By Ray McCormack
The problem with today’s fire service is all these college kids! If I had a nickel for every time I heard that, I’d have Mr. Smith’s money. Are college kids the problem or a handy scapegoat? Maybe it’s the nouveau educated–the established, older firefighter who discovers college later in life and then decides it’s time to show off his wares. Young college educated firefighters don’t make sweeping decisions or policy. Senior people do that.
Being smart is one thing: learning to keep your educational prowess in check is another. A belief that someone who holds some optional certificate is better qualified than someone who does not has taken hold. These boutique classes form the framework of an advanced certification hierarchy within the fire service. While we need bright people to deal with all of our issues, from tactical to financial, we must remember that just because you have received a diploma or certificate does not make you king…or does it? Many who get their degrees later in life often develop a certain smugness about it. The long hours and sacrifice…that’s stuff you just don’t experience when you attend college right after high school, right?
There is a segment of the fire service that felt the playing field had to be leveled (fire activity vs. higher education). One way to do that was to create not only the impression but the job requirement reality that without certain schooling you’re not good enough. Look up any chief officer ad and see for yourself. The shame, of course, is that this creates and propagates this certification myth which, in most cases, only rewards the individual job seeker. Could the title holder do some good? Of course they could, and could they have done good without their certification? Placing oneself above the competition is nothing new, but when we honor compression training platforms over other established educational programs–and actual experience dealing with emergencies and even fires–then you get what you get.
The reverence for higher and even higher education in the fire service is there for all to ignore or hitch their resume to. The problem is that we are developing a firefighter underclass in our rush to build an upper crust, members-only club. Job seekers with an advanced degree, along with years of experience, often do not have enough resume to tip the scales for hire; you must have the current flavor certification.
Have we pushed the idea that the fire service is an organization so complicated that only the properly certified can run it? Sure, there are budgets and legal issues and codes and changes to stay abreast of. Surely, a common firefighter could never handle all of that without extensive bibliography- and footnote-writing experience. Although any department can set their criteria however they wish, persons in the HR (Honoring Resumes) department better take note that there is much more to being a successful leader than a few abbreviation tags.
Not all firefighters who crave these lofty credentials will be bad leaders. No, some will be absolutely horrible. Firefighters who enter the fire service after college can develop this issue, but their time on the job or lack thereof puts other, more pressing issues in front of them. The resume builders are the ones to watch, as they propel themselves into their next job or level, barely stopping to note where they came from.
Tactical safety does not require a degree or certification, only Sustained Attention (it can be abbreviated SA for those of you who collect those kind of things).
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RAY McCORMACK is a 30-year veteran and a lieutenant with FDNY. He is the publisher and editor of Urban Firefighter Magazine. He delivered the keynote address at FDIC in 2009 and he is on the Editorial Board of Fire Engineering Magazine.