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Fire Service Education: The Past, Present and Future

Start a fire science degree at American Military University.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on EDM Digest.

By Dr. Randall HanifenFaculty Member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University 

This year, I had the honor of attending the Fire and Emergency Services Professional Development Leadership summit, held at the National Fire Academy in Emmitsburg, Maryland. There have been many advancements over the past 40 years, and a diverse group of people was brought together during this event to chart the future of the fire service.

As we recalled some of America’s fire service leadership from the first part of the summit, it was refreshing to see where we have come from. About 40 years ago, educational degrees related to the fire service were nonexistent. Many states had little to no training standards for firefighter and essentially no training levels for fire officers.

[Related: How Strong Leadership Can Create a Healthier Firehouse Culture]

History of Higher Education in the Fire Service

To better understand where firefighting services need to go, it is necessary to understand the history of professional development in the fire service. In the 1980s, the International Association of Firefighters developed a framework to allow firefighters to attend college on the shift schedule system. This form of education quickly morphed to the Degrees at a Distance Program, housed within the United States Fire Administration and the National Fire Academy.

In this program, select schools strategically located throughout the country offered fire science classes via correspondence courses. In fact, I started my fire service higher education ventures under this system in the early 1990s.

I would get a big envelope in the mail with all of the materials I needed to complete the course. I would finish the assignments and mail them to the instructor. That instructor would grade the assignment and mail back the graded paper. I repeated this process three to four times in a 10-week span and then would receive a letter in the mail with my grade.

Obviously, the Internet was not prevalent at this point in time. Fast-forward a few years and all of the materials became available online through learning management system.

By the time I began university level teaching, Degrees at a Distance had morphed into the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Initiative and there was an annual FESHE conference. All of the schools came together to help write common curriculum for a number of classes at the bachelor’s and associate levels. As my involvement continued, the addition of a master’s and doctoral curriculum committee were added, and I became involved in the doctoral level committee.

Where We Are Today in Fire Service Education

From a training standpoint, most states have a firefighter certification standard that is based on National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1001. A good portion of the states have a formalized offering of fire officer training that is based on the NFPA 1021 standard.

[Related: Your Fire Science Education Should Prepare You for Evidence-Based Operations]

Other states have formalized inspector, investigator and driver/operator certifications that are based on their respective NFPA standards. However, to date, little in the way of reciprocity exists.

Certification Reciprocity Still in Progress

While the International Fire Service Accreditation Conference (IFSAC) and Pro Board have started efforts towards achieving the goal of reciprocity, it is still impossible to receive certification in Ohio, travel to California, and exchange an Ohio certification card for a California card, no questions asked. Each state still has its own system that may or may not offer full reciprocity.

From an educational standpoint, the U.S. has a recognized core and elective curriculum at the bachelor’s and associate levels, as well as a standardized emergency medical service (EMS) curriculum at the bachelor’s level. The master’s and doctoral curriculums are still being finalized.

Some people believe these should only be some elective courses, as the base degree should be in business or public administration. This is not a bad thought, but criminal justice, homeland security and other public safety entities have a graduate and post-graduate degree program. Consequently, the fire service must recognize the need for such a curriculum to generate the needed research to start validating our methodology both on the fireground and in the administration of our organizations.

Where Fire Service Education Needs to Go in the Future

Many people had some good ideas in regard to fire service education. But that is only my opinion, not the opinions of others or NFA staff.

[Related: Building a Fire Department Annual Training Plan From the Ground Up]

The first area that we must work on is making reciprocity easier in this country. Because the workforce now entering the fire service is accustomed to regular, frequent change, as well as a decrease in the number of overall applicants to become a firefighter and/or paramedic, we must make paid employee or volunteer movement around the country as easy as possible.

We all must fight for finite human resources in the fire service. However, we must also be able to hire qualified people from around the country and transfer personnel already working in one area to another area for use as company and chief officers.

The next area of improvement is the need to have required training for officers. While most states have requirements for firefighters, nearly all states have a complete absence of the same type of requirements for positions above the rank of firefighter.

The leadership in an organization is only as strong as the training and education provided to a leadership team. Most of our line-of-duty deaths can be attributed to poor leadership, whether those facilities occur on the fireground or as a byproduct of poor departmental culture. That culture can be changed through the department leaders.

In addition, we need to publish the master’s and doctoral curriculums and start working with universities to offer these higher-level courses. Only when we have these curriculums will we begin to have scholars who are profession-specific and can generate the research needed to move the fire service to its next level.

Maybe we’ll discover that many of our tightly held traditions are wrong; this knowledge can only be discovered though research. Think about how much our tactics have changed since the understanding of flow path.

Continuing Education Needs to Become Standard in the Future

Continuing education will need to become the norm in the future. We have many states that certify you at the age of 18 and then never ensure you have another hour of training, even if you are 75 years of age. No other profession that deals with so many lives in the way firefighters do would allow this lapse to happen. Lawyers, paramedics and EMTs need continuing education, so why not firefighters?

The last and possibly the most controversial area for improvement would be the possible need to split and rate fire departments from volunteer to full-service departments. While volunteers experience no less danger than career personnel, the true fact of the increased demands in the fire service only places additional stress on someone who is giving their time for free.

We must be cognizant of this fact. Nothing prevents leaders in the volunteer service from attaining additional training and education, but it is unfair and possibly counterproductive to require or imply more requirements for volunteers.

This additional training and education can be burdensome for someone who barely has time to make it to fire alarms. We must find the balance to move beyond our current status.

All of these ideas proposed during the conference for raising the bar in the fire service are great. We have come a long way in 40 years and have much to appreciate, but we also must focus forward and bring fire service professional development to the next level.

Fire Service EducationAbout the Author: Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of Disaster Planning and Control. Randall serves as the Executive Chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a Taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the Vice-Chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees He is credentialed as a Fire Officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a Fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute, and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

Dr. Randall Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. From a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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