Professional Development in the Fire Service

Photo by Tim Olk.

By Robert DiPietro

The fire service is steeped in historical traditions; it has evolved into what many consider a true profession, similar to a doctor, an educator, or an attorney. On average, there have been 3,178 civilian fire deaths and 16,700 fire injuries per year since 2006. In 2015, property loss in the United States from fire topped $14.3 billion.

Today’s fire service leaders are expected to analyze the risks to their communities to develop a comprehensive community risk reduction plan designed to be a developed approach to plan, mitigate, respond to, and recover from any man-made or natural hazards affecting their communities. They are also expected to manage and lead a culturally and gender diverse organization composed of multigeneration members. In addition, they are tasked with keeping some semblance of fire service traditions, culture, and history. They may also face the demand of economic development within their community through modern building construction with increased fire loads.

In the video below, United States Deputy Fire Administrator Dr. Denis Onieal presents a lecture on how training, education, experience, and certification are an integral part of fire service professional development.


The new management role of professional development indicates a change in the traditional fire service training division. The newly formed Office of Professional Development is charged with managing each member’s career path, from recruit to chief officer. A professional development plan for the organization should include basic firefighter and leadership training and officer development. The new initiative would develop a comprehensive professional development plan. The office would then assist each member in managing his career path, similar to initiatives developed in the private sector. The information presented below will describe how this initiative would operate.


Strategic Planning for Training and Professional Development 

Developing Your Professional Development Program

Higher Education = Better Skills, Better Future

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

Basic Firefighter Skills

When a firefighter recruit leaves the fire academy, he should have earned Firefighter I and II certifications under the NFPA 1001, Standard for Firefighter Professional Qualifications. Today’s firefighter should also be trained and certified to the Emergency Medical Technician certification. Firefighters then receive in-house or company training to accustom them to the rules and procedures of their assigned departments. During a firefighter’s first three to five years of his career, he should absorb as much information as he can as he “shops, mops, and rides backward.” His learning will come from his peers, senior firefighters, company officers, and training classes. Acquired certification may include hazardous materials, technical rescue, and driver/operator training. It is also popular for some firefighters to enter the wildland firefighter career pathway. Many firefighters may also elect to expand their medical training by becoming paramedics. The training division or the Office of Professional Development can begin to assist the new firefighter in developing a career path. The firefighter should develop his career portfolio by collecting all their training certifications.


Officer Development

The new Office of Professional Development should concentrate their efforts on developing mid-level fire officers. Lieutenants and Captains are the backbone of the firefighting force. Their ability to transmit the organization’s mission to their company is one of the most difficult tasks in the fire service. They must also keep their company highly trained and prepared for all types of responses. To the public, fire officers most often represent the face of their organization. Their must continue to maintain a high level of knowledge, skills, and attitudes (KSAs) through certification-type programs. These programs include Fire Officer I and II certified to NFPA 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications. Another recommended program for fire officers is the National Fire Academy’s (NFA’s) Managing Fire Officer program. The program is developed as a “multiyear curriculum that introduces emerging emergency services leaders to personal and professional skills in change management, risk reduction and adaptive leadership”.

Many of the fire service’s new generation are entering our profession with some college education. The Fire Service Director of Professional Development must recognize and capitalize on the educational talent of each member. Part of the career portfolio process is to analyze the certification and educational credits to assist the member in completing a degree program, whether it be an associate or a bachelor’s. This process begins to build the educational capital of the organization.


Fire Service Leadership

Building and developing good, solid leadership is often a challenge to many fire service organizations. Today’s modern fire service leaders are expected to manage an operating budget comparable to large business corporations. They are expected to perform on equal playing fields as professionally trained city managers and are required to conduct themselves in a professional decorum in front of highly educated citizen-elected city and town councils. Good leaders are also required to manage in today’s style of data driven decision making for policy setting and financial management.

Many developing fire service leaders may not appreciate the value education and training play in the fire service organization. Many developing fire officers do not understand their service to the profession and only think of adding “bullet points” to their resumes, an approach often referred to as “stamp collecting.” Many do not want to perform the hard work involved to put their character and integrity out on public display.

Professional development in leadership includes educational degrees in management and leadership. A bachelor’s degree in fire service management begins building the “scaffolding” required for the job. A master’s degree in leadership will provide an appropriate educational portfolio for your organization’s leaders. One of the values a future fire service leader may add to his organization is obtaining the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer certification. This four-year program is a rigorous endeavor involving developing four applied research papers designed to create an adaptive change in the student’s organization.

The main objective of developing a new Office of Professional Development in the Fire Service program is to create a system within a fire service organization of “growing your own.” This program gives any member of the organization the confidence to develop himself no matter what job title or rank to which he aspires. The old-school training division served the fire service well by providing opportunities for members to build their training credentialing.

Providing the educational component to the agency may be a new pathway for some organizations. Adding the educational component comes with some, albeit effective, cost. Fire service organizations may be expected to provide tuition assistance, time off, and opportunities to learn while on duty. Just about every educational opportunity for firefighters is now available online.

An important component of the professional development initiative is the development of a career portfolio for each member of the organization. This portfolio, either in paper or digital form, stores a firefighter’s entire career for reference or recordkeeping. All certificate, awards, written work, and diplomas are in this portfolio. For a link to my portfolio, click HERE.

Unless your department is in desperate need to make a change in its leadership, this method of developing your leadership makes solid sense. The culture of a highly-trained and professional workforce will hopefully pay dividends by improving morale and keeping members focused, providing good solid service to the community. Techniques and skills developed through today’s educational opportunities will hopefully reduce our own line of duty deaths and injuries as well reducing fire deaths to our civilian population.



U.S. fire statistics – Accessed 24 June. 2018.


Robert DiPietro is a deputy chief (Ret.) for the New Britain (CT) Fire Department, where he served for 27 years. He was also a battalion chief for Northwest Fire District in Tucson, Arizona, from 2007 to 2010. DiPietro is also a fire instructor and program manager for Pima County Joint Technical Education District, also in Tuscon, from 2008 to 2015. He has a BA in public safety administration from Charter Oak State College and a MS in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He graduated from the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program and is a NFA contract instructor. DiPietro is a certified CTE fire instructor for the state of Arizona and a member of the Fire and Emergency Services for Higher Education’s High School to College Pathways Workgroup.

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