Outside-the-Box Education for the Savvy Company Officer

Firefighters examining hoseloads on the training ground.

(Photo by Tony Greco)

By Michael DeStefano

Firefighters are a unique breed of people. The typical firefighter believes he or she is a practitioner of the greatest job on earth. Because of this thought process, the fire service tends to have higher levels of motivation compared to other career fields. Countless hours are spent training on and off duty, with thousands of dollars spent on training classes from the firefighter’s wallet with no potential reimbursement from the department. So why do we spend so much money on training classes, seminars, conventions, etc.? Simply put, firefighters want to be best and provide the highest benefit to their department, their community, and ultimately their brothers and sisters in the firehouse.

The benefits of college degrees are very well known in the fire service from the entry-level firefighter all the way to the executive level of fire chief. Fire science degrees provide technical knowledge for field personnel, whereas management degrees provide theoretical knowledge on how to manage subordinates. The individual degree programs are typically very specific as to the type of classes that are incorporated within the curriculum to focus on the degree goal.

If we look at the individual state certifications for fire officer, pump operator, fire investigator, etc. we notice certain non-college classes that are required to obtain these certifications. This is very similar to the college degrees that were noted above. These classes are specific to the certificate program that one is attempting to obtain.

The question we as firefighters need to ask ourselves is. Why do we look at non-college training courses taken individually as an asset to make us a better firefighter, while at the same time considering college courses taken individually as a waste of time if it does not lead to a degree? We can look at any local fire academy that hosts a variety of technical rescue or apparatus operator courses and quickly see how popular these courses are among firefighters. But take a look at college courses at the local community college and it is rare to see firefighters among the class roster.

The company officer is a unique, low-level supervisory position in the fire service. The position requires technical skills to be performed on emergency calls while at the same time requiring vast knowledge in personnel management. Like the entry-level firefighter, company officers are eager to perform at their best. If we want to improve the technical, on-scene skills, the officer needs to invest in technical-level courses at the local fire academy. If the officer wants to improve their management skills then investment must be made in college courses.

So what college courses are beneficial to the motivated fire officer looking to improve their management skills? Let us take a look at some outside-the-box courses to provide the skills that will set the great company officer apart from the good company officer.

The first course we should look into is psychology. Company officers are more than just a supervisor–they are a mentor, a leader, and, at times, a counselor. Gaining a basic knowledge in general psychology is beneficial in understanding the thought process behind the firefighters that the company officer is tasked with managing. Why did someone lash out? Why is someone becoming an introvert? Why did the dynamic of the crew suddenly change? These questions are better understood with some basic psychology knowledge. As noted above, one of the main reasons is motivation is to be a better asset to the crew. Firefighters see horrible, unthinkable sights on emergency calls. These horrific calls can lead to stress, grief, and depression. Having a basic understanding of psychology can help the company officer to be a peer counselor in times of crisis.

The next course is English or communications. As a company officer, there is a need to write professional emails, memos, and, unfortunately, discipline. Using the correct grammar and sentence structure allows the writer to impose proper tone, helping the officer to convey the message more efficiently. The ability to write can mean the difference between changing policy and having an idea cast aside as nonsense by upper-level chiefs.

To take writing to another level, we can add in creative writing. This type of course typically takes a fiction role in the classroom setting. This course is beneficial as it instructs the writer on methods to better describe situations. To put it simply, the writer learns to paint the picture using words. Report writing is a high-frequency event in the modern fire service. Every call requires paperwork to document what we found, what we did, and how it changed the situation. The ability to improve the documentation by painting a better picture is invaluable.

Another beneficial college course is a basic computer technologies. These courses typically cover the use of document writing software, spreadsheets, and PowerPoint presentations. All of these programs are necessary to create a professional, well-organized presentation to others.

Math courses are additionally very beneficial to company officers. Specifically, algebra and statistics seem to be of greater use than other varieties. If the company officer is tasked with creating or explaining any portion of the budget process for their department, math will be an irreplaceable asset to have in one’s toolbox.

The final college course that the company officer should invest in is public speaking or speech. Much like our writing, the officer must be proficient in all aspects of communication. To successfully pitch an idea to our superiors or to our subordinates, the officer needs to appear confident speaking in front of others. Pitching an idea can be as complex as selling the need for new equipment to a chief or as simply as explaining a new department policy to the crew. If the officer is confident and able to express the facts effectively,  the audience is more likely to buy in on the topic.

Company officers have a long list of functions within the fire service that extend far beyond just technical skills. Using the tools that can be obtained from taking college courses can enable the savvy fire officer to perform these functions more efficiently. The well-educated fire officer is a much greater asset to not only the department, but more importantly to his or her crew.

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Michael DeStefanoMichael DeStefano is a lieutenant and currently assigned to the training division with Brevard County (FL) Fire Rescue. He began his career in 2004 at a small three-station paid department in Winter Springs, Florida, as a firefighter/EMT-B. In 2005, he moved to Brevard County, taking on the role of firefighter/paramedic in 2006. He has an associate’s degree from Eastern Florida State College in fire science and a bachelor’s degree from Barry University in public administration.

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