Professional Credentialing: Roadmap to Your Future: Debbie Sobotka

By Debbie Sobotka

Firefighters looking to grow and develop within their organization can chart their career path by applying for the fire officer (FO) designation. The FO designation is open to all company-level officers, junior officers and above who have supervisory responsibilities, and to those who have served in an intermittent acting status for a minimum of 12 months.

What is a designation, and how does one achieve designated status? So many times, we hear the terms “certification” and “designation” used interchangeably. However, the two terms are distinctly different.

Certification is a method of validating knowledge, skills, and abilities in a particular area, as defined by a prescribed standard and often tested in a practical and written method. Certification is one component within the designation model.

Designation considers broad educational and career professional accomplishments and is validated through a peer-review process.

The journey begins by conducting a self-assessment. Self-assessment is defined as an assessment or evaluation of oneself or one’s actions and attitudes–in particular, of one’s performance at a job or learning task considered in relation to an objective standard. The self-assessment provides an opportunity for individuals to see the areas in which they need development and pursue involvement in these areas. Proactive individuals who pursue exposure to areas in which they have limited or no experience will no doubt make a positive impact on the organization.

Understanding the Professional Credentialing Process

To become “designated,” an individual completes a process. Just like the artist who shows off his art, the individual who wants to excel shows off his portfolio of knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs). This process includes a number of items or benchmarks to show that the individual has the training, education, and experience to perform as a designee.

First and foremost, review the application from cover to cover. Why? Simply to familiarize yourself with the application and what will be expected. We are not trying to surprise you with hidden requirements or unattainable goals. The process is straightforward. Now that you understand what to look for, take the time necessary to gather all the documentation in one location. This will keep you from being interrupted while trying to put your thoughts down on paper. The only thing that will be reviewed for your designation is what you present in the application. We know you are more than your resume. However, the application is sent to a peer reviewer who does not know you; the only information the reviewer has to determine if you should be recommended for designation is what you present.

Therefore, the more complete you make the application, the easier for the reviewer. The easier for the reviewer, the more appreciated are the efforts you have put forth, and your application is moved through the process without delay. If you have been diligent and put forth a good portfolio, the fewer questions the reviewer will have about your KSAs. It sounds like we are hammering KSAs to death. Life doesn’t come with an owner’s manual. This process, however, does. If you’re going to take the necessary time to complete the process, why not make it a first-class representation of you?

Eligibility Requirements

This will be the first section you read. This is more than putting checkmarks in boxes. It is seeing where you fit with regard to others who have gone before you in the industry. These “boxes” were developed over time with input from fire service leaders, city leaders, and industry standards.

The next step is to gather the information you will be compiling into the application. Some of this will simply be listed in the application; other information will come from copies of various items you provide– which we’ll get to later. Rest assured, this “process” is a journey in self-discovery as much as it is completing an application.

Seven Areas of Proficiency

Candidates seeking designation must demonstrate proficiency in seven areas.

Figure 1. Areas of Proficiency


Higher education is a valuable and necessary component for successfully leading today’s fire service. In this component, list all formal education degrees and certificate programs. All degrees must be from a regionally or nationally accredited institution.


Experience comes in many shapes and sizes, as reflected in the diverse landscape of fire and emergency services agencies in the United States. Because of these differences, the professional designation model looks to create an overarching frame work that views experience based on general technical competencies and makes an assessment that is not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Professional Development

This is the area where you list current certifications and training courses taken over the past five years. In addition, as part of professional development, you will need to address development goals. In this section, lay out what you plan to do to grow and develop in the areas of education, professional contributions, memberships, and community involvement in the next three years .

In addition, describe your role in the department as it relates to the following Firefighter Life Safety initiatives:

Initiative #1: Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporate leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility.

Initiative #2: Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.

Initiative #4: All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.

Professional Contributions and Recognition

Here is where you get to talk about the things you’ve done to advance the fire service profession over the past five years.

  • Speaking. This can range from speaking at national conferences to giving a safety talk to a local seniors group or delivering a fire safety talk to a school group.
  • Teaching. An instruction you have done whether internally for your own department, assisting with a recruit academy, or teaching at conferences or symposiums
  • Articles. Any articles you have written in the past five years
  • Research. The most common example listed here is typically EFO papers, but if you have done any research for a degree or other project, list it here.
  • Awards. List awards, citations, commendations, or other forms of recognition received for your work in the past five years.

Professional Memberships and Affiliations

This component includes any fire service groups, bodies, or boards you have been engaged in during the past five years. Most common are memberships with international organizations like the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) and the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) as well as state and local associations.

Community Involvement

To ensure individuals seeking designated status are well-rounded, community involvement is assessed as part of the application process. This includes involvement in non-fire service organizations such as school PTAs, sports programs, scouts, Habitat for Humanity.

Community involvement is important, as it does the following:

·        Provides an opportunity to become familiar with the people you are serving.

·        Provides an opportunity to receive feedback from civic groups that provide the impetus for improving services.

·        Cultivates public support for the fire service, even in tough economic times.

Technical Competence

Candidates will need to show proficiency in 12 categories:

1.        Human Resources

2.        Department Administration

3.        Department Administration and Incident Reporting

4.        Employee Relations

5.        Health and Safety

6.        Codes, Inspections, Preplanning

7.        Origin and Cause Investigations

8.        Public Education, Relations, and Communications

9.        Training, Education, Instructional Design

10.     Risk Assessment, Resource Deployment, ICS/IMS, IAP

11.     EMS Systems, State and Local Protocols, Infection Control

12.     Radio Communications, Applicable Regulations, Continuity of Operations Plans

Under each category, learning content is provided that cross-references National Fire Protection Association 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications for Fire Officer I and II. Within the competency, you must provide documentation of your education related to the learning content provided. Additionally, a narrative section for each competency requires that you  explain and document your performance, projects, and other experience related to the learning content. Furthermore, a qualified individual must attest to the information you provided for each competency.

Code of Professional Conduct

Ethical behavior in today’s society is a critical benchmark of success. The designation program provides a Code of Professional Conduct that all decisions can be weighed against. A code of professional conduct must be embraced by members of the vocation so that the profession maintains the accountability, the responsibility and the trust needed to effectively serve internal and external customers.

Peer Review

Candidate applications go through a rigorous peer-review process. Peer reviewers are responsible for determining whether or not an individual seeking a Designation has met all program criteria and requirements, conducts interviews, and makes recommendations to the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC). The CPC serves as the conferring body.

Continuous Improvement Process

Once you achieve designated status, you don’t stop there. Designated status is valid for three years. As part of the continuous improvement process, designees need to show continued proficiency in four elements in Professional Development, Professional Contributions and Recognition, Professional Memberships and Affiliations, and Community Involvement.

There are numerous benefits to becoming a FO designee. Achieving designated status enhances the stature and capabilities of not only the individuals achieving designation but their organizations and communities as well. Some of these benefits include the following:

To the organization:

·        Creates a level of professionalism that can be recognized by city or other governmental leaders, as well as other public safety agencies and professionals with whom there is daily interaction.  

·        Improves the promotion and hiring process by enabling authorities to quickly identify individuals with SKAs.

·        Demonstrates that an individual has developed a strategy for continued career improvement and development.        

To the community:

·        Establishes the organization’s dedication in being proficient and proactive in delivery of services to the community.

·        Increases community pride, which aids in recruiting new businesses and residents.

To the individual:

·        Provides an individual self-assessment of education and experience.

·        Recognizes higher level educational achievements and career excellence.

·        Identifies shortcomings.

The credentialing process clearly defines a pathway for future fire service leaders. This roadmap provides individuals with an excellent blueprint to ensure that all tools needed within their toolbox are present and accounted for.

Begin the Journey

To learn more about the Commission on Professional Credentialing’s (CPC) FO)designation process, visit the Center for Public Safety Excellence Web site at A complete list of the 400 FO designees can be viewed at


Debbie Sobotka is deputy director of the Center for Public Safety Excellence.

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