the department and should lead by example. If the members are required to be paramedics, the chief should be as well. The same goes for higher education: If the members are required to possess a degree, so should the leader. The modern fire service requires technical expertise and higher education to function successfully in the modern environment. Of course, certification does not always equate with ability. Some individuals have the ability to succeed in the chief position without a higher education. By the same token, some with a degree may not be successful in the same role.

Michael J. Lopina,
lieutenant/paramedic,
Lockport (IL) Twp. Fire/Paramedic Department

Response: This topic can be debated and discussed all day without arriving at an answer. I am sure everyone who has worked for more than one department or chief will agree that there are chiefs who had no education beyond high school who have been great leaders while some with master’s degrees or doctorates couldn’t lead themselves out of a closet with the light on.

There needs to be educational accountability for those looking to move up, but it must be coupled with people skills and experience. It does no good to have a degree in intergalactic fire administration and not know how to talk to subordinates or oversee an emergency incident.

Conversely, the chief could be a great incident commander and a people person but may not know how to perform a needs analysis for the community because of a lack of education. There must be a balance between experience and education for those looking to move up, and those responsible for promoting chief officers need to be held accountable for whom they select and how they do it. The education level of the person in charge means nothing if he doesn’t know how to use it.

Jim Grady III, chief,
Frankfort (IL) Fire District

Response: A chief who is current, in touch with issues, and driven by enthusiasm can get by with minimal formal education, but to achieve the highest level of competency, a chief officer must be well rounded—that includes education, real-life experiences, and a current/active list of contacts that can assist with daily tasks. This also encourages others in the organization to strive for and achieve degrees at various levels. This also sends a message of professionalism when sitting with community leaders, city administrators, and fellow officers.

To achieve this, a bachelor’s degree along with NFA classes, like the EFOP, are valuable for success. A master’s degree in public administration, business, or human resources, once a desired requirement, has become the mainstay. Classes with attendees who branch out beyond the fire service are paramount for diversity. They enable you to look at the other side of professional operations and expectations.

Education and life experiences are the perfect mix for success. It is understood that many chief officers in volunteer departments cannot attend formal classes, but members will appreciate and follow officers if they set an example by attempting to increase their education base. I recommend at a minimum a bachelor’s degree but prefer a master’s degree and, at each level, a mixture of NFA courses along with specialty courses so that the chief is familiar with emergency operations.

Mike Schantz, director,
Shelby County (IN) Emergency Management

Response: I would encourage everyone in the fire service to achieve a college education. However, there’s something to be said for the individual who has a unique skill set that is not available at any school of higher education.

I retired after 25 years in the fire service. I worked my way through the ranks to division chief of operations. Along with that, I have a considerable amount of business experience in the private sector, positive and negative.

You have to take a serious look at the individual and assess what he can bring to the department. Graduating from “Hard Knocks University” brings with it some unique skills, including personnel management, which is not in any curriculum. Some departments advertise for an equivalent level of experience in lieu of a degree. I think this is realistic if the individual can demonstrate he has the necessary skills and experience to manage the department.

The fire service is constantly changing; I think the future will bring an increase in a risk-based approach to management. Practical experience will be a significant part of management.

Steve Prziborowski, battalion chief,
Santa Clara County (CA) Fire Department

Response: The chief should have a master’s degree, given the complexity and challenges of the position. Look at many fire chief recruitment flyers; it is not uncommon to see departments asking for completion of the EFOP, CFOD, in addition to a four-year degree, with a master’s degree being highly desirable.

Face it: Today’s fire service is different from the fire service of yesteryear. The chief of today is no different from a CEO of a company. If we want to truly be considered a profession, one of the necessities is a requirement for higher education for company officer and chief officer positions. Formal education such as a master’s degree provides much of the necessary knowledge and many skills and abilities to function at an executive level position.

If we want to gain more respect and credibility when dealing with our elected and appointed officials (not to mention helping to justify our salaries and benefit packages to the public), requiring a chief to complete a master’s degree (before or after appointment), the EFOP, and CFOD should be our industry benchmark, regardless of the size or location of the fire department.

Paul J. Urbano, captain,
Anchorage (AK) Fire Department

Response: Education is a growing trend in our department. It seems each recruit academy has more recruits with degrees than the last academy. Many more of our members, including chief officers, are earning associate and master degrees locally and at a distance.

From a company officer’s perspective, fire chiefs of larger organizations should strive toward higher education. Since education can be expensive as well as time-consuming, chiefs of smaller departments may find it challenging but certainly not unattainable.

Formal education is a necessary part of improving the professionalism of the fire service. I believe strongly, however, that it be coupled with legitimate experience and sound training. I’ve adopted the following personal educational goals as a guide to enhance my fire service career path: associate’s degree for company officer, bachelor’s degree for battalion chief, and master’s degree for chief.

Experience, institutional knowledge, and technical knowledge are very important attributes of a chief, and adding higher education improves professionalism. Chiefs, their departments, and the communities they serve can only benefit from higher education.

Ben Smith, captain,
Irmo (SC) Fire District

Response: Over time, the issue of the level of education a chief should achieve will eventually resolve itself. More and more firefighters are coming in with degrees or are attaining degrees online through the numerous distance education programs offered. There are probably many very good chiefs who have only a high school diploma. However, as these chiefs’ jobs become more competitive, those without these degrees are being left in the cold as higher education degrees are becoming part of the minimum qualifications for applying for the chief position. I understand and appreciate all the benefits of higher education; the key is to apply this knowledge—not just be proud that you have diplomas to hang on your office wall. Knowledge without application can be a costly education.

George Potter,
fire protection specialist,
Madrid, Spain

Response: In Europe, it is quite frequent that fire service officers are required to have university degrees—in the United Kingdom, Germany, Sweden, and others—normally in fields directly associated with fire protection. Fire protection engineering is required in England, for example; it leads graduates to two levels in the Institute of Fire Engineers (closely related to the SFPE in the United States). This academic program is similar to most U.S. fire science programs, and most British fire service officers are required to obtain these degrees to ascend to higher leadership ranks. Even Algeria, a country on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, requires that fire service officers have fire safety engineering degrees.

Technical/academic preparation should be part of a potential chief’s curriculum. In medium to large departments, business management, human resources, accounting, and similar business-oriented studies would be extremely useful as management tools.

However, I would strongly recommend avoiding the academic requirements for senior fire service officers in Spain; architecture, civil engineering, and similar degrees are essential for aspiring leaders. The minor problem here is that none of these five-year programs contain any fire science-related courses other than legislation related to building codes, material performance, and so on. Within the 20,000-odd career fire service ranks in Spain, only two senior officers have fire protection engineering diplomas. If a bright and highly motivated Spanish firefighter wants to attain leadership positions, and he does not have a university degree, he can well forget any rank higher than the equivalent to the U.S. rank of captain.

David “Chip” Comstock, chief,
Western Reserve (OH) Joint Fire District

Response: Acceptable? Yes. Preferable? No. In a perfect world, a chief officer should have at least a master’s degree. However, the answers to these questions depend on many factors, including the nature of the department (volunteer vs. career), the size of the department, the socioeconomic makeup of the community, and the ability to access an institution of higher education. The answers will also depend on the needs of the department and those from whose perspective the question is being answered. The employer, employee, and community might each present a different response.

In reading many of the advertisements for job openings in career departments, it is apparent that more communities are requiring that candidates have at least a bachelor’s degree to be considered for a chief officer position. Economic theorists have argued that an educational degree acts merely as a “sorting device” that reveals to employers the productive characteristics already inherent in prospective workers. These procedures may prove costly in terms of time and money, and the outcome is still not guaranteed.

Employers may choose to rely on their prospective employees’ prior education as a major screening tool. Examining grades will reveal the candidate’s capacity to learn and willingness to work. Where job openings are few and applicants many, a prospective employee will be hard pressed to obtain a chief’s position without at least a bachelor’s degree.

Many chiefs and firefighters without degrees from institutions of higher education will argue that the degree itself will not measure the candidate’s ability to lead or apply common sense and experience on the fireground. I do not dispute that fact. Nonetheless, a degree, common sense, and the ability to lead are not mutually exclusive traits. Ultimately, we should want to promote those individuals who have education, experience, and knowledge and who can be advocates for the firefighters in the areas of increased staffing, better equipment, and the implementation of safety initiatives.

The fire service must realize that those who appoint chief fire officers will, with increasing frequency, require at least a college degree when appointing a firefighter to the job. Employees benefit from a chief who has the ability to think critically and advocate positions that benefit the fire department, firefighters, and the community. Younger firefighters must be educated as to the proven monetary and nonmonetary rewards of obtaining a college degree and should be encouraged to obtain a degree at a young age. In the long run, the individual firefighter and the fire service will be better served.

Ultimately, degrees will not have to be required. The marketplace will force those who want to serve in leadership roles to obtain degrees. The greater the level of education, the more competitive the candidate will be for the next open chief’s job.

Peter Willis, training officer,
Onamia (MN) Fire Department

Response: The first problem with this question is the assumption that a college degree makes you a better leader than a high school diploma. That is just a lazy way to sort out who you will interview, not actual ability to do the job. The second is that there are many more departments in the nation with an engine and two tankers than with multiple stations. By virtue of this question, should all small rural departments require a PhD for their chiefs? By the way, I am a college graduate, so this is not some type of sour grape comment. I just get tired of initials after a name being used as a surrogate for real skills.

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