Higher Education = Better Skills, Better Future

By Eric M. Leath

Why on earth would the average “hose-pulling grunt” need a college education? Many line firefighters ask themselves this with a disbelieving smile on their faces. Let’s review some of the obvious reasons.

Changing Technology

More and more, fire protection systems are controlled by computers and complicated control systems. Fire protection systems are not just limited to commercial and industrial structures; they are now installed in private residences, giving the average firefighter more and more opportunity to face a Windows®-based program panel when responding to a single-family structure alarm.

Line personnel need a more in-depth knowledge of building construction and fire hazard planning. Such knowledge helps a firefighter perform his job not only more effectively but also more safely. Different construction materials burn at different rates and temperatures; some structure designs are stronger than others, and each behaves differently under a fire or water load. If you are a line firefighter arriving on a first-due engine at a two-story single-family structure with fire on the second floor burning for more than eight minutes, and you know that the houses in this subdivision have metal frames instead of wood, would it affect your attack? It should!


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



Just before I left the fire service, we took delivery of a new tanker/pumper with a computerized pump panel. For those of us who had gone through modernized hydraulics in the past three years, it still took a few days of tinkering to become familiar with the new system. For some of the older pump operators and volunteers, tinkering did not cut it. New computerized pumps are just one example of emerging technology that will require some higher education to master. Gone are the days of turning a knob and watching the pressure gauges (or watching the attack crew become airborne).

Legal Liability

Unfortunately, we live in an age of frivolous lawsuits. In an emergency services career, it’s not a matter of “if” an unfortunate outcome will occur, it’s “when.” First responders are expected to be perfect and superhuman, but bad things happen (which is usually the reason we are there to begin with). When those bad things happen as we are working, we are blamed. Any firefighter can be handed a 10-pound book of departmental standard operating procedures (SOPs) and told to sign for them (acknowledging that they have memorized every page, of course!), but as any seasoned responder will agree, eventually a situation not covered in the SOPs will arise. This legal “gray area” is a scary place to be. Luckily, classes in risk management for the emergency responder are available at several institutions of higher learning. They can help guide you through the gray areas of your job.

Fire inspections and code enforcement should be performed only by a professional who has more than a 12-hour certification in conducting basic fire prevention inspections. How effectively can personnel with only a high school diploma and some vocational training interpret and enforce safety codes and laws?

Tougher Standards and Competition

These are just some of the reasons a higher education is valid for personnel already working as firefighters. What about those still seeking employment as a firefighter? Today, the job market is flooded with college graduates. In some cases, people with bachelor’s degrees are competing for jobs as fast-food managers. Here are some interesting statistics. The northeastern United States had the highest percentage of college graduates (30.9 percent), followed by the West (30.2 percent), the Midwest (26 percent), and the South (25.5 percent).1 Taking this into account, think about the average large municipality civil service selection process in the above-mentioned areas. If there are 1,500 applicants for an academy class of 50, and 30.9 percent of those 1,500 have college degrees (463.5 applicants), why would that municipality choose someone without a college degree for those 50 positions? Even for a small municipality in the South, if there is one position open and there are 50 applicants and 25.5 percent of them have a degree, that’s still 13 degreed applicants to choose from. So again, why would they choose a candidate with only a high school diploma?

Many municipal governments are cashing in on the degree-flooded market. Many employers are making a college degree mandatory or at least a minimum number of college credits to even apply for a position, or they are offering higher starting pay for candidates with higher education. For example, fire departments in El Cajon, California,2 and Corvallis, Oregon,3 stipulate in their advertisements that applicants should have a degree in fire technology in addition to all required certifications. Carrollton4 and Dallas, Texas,5 require that applicants have completed at least 45 college credits to apply for an entry-level firefighter position. Charlotte, North Carolina,6 advertises a tiered starting salary depending on whether the applicant has a high school diploma, an associate’s degree, or a bachelor’s degree.

Of course, many firefighter hopefuls tell themselves, “I don’t care what they pay me, as long as they give me the job!” That attitude wears off quickly after the academy is over and they realize how complex the job is. On top of that there are the long hours away from family, working holidays, short staffing, dangerous conditions, and did I mention that the city is in a budget crisis so there won’t be any COLA (cost of living adjustment) raises for three years?

Most career firefighters will tell you they need better pay, better benefits, better retirement, and so forth; and they are absolutely right. The job today is much too stressful and technical to recruit qualified personnel who will adequately perform for $25,000 per year-all the more reason to start requiring higher education for entry-level applicants. This may be the only way to drive up salaries in the fire service. In today’s job market, workers 18 years of age and older holding bachelor’s degrees earn an average of $51,206 per year, whereas those with only high school diplomas earn and average of $27,915 per year. (1)

Take this information into consideration when you send fire service administrators to those who hold the purse strings for the city and request across-the-board raises. All the mayor, city manager, and council members have to do is look at the minimum requirements for the job, “18 years old, high school diploma, clean driving record.” Those bean counters know that their secretaries are required to have at least an associate’s degree, and they make less than the firefighters. Needless to say, those across-the-board raises are going to be squashed.

There is no such thing as a “hose-pulling grunt” in today’s modern fire service. Emergency responders must be skilled technicians to stay up-to-date with new technology and make good decisions during dangerous situations. If emergency service personnel are ever to receive the respect, recognition, and reimbursement they deserve, they must raise the bar as a system and accept that the current minimum requirements are just that-minimum. The citizens being served, as a whole, are increasingly more educated; thus, when they call for help, they are going to expect educated responders to assist them. They deserve that-they’re paying for it.


It has been my experience that when attempting to convince firefighters to take an active role in something they may consider unpleasant, they often offer several excuses for not getting involved. I’m not talking about working overtime because their relief didn’t show or whose turn it is to scrub the station toilets. I’m addressing the difficult task of convincing the average firefighter that he should continue his education beyond mandatory continuing education credits.

Some weak excuses include “I’m allergic to education,” “I spent enough time in the principal’s office in high school,” or, my personal favorite, “I’m just a dumb ol’ firefighter; I don’t need book learnin’!” These excuses are as colorful as they are sad and degrading to firefighters as a group. I merely respond, “That’s funny. Now get to class!”

However, there are some excuses that are hard to discredit. There are three common excuses every firefighter comes up with when first facing a college application.

“I can’t afford it.” This hits a firefighter where it really hurts. At first glance, the cost of tuition, books, and time off from shift work could appear to cut into the wallet of a firefighter who already has a mortgage to pay and mouths to feed. Fortunately, a little research may result in a “free ride” (or close to it) for college.

The Maryland Higher Education Commission offers a program for active career/volunteer firefighters and ambulance and rescue squad members within the state. This program reimburses tuition costs to students studying a certificate or degree curriculum in fire service or emergency medical technologies.7

The state of Texas also has a similar program that works directly with any college in the state that has a fire science program and receives state funding8 (that’s any community college or state university). Career firefighters need only bring a letter from their department to the financial aid office of the college they wish to attend stating that they are professional firefighters in good standing, and tuition for all classes applied to a fire science curriculum is waived. Many states have programs like these for public safety personnel. For states that don’t have such programs, most fire departments and government agencies have a myriad of tuition reimbursement programs available to their staff.

One expense occasionally not covered is the cost of the books (which can often be as financially damaging as the tuition). A simple solution to this problem is to check your department training library for the necessary text. If it is not there, it’s usually very easy to convince your training officer to add the book.

“I don’t have the time.” Although I sympathize with the plight of being on shift work and probably working a second job on days off, this is no longer a valid excuse. Most colleges that have emergency service degree programs understand shift work and have come up with creative class schedules to accommodate. On top of that, hundreds of colleges in the United States offer online classes. Any firefighter who has mastered computer solitaire can now put his downtime at the station to a more productive use. So next time the station duties are done and you are spending hours playing bookworm online, just think to yourself, “I could be earning a degree right now.” If you can’t find enough time on scheduled days off, check your department’s policy for educational leave.

“I like being on the nozzle!” This last excuse may sound like a “lame duck,” but the fact is many firefighters (myself included) will stand firmly behind this statement for years. Many firefighters will spend their entire career questioning their need for higher education because they love being a “smokeeater.” There is nothing wrong with being content with your position in the department, but there is also nothing that says completing your degree means you must give up the nozzle. All the degree does is give you more options within the service.

Using myself as an example, the first few years in the department I would see the pump operator standing next to the pump panel. I would think, “Why would anyone want that job?” As years went on, and bones began to creak and ache from the abuse of a physically laborious career, I would happily wheel the pumper and watch the probies put on that heavy gear. As I stood by the pump panel watching the chief sitting in his command vehicle, talking on the radio and cell phone simultaneously while madly scribbling on his incident board, I would think, “Why would anyone want that job?” As more years went by and I spent endless hours standing next to a pump panel in the heat, cold, rain, snow … I think you see where this is going.

The emergency services are physically demanding jobs. We may want to carry an attack line forever, but blown knees and bad backs can throw huge monkey wrenches in that plan. That’s why they are called accidents. Nobody means for them to happen. Just one bad injury, and a firefighter can find himself medically retired at age 30. With no degree and no skills (at least ones that don’t require physical attributes), what will that broken-down firefighter do?

It may look like a momentous undertaking at the beginning, but don’t let that sway you from starting the climb. The trick is to take one or two classes a semester and set small goals for yourself along the way. Try getting an instructor certification first; then you’ll realize you’re only two or three classes from finishing the Fire Officer certification. Once you’ve completed National Fire Protection Association 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications, it’s easy to see that you’re halfway to achieving your associate’s degree. After wrapping up the associate’s degree, the bachelor’s degree looks only three or four semesters away. The important thing is not to give up. Don’t use the excuse, “With my schedule, it will take seven or eight years to get a degree.” To that I say, “So what?” You’re going to be seven or eight years older anyway. You might as well have a degree, too.


1. U.S. Census Bureau (4/2005) www.census.gov.

2. “Career Information,” “Fire Service Career Opportunities,” City of El Cajon, California. Web site: http://elcajonfire.com.

3. “Frequently Asked Questions:” “How can I become a volunteer firefighter?” “How can I become a career firefighter?” Corvallis Fire & Rescue Web site: www.ci.corvallis.or.us/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=1565&Itemid=1904.

4. “Fire Department Employment,” City of Carrollton, Texas, Web site: www.cityofcarrollton.com/publicsafety/fire/Employment.asp.

5. “Recruiting,” Dallas Fire-Rescue Web site: www.dallasfirerescue.com.

6. “Firefighter Recruitment,” “Salary and Benefits,” City of Charlotte, North Carolina, Web site: www.charmeck.org/departments/fire/recruitment.

7. “Student Financial Assistance,” Maryland Higher Education Commission Web site: http://www.mhec.state.md.us/financialAid/ProgramDescriptions/prog_fire.asp.

8. “Paying for College,” College for Texans Web site: www.collegefortexans.com.

ERIC M. LEATH is a terrorism and disaster preparedness planner with the North Carolina Emergency Management Agency. He served as a firefighter/EMT from 1990 until 2002, when a motorcycle accident left him physically unable to continue as a line firefighter. He has associate’s degrees in fire protection and emergency preparedness.

From Issue 4, Volume 160.

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