Part 1: “Entitlement”
Part 2: “Running People Off”
The US is an industrialized nation. We have modeled everything after the assembly line or mass production. We have also taught people from infancy that you can only achieve if you progress down the assembly line of the educational system. To get high marks and to obtain a degree and promoting the idea that our bodies are just transportation for our brains. The idea that having the highest level of education in the land will be rewarded by the highest level of pay is something that all of us, up until the past decade or so, have been taught. Strive to be the smartest guy/gal in the room, so you will be looked upon as the problem solver.
The same holds true in the fire service. We tell the young men or women that they need to stay in the books if they want to wear the white helmet someday. We tell them that they all should want to wear the white helmet and if they don’t they are not formulating solid “career goals.” We disqualify people from promotional opportunities because they do not have or are not pursuing their “degrees.” I hear it from all areas of the country. Some of it is us, and some of it is our HR department.
The part that we don’t tell them is that the Chiefs that a lot of us grew up under didn’t have degrees. They worked administratively and operationally to build the departments up without the framed piece of paper on the wall. They did their jobs, and they did them well, and they learned what it took to run a department.
Now some of you will say I am unenlightened. You will say that a degree is what is needed to operate a department these days due to the political climates, budgets and personnel issues. I agree with that for the most part. The part that I begin to have a problem with is that the amount of operational or “street” time a person has continued to be less and less important when selections are made for command officers. People are getting promoted that test and interview well but lack the intuition or operational knowledge to command a fire scene to a successful resolution. They get promoted because their file is thick with certificates from classes they have “taken.” I know that every fire goes out eventually so each fire scene will end in time but there are ways to resolve incidents without a great loss of life, property or personnel.
Unfortunately, in some departments, as the individuals move “up the chain” they get further and further away from the operational side of the department. They lose touch with some basic skills of EMS and fire suppression and become knee-jerk commanders; spouting out orders that they think will work but are not based on operational knowledge. Nobody questions their decisions until something goes wrong or the scene goes off the rails.
The point I am trying to make is that you don’t always have to have a degree to be successful in this business. If that is something you want to shoot for, then go for it! I have spoken to many people who have spent a great deal of time and money on degrees that they don’t use. The fire service is full of people like that.
Just know that success is measured in different ways. I have always looked up to people who work with their hands. The people that I have looked up to in this job have been the ones that know every aspect of the equipment and can tell you 100 ways to do a task, and yes, I admire the guy who can force a door 29 ways. They have the knowledge that can’t be learned in a classroom. One of the people I look up to the most in this business can tell you everything you need to know about fire service hand tools. How to use them the way they were intended to be used and all kinds of tricks to use the tools in different ways. I learn something every time we talk about tools. That is knowledge that comes from working with your hands. That knowledge is priceless, and it didn’t cost him anything to learn it.
My father spent 8 years in college to become an attorney. I have always said he’s the dumbest smart person I know. He taught me about economics and government, how to balance checkbooks, how the banking system works and to ask the right questions to get the answers you want; all things that I use to
this day. However, that guy couldn’t show me how to build anything, fix a car or figure out why the breaker kept tripping when my mom and sister tried to run 2 hair dryers, a heater, a radio and a curling iron on the same circuit in a house with 100 amp service. Those things I had to learn from other people over the years. I love my dad, but he’s got the nerd gene that he passed onto me. I didn’t get the full nerd gene however, so I wanted to know how to work with my hands. I sought out people to teach me, and I’m glad I did. I still have no idea how to fix my car, though. I have people for that.
Wearing the white helmet is definitely a goal to shoot for. It can be challenging and rewarding at the same time. It can also shorten your life expectancy due to the stress involved. Your career success should not be measured by a white helmet at the end, it should be measured in how well you did your job; how well you passed on what you know and by how well you used the time you had in this amazing line of work to serve your fellow man.
Stay safe out there!
Put your faith in the knuckle dragging, window breaking, hose pulling members of your crew but don’t discount the guy who can figure friction loss in his head!
The purpose here is to dig deep into the tug-of-war between education and experience. In the last two decades there has been an explosion of fire service certification and degree programs sprinkled throughout the country. Brick-and-mortar schools, online colleges, accredited and even less-than-accredited distance learning courses, state, national, international certifications and the like. These programs exist to help us gain an edge within our careers. Some of us start off in Fire Science class before ever riding an engine while others matriculate later in their fire careers when it’s time to move up the ladder.
The argument here is an age-old military quandary. The crusty old Sergeant taking orders from the young, inexperienced, but educated Lieutenant. It’s likely an issue as old as education.
The real question is what is more valuable; years of experience OR a university degree backed with proper fire certifications?
The Fire Service has always been a bastion of process for promoting from within because on-the-job experience is extremely valuable to an organization. The wisdom a firefighter gains from running calls in their area-of-operation is incredibly valuable and irreplaceable. Running emergency calls and mitigating situations can’t be learned in books. Wisdom is so valuable in fact that whatever education you happen to achieve along the way is almost secondary or an added bonus to your experience and ability to execute that wisdom, in some departments.
Wisdom aside, education is paramount. Having the ability to learn the fine intricacies of your craft is an integral part of being a complete firefighter, in the “whole” sense of the term. Reading books, writing research papers, answering a thesis, combing through peer reviewed articles, learning legalities as well as philosophical aspects of the job will help you fully understand where we are and how we got here. It’s not enough to know what decision to make on scene, we have to understand why we’re making those decisions and what the consequences could be if we are wrong.
Core classes such as English, Math and Science will help round out a persons thought process and general knowledge. It helps to provide the ability to generate accurate reports and can also help create a base for proper personnel management. Every decision a leader makes has to stand the test of a court or inquiry.
Education also helps us hammer home the importance of having a legitimate incident commander. Well intentioned Volunteer Fire Chiefs who, sometimes, fall into the job title by way of popular vote may only be equipped with years of volunteer experience. If there happens to be a line-of-duty-death under that incident commander’s leadership, the NIOSH Firefighter death investigation team would most certainly point to that as a contributing factor. Training, certifications, and education is always a hard focus during LODD investigations.
Information is extremely powerful and education is vastly important. Legitimacy plays havoc at the core of the education issue. It’s hard to say you can do the job if you can’t prove that you’ve at least learned the job. It’s not enough to walk the walk, you have to talk to the talk.
Not to flip -flop but education isn’t even not enough. Digging into history, Vietnam was a great example of the brightest minds in the country consistently making the wrong decisions. Kennedy’s “Whiz Kids” had a wealth of education from some of the finest universities in the country. They had information and intelligence, but lacked the experience to pull it all together into an effective battle strategy. Decisions that were made by some of the most educated people in the country were not enough to win a war. They lacked experience and wisdom.
To ensure the title isn’t lost on anyone. The “best” refers to those with wisdom gained from on-the-job experience and the “brightest” refers to those with education. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a common expression such as: “What he lacks in education he makes up for in experience” or vise versa.
Experience and education are not interchangeable. There are many Fire Officer and Fire Chief job descriptions that will accept experience in-loo of education. One should not be allowed to mascaraed as the other. Yes there is a wealth of learning that takes place while gaining experience but it is a stark contrast from the learning that takes place in the classroom.
It’s seems to be good measure to increase your education level as you gain experience. It’s always best to achieve certifications according to your experience timeline. You should not be a 22 year old Fire Officer IV or a 24 year old Instructor II. There is a lack of legitimacy in those numbers. It’s difficult to lead and /or teach what you haven’t experienced
If you don’t think education is the future of the fire service, then you are already behind. It’s an unreasonable expectation for you to believe you can progress through the ranks without it. It’s time to put your brain where your mouth is.