Education—Road to Professionalism
Eight basic reasons motivate over 20,000 firemen to study at more than 40 colleges in a dozen states
The recent Wingspread Conference pointed out that the fire service is not worthy of classification as a profession. One of the major reasons we do not qualify is a lack of formal education.
However, by last spring, more than 20,000 fire fighters were working on this deficiency by taking courses offered at more than 40 educational institutions in approximately 12 states. Last fall showed that an even larger number of firemen was attending classes in an even greater number of states. Curriculums are offered by technical institutes, community colleges, junior colleges and universities. Classes are being held in college and high school classrooms, municipal buildings, fire stations, and other locations. Educational television and video tape are being used to help the fire service.
College credit courses in fire protection are not really new. The Armour Institute of Technology (now Illinois Institute of Technology) offered fire protection engineering courses as early as 1903. Oklahoma A & M College, now Oklahoma State University, was the second college in the nation to offer college-level training in fire protection. Beginning in 1938, courses were developed to train young men for fire departments. However, the curriculum did not work as planned.
The fire service was not ready for that much of an advancement. The traditions of residency requirements, next-of-kin preference, low pay, and long hours prevailed. The graduates could not get fire department jobs but could get jobs in industry and with insurance companies. This brought about a change in the curriculum to meet the needs of industrial fire protection and insurance inspection. At the present time, only approximately 2 per cent of OSU fire protection graduates are in the fire service.
New York State and California started programs in the early 50’s and their growth has been tremendous. As of this academic year (1966-67), 52 junior and senior colleges in California offer fire science courses.
The effects of this education have been far-reaching. Fifty percent of the 3,000 men in the Los Angeles City Fire Department have taken, or are now taking, college courses. The college degrees completed by members of the L. A. Fire Department include 300 associates, 125 bachelors, 6 masters, and 7 doctorates.
In Charlotte, N. C., 110 men, both paid and volunteer, are taking a course titled “Introduction to Fire Protection Hazards.” Many departments with only 20 to 30 men require job applicants to have at least 5 college credits. Some even require an associate degree before applying.
There are eight basic reasons why both paid and volunteer fire fighters are enrolling in credit courses:
- Instilling confidence in oneself
- Prestige and professionalism
- Better citizenship
Breaking these down, the first reason is “self-preservation.” We all owe it to our families, whether we are a paid or volunteer fire fighter, a rookie or a chief, to learn more technical information—unless we want to come out of a fire feet first. If we want to stay alive, we need to know the materials used in our home town. We also need to know where to quickly find the answers on proper extinguishing methods for materials that may be transported through our towns.
The second reason is one in which all of us are always interestedmoney—and it applies to both paid and volunteer firemen. A survey made of salaries in fire departments whose men are taking college courses shows that the pay is considerably higher than in departments in which men do not take courses. Even considering the difference in the cost of living, formal education is helping the billfold.
The general public’s admiration for the volunteer fire service has risen in areas where men enroll in college courses. The public is supporting them with more operating funds because volunteers are taking courses, and the apparatus and equipment is better utilized as a result of their education.
Advancement is the third reason for studying because most up-to-date volunteer and paid fire departments base promotion on ability shown through performance, interviews, and written tests. The days of making rank by being Joe’s friend or by being the oldest man in the department are headed for extinction. It takes more than just being able to “hold a nozzle steady” or “the ability to eat smoke” to get a good mark on a promotional exam.
The fourth reason is the quest for knowledge. College courses can result in a much wider scope for the fire service. Should we be content to know just a little about hose and ladders, or should we know more about what happens when a dry chemical extinguisher is used or what happens when water is put on a metal fire? For example, we see plastics every day and we may know the hazards of some of them, but are we up to date? This is doubtful since a new plastic appears every 3 minutes. But we all need to try to keep abreast of changes. The wider our knowledge, the better we will be able to solve our problems and the safer we will be in an emergency.
Do you (the reader) believe in reason No. 5: “to instill confidence in oneself”? I do! Oklahoma State University held nine workshops around the state last summer on fighting LP gas tank fires and they upheld the validity of this reason. Some of the Oklahoma City fire fighters at one of the workshops had to fight an LP gas tank fire within a week. They will tell anyone how glad they were that they attended the workshop. Others who have never had the experience of fighting LP gas fires may drop the lines and run when the safety release valve pops. This is only a “tiny little bit” of what fire fighters can get from a college education.
Professionalism as a goal
Reason No. 6 is “prestige and professionalism.” The fire service is sometimes frowned upon as a profession because some professionals believe that we do not qualify to be among them. We should not let all these believers and definition-givers bother us; but rather, we should seek recognition by improving the fire service through education. Are we going to accept the challenge to belong?
“Better citizens” is reason No. 7. The more education a fireman receives as an individual the better he will be able to make intelligent decisions affecting his community’s growth and safety. Isn’t that why we’re on this earth?
My final reason is “employment.” What can most fire fighters do when they retire? Become a bank guard or a handyman? There is nothing wrong with these jobs, but that’s it—they are just jobs, not positions. A college education can make this difference. Many industries are looking for retired fire fighters with some college background to work with or supervise their plant protection staff.
Volunteer fire fighters have found the value of college courses within their employment or in the businesses they operate. For example, a course in public relations or budgets can be helpful to them both within the fire department and to their jobs or businesses.
The credit received for the courses varies for different programs. In some curriculums, the courses count toward a certificate equal to one full year of college. Others lead to an associate degree for the equivalent of two years of study. While fire course credits are not always transferable for a higher degree, many of the curriculums are considering this for a long-range goal. The courses are designed to be “college equal” with respect to time, material, and level of instruction.
Forest Park Community College of the St. Louis County Junior College District is a typical example of the growth of this rapidly developing fire protection advancement potential.
Some of the fire fighters in the St. Louis County area formed a committee and worked with the County Junior College District. A pilot course was started in the summer of 1965 with 13 men. By fall, it had grown to 25. In the spring of 1966, enrollment rose to 38 and by the summer, 40 firemen were studying a college-level course in “Fire Department Apparatus” at Forest Park. At the present time a certificate program (equal to one year of college) is offered there in fire protection technology. The possibility of organizing a two-year associate arts degree program is being studied. It is being planned so that there will be little or no loss of credits from the certificate program to the associate degree program.
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This program is using part-time instructors. Classes are scheduled for an off-shift availability so that material given on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule is repeated on a TuesdayThursday-Saturday schedule. Courses are offered during the day and, in some cases, at night. The cost of the program is $10 per credit hour with a maximum of $100 per semester for students in the junior college district. Non-district student fees are $25 per hour to a maximum of $250 per semester, and out-of-state students pay $.35 per hour, or a maximum of $350 per semester. Entrance requirements include a high school education or equivalent with examination.
Designed for firemen
This program is oriented toward the fire service, not industry or engineering like some programs. Depending on work schedules, it is suggested that the courses be taken over two to three years.
North Carolina is establishing a fire service technology curriculum through the 43 institutions of the Department of Community Colleges. The curriculum is set up on a six-year plan for an associate degree. The older men may select the specialized fire protection courses they desire and receive certificates for these. They may choose not to bother with the general courses, such as English, history and chemistry. The program is designed to include both paid and volunteer fire fighters as well as industrial fire protection personnel.
The rapid growth of formal education for the fire service is not without its share of problems. The title of the degree may vary, including fire science technology, fire technology, fire protection technology, fire administration technology, or fire engineering technology.
Similar material covered
Most curriculums are quite similar, although the division of the material within courses varies widely. This creates problems in developing textbooks.
Technical curriculums should be used to advance the fire service rather than “pull it out of the mud.” A few curriculums have “skill” courses that should be available in the local or state fire service training programs rather than the technical programs.
Top-level administrative indifference or even, in some cases, refusal to permit men to enroll in college courses must be overcome. The age of formal education for the fire service is rapidly developing. The wise chiefs are those who are leading their men to the doors of opportunity through education.
The next five years have the possibilities for improving public attitudes more than in any previous 50-year period. Let’s open our eyes and move forward—now! □ □