Professionalizing the Fire Service

By Thomas N. Warren

Much has been written over the years regarding professionalizing the fire service. Everyone from fire chiefs and volunteer fire organizations to organized labor have weighed in on this issue and offered their views as to what professionalizing the fire service means. Most people who make comments or statements regarding this issue have differing opinions as to what the nature of a professionalized fire service is. What exactly does “professionalizing the fire service” really mean to firefighters? How is it accomplished? How does it affect the community, and does it really improve the fire service as a whole? Professionalizing the fire service is more than college degrees and promotions; it is a state of mind that projects competency and professional development throughout a firefighters’ career. The stakes are very high as we have witnessed in recent legal cases in cities like New York, Hartford, Chicago, and other cities, so we owe it to ourselves and our profession to get it right for future generations of firefighters.


First let’s look at the entrance requirements and processes for appointment to the fire service; after all, this is where it really begins. This process includes a wide range of criteria across the country. These wide-ranging criteria are, in most cases, developed by local jurisdictions based on various components which local authorities (elected officials) feel are important to their communities. In many cases, they may not include the local fire chiefs’ input. Some of the most common criteria used today include

  • physical ability
  • psychological evaluations
  • minority status
  • residency
  • examination scores
  • interviews
  • U.S. citizenship
  • a valid driver’s license
  • criminal background check
  • oral review boards
  • some level of college credits
  • EMT certification
  • credit for prior experience
  • veteran’s credits
  • in some cases, application/testing fees

All of these entrance components have merit, but in some cases they can be given disproportional weight in the entrance process, and they may also change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Consider that most police departments require at least an associate’s degree, whereas fire departments do not have this requirement even though firefighters are expected to perform advanced emergency medical skills and operate complex equipment daily. Is this a statement about the value that local authorities place on the skill set required to be a police officer versus a firefighter? Or is it more a failure of the fire service to promote itself as highly competent professionals? It’s fair to say that there are individuals that feel very strongly about including one or more of the abovementioned criteria in their selection process and equally as strong about excluding others.

It is also fair to say that for the fire service to function and thrive in today’s environment a candidate must possess some basic qualities. Necessary qualities include

  • physical ability
  • physiological stability
  • passing examination scores with the intellectual capacity to complete advanced EMT training
  • valid driver’s license
  • passing a criminal background check, and
  • a genuine interest in performing the work of a modern firefighter.

Some of the other criteria listed can be obstacles that may prevent quality candidates from succeeding. One of the most common obstacles we see is requiring all applicants to possess an EMT license before an application may be submitted. Is it necessary for an applicant to possess an EMT license before an application can be submitted, or is this policy simply a way for a city to save on EMT training costs later? In most urban settings, the pool of applicants simply does not have access to the EMT training programs for financial reasons or the programs are not accessible. This has to be considered when searching for applicants, but equally as important is the intellectual ability of the candidate to complete the EMT training program once they have been accepted into a training academy. When developing an entrance examination, take care to account for what level a firefighter is expected to perform upon appointment. Firefighters in some cities will only perform firefighter duties, but in other cities they will be performing advanced EMT services, too.

This second group must have the intellectual capacity that advanced EMT training requires. In the city where I served, we found that hiring a diverse group of firefighters was very challenging. In addition to recruitment, one of the things we did was to offer tutoring classes to train prospective applicants on how to prepare for the entrance examinations. We set up tutoring classes three times per week for two weeks in various neighborhoods in our city. We taught basic skills such as conversions of fractions and decimals, English, reading skills, physics and test-taking skills. In addition, we provided detailed illustrations of the physical performance assessment (PPA) course. This allowed applicants to see what is required to pass this portion of the hiring process and prepare them for this demanding physical component. This program was available to anyone who filed out an application, however the tutoring classes were held in local neighborhoods in our city. When hiring a diverse workforce, a program of this type may help to reach your goal. Oral review boards and interviewing are very useful tools and are commonly used by many departments. This step will add significant time to the process especially when a large number of applicants must be interviewed, but when standards are applied fairly and consistently, there will be no surprises when the candidates take their seats at the training academy.

Another obstacle is an increasingly popular idea of charging fees for written examinations and for the physical performance assessment, which is paid by the applicant to cover the cost of administrating the hiring process. In a recent advertisement for firefighters in my area, there was an administrative fee of $25 and a PPA fee of $100to submit an application. This type of fee schedule should be avoided if at all possible.

The last thing I feel needs to be mentioned is the awarding of veteran points. Most every city awards some type of credit to military veterans when applying for public safety positions, and with good reason. This is a small token of respect that any jurisdiction can pay to someone for their military service. As for the entrance process, it is clear that qualities listed above represent the foundation for a successful candidate. Any other criteria that a jurisdiction feels is important and that can be validated may be instituted so long as they are not designed to indiscriminately disqualify candidates. This is the first step toward professionalizing the fire service: bringing in quality people with high expectations who are intellectually and physically capable of performing as a modern firefighter and encouraging them to learn and develop.


The next area that needs to be looked at is the promotion to company officer. Lieutenants and captains are the people that keep the fire service operating at the service delivery level every day. The company officers set the tone of every fire company and are the face of the fire department to the public, whether it is through responding to an emergency call or interacting with the public in the market while buying food for the firehouse lunch. After a new recruit enters the fire service, it is the company officer who will shape his attitudes and in many cases, his future.

In terms of promotions, the first step is an examination process that is focused on practical knowledge, experience, and professional contributions to the department. This examination process should also be designed to place less emphasis on the seniority of candidates and focus more on the qualities and skills they bring to the fire service. Once the testing and evaluation process is completed, the candidates should be detached from their fire companies and complete a two- to three-week officer training academy. The goal of this officer training academy is to certify the new officers according to National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Standard 1021, Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications Additional NFPA qualifications should also be included, such as NFPA Standard 1521, Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer, and NFPA Standard 1041, Standard for Fire Service Instructor Professional Qualifications.


These programs are recognized as standards in the fire service for the development of competent fire officers. This level of training is more than most departments provide to their new officers, yet even this is not enough to professionalize the fire service. The next step is for new fire officers to enroll in local colleges and universities to earn an associate’s degree as well as a bachelor’s degree. This level of education may seem unnecessary to raise ground ladders and advance hoselines (which is true), but looking at the bigger picture, it lays the foundation for successful succession planning. It is never too early to begin taking college courses, but it becomes necessary once the first promotion to a company officer has been earned. There once were incentive programs that would either pay for a firefighter’s college tuition r provide a pay increase once degrees were earned; but sadly most of these programs are now victims of the economic downturn of the last few years. The loss of these financial incentives should not eliminate the incentive to further a fire officer’s education. In place of the financial incentives, a point structure can be instituted that will award candidates seeking promotion to a chief officer position with points that can be added to the promotional exam process or evaluation process.  

Another important aspect of professionalizing the fire service is our public perception by both private citizens and the corporate community. This may sound trivial, but when I talk about setting the tone of a fire company, this is one of the things that I’m talking about. A professional fire officer should come to work every day clean shaven, shoes shined, and in a clean, department-issued uniform and demand the same of his or her firefighters. Professionals in the private sector understand the importance of appearance, and remember, you are the face of the department to the public. It is imperative that the image projected be a positive one. Don’t forget the apparatus–the same holds true for the appearance of your apparatus and equipment.

Most firefighters want to become a chief officer and possibly assume the rank of chief of department; to achieve this professional level, a college degree will be necessary. The skill set for a successful company officer may not serve you well when managing a multi-million dollar budget and complex personnel issues. The type of skills required to manage these complex issues can only be gained through advanced education and study. The scope of the fire service’s work has expanded well beyond firefighting. The ability to manage the wide array of new responsibilities that the fire service must embrace requires someone who has an education as well as the experience of many years in the fire service. A professional chief officer will want nothing but the best for the department he serves and to have his department respected as a professional organization. Every first grader knows who the fire chief is–he is the one who wears the white helmet–so be mindful that everything we say and do is noticed.

A chief officer must project his knowledge and authority in a way that complements the department’s professional objectives. As I stated earlier, promotional points can be added to a candidate’s evaluation process for college degrees or any other advanced program, such as those offered by the National Fire Academy. The process for selecting chief officers should be clear to every member of the department, enabling them to begin the professional development process required for this rank early in their careers.

One of the best ways that a fire chief can improve and professionalize their fire department is through an accreditation program. These programs force a fire department to examine and evaluate every facet of its operation and measure it against accepted national standards. Meeting NFPA standards alone does not result in accreditation, but any department that meets NFPA standards is clearly well on its way towards national accreditation. Achieving accreditation is not always apparent to the average citizen, but in many ways the average citizen is well served by the accreditation process through improved performance and efficient operations. Two of the most widely recognized accreditation programs are the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and the Insurance Service Organization (ISO). The Commission on Fire Accreditation International is the most widely recognized accreditation program in the country and is voluntary in nature. Any department that is serious about accreditation must look at this or a similar program. Entering into this process is not a short-term commitment and should be viewed as an ongoing process even after accreditation is earned. The ISO is slightly different in that it assigns a numerical class level to the fire departments that sets fire insurance rates for the jurisdiction of that fire department; this program is not voluntary, and the class level is referred to as Public Protection Classification. The lower the class rating a fire department receives, the lower the fire insurance rates will be for that department’s jurisdiction. Presently, there are only 57 class 1 fire protection areas* in the United States out of 47,000 fire response jurisdictions.


Developing and maintaining a professional fire department can be difficult and time consuming, but the rewards for the department and the jurisdiction it serves are immeasurable. Firefighters will be proud of the distinction that accreditation brings and, in the case of ISO, the rewards are financially beneficial to citizens and businesses alike. Fire chiefs must encourage everyone in their department to begin thinking long term about their professional goals from the very beginning of their career. Fire chiefs can have a significant effect in professionalizing their department through the selection of quality recruits, working toward professional development of company and chief officers, and embracing accreditation programs. The time to start is now.

*According to the ISO Web site, as of this writing.

Thomas N. WarrenTHOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.



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