December 2014

Education adds to the professional

A recent post on the Internet sparked a long and inconclusive debate on the topic of the fire service and education. The key comment was, “A degree doesn’t put out fire.” I read more than 90 comments on the topic from firefighters of all ranks. Some comments supported education; some did not. The question was whether extra points should be awarded in the promotional process if the candidate has a degree. I am passionate about the subject but refrained from joining in the bottomless arena of disagreement. It is understandable that there is disagreement, but some of the comments tended to be overboard and malicious. Why the passion? What is the answer to this question?

I am a 13-year rookie of the fire service and a lieutenant in a small suburban department outside of Atlanta. I started my career as a firefighter with a GED and no formal education. Since joining the fire service, I have pursued a formal education and am continuing my education today. That I am a father of four, married for more than 20 years, and at the age of 40 am still working on my education should be self-explanatory.

I am too old to be worrying about school now. The fire service goes through its paradigm shift every so often. A great example of this is emergency medical services. The debate then was the same: I signed up to be a firefighter, not to do medical stuff. Where are those who made the decision to not pursue emergency medical certifications today? We are in a profession that is always evolving. If you don’t think that you will have to do something that is outside of your comfort zone, you are denying decades of proven change and evolution. The fire service will not yield to your inability to recognize that it is moving in a different direction. If you are part of this great profession, you have to accept that we are constantly growing, learning, and evolving.

In today’s fire service, firefighters assume the roles of both blue- and white-collar workers. Whether we’re engaged in writing grants, reviewing standard operating guidelines, technical rescue, suppression, prefire plans, inspections, or teaching classes, we do a lot. We should stop classifying ourselves as blue-collar or any color of collar workers. Our profession is “all encompassing.” I come in to clean toilets, wash trucks, cut grass, write proposals, write evaluations, research apparatus specs, put out fires, help the sick, write incident reports, and-when there is time-sleep. We are problem solvers and have a profession unlike any other.

I don’t know how anyone could think that a degree is not of value in the fire service. Anything that improves your knowledge in any of the many things we do has to be a benefit. We place much emphasis on education for our kids, but when it comes to us, we say we don’t need it. I agree with those who argue that there are great firefighters and fire officers who do not possess a formal education. I ask, would they be even greater if they had a degree? One post I read online stated: “You don’t need a degree to open a nozzle.” I agree. But, could the difference between the person opening the nozzle and the person “telling” him to open the nozzle be a degree?

Should promotional candidates be given extra points for education? This question often fuels the fire. I think candidates should be given extra credit for their ability to commit to and follow through to earn a degree. The hard work involved in obtaining a two- or four-year degree should not be ignored. Does a degree make people better at the job? The person may not be better in one aspect of the job, but somewhere in the many things we do, that education will enhance the person’s ability and efficiency.

We should look at our promotional process and how education fits into it. Whether candidates should be given extra points for having a degree should be answered based on the department’s goals, vision, and direction.

I take pride in telling the public about the diversity of the service and the many professionals who have degrees. Education has and will always be of value. As professionals, we should recognize its value and not sell ourselves short with statements that demean our profession. We are educated, strong, smart, trained individuals who perform a multitude of jobs under the title of “firefighter.”

Pabel Troche
Smyrna (GA) Fire Department

Base consolidation decision on total response, not single factors

This is in reference to “Volunteer Fire Department Consolidation in Pennsylvania,” by Victoria Mikulan (Volunteers Corner, July 2014). Mikulan espouses only one solution to several problems that are prevalent in municipalities protected by volunteer-staffed fire response. Consolidation of stations, companies, or departments must be examined in light of the total response picture, not just one factor, such as staffing. The Pennsylvania state fire commissioner has also espoused only one method of solving the staffing problem, consolidation, without actively supporting other approaches put forth by the fire community.

Consolidation works where there is an existing surplus of protection assets leading to underutilization. There are many urban townships where there are two, three, four, or even five independent volunteer fire companies under contract to the township. In these instances, response patterns, travel times, or risks may indicate that adequate service can be provided by relocating and combining one or more stations. The goal should be to improve service levels as measured by ISO or similar independent rating agencies and evidenced by reduced losses.

Pennsylvania requires the municipality to provide police, fire, and EMS response at a level selected by the municipal governing body, usually an elected commission. The Commonwealth further provides that each municipality may enact a 0.3 mil real estate tax to fund the fire service without need for a public referendum. The state does not regulate the fire service as to training, equipment, or even delivery standards. It is up to each locality to decide at what level service is to be delivered and whether by a career department, a contractor, or an agreement with a volunteer nonprofit fire company. Municipalities share resources through extensive mutual-aid agreements based on the regional dispatch centers created by the 911 laws.

Those areas where resources do not currently support effective firefighting will not necessarily be better served by a consolidated system. Consolidating districts or merging volunteer or even career fire departments spreads those resources that remain afterward over a larger geography and requires perhaps even more complex responses.

The only beneficiary of the consolidation program has been the Commonwealth itself. Many of the programs the commissioner oversees are based on individual fire companies being eligible. After consolidation, there are fewer eligible recipients. Consolidated districts are only one district, so single company limits on annual grants and low-interest loans apply as soon as consolidation is complete. In one recent regionalization, three townships merged their protection into a regional department, which went from volunteer to a mostly career composite organization. Several days ago, a suburban township that had used two local fire companies as advanced life support EMS providers for years decided to hire a teaching hospital to provide crews and vehicles for the township. EMS is a fee-for-service response in Pennsylvania, but the township will be paying around $150,000 annually to replace two stations and four crews with one or perhaps two crews at peak periods.

Before advocating one solution to a complex problem, we should define the problem. Perhaps we need more tailored training rather than one size fits all. Should a response in a rural area train for high-rises? What is sufficient response to an incident? Can the personnel problem be solved in other ways? One suburban township, recognizing that many of its volunteers no longer worked in town, authorized township public works employees to respond to fire calls during the day. It provided training and moved an engine to the township garage. What is the appropriate response to an incident? Should the crew meet at the station or at the scene? If we can investigate an automatic alarm in three to four minutes, do we need multiple apparatus dispatched with four to six firefighters onboard before leaving the station?

Today’s dispatch systems collect data concerning what the alarm was, response times, travel times, losses, civilian injuries, and numerous other factors that measure response effectiveness and can predict the effect of changes to land use, traffic patterns, and staffing. Before selecting just one solution, we must analyze the effects of other solutions and choose the most appropriate one for each situation.

Irvin Lichtenstein
Firefighter/EMT, Instructor
Wyncote, Pennsylvania

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