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When Is the Right Time in a Firefighting Career to Become an Educator?

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

In a recent conversation with a retired fire chief, the subject of what time in a firefighting career is a good time to become an educator came up. The fire chief’s belief was that becoming an educator for executive fire officers when you were a company officer was impractical, due to the inability to understand the concepts that would be presented.

For example, the fire chief said that a person at the company officer level could not possibly understand interactions  occurring at the command level of a large-scale event or the activities that need to occur in an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). However, this statement raised my blood pressure.

I informed him that at a lieutenant's rank, I served as the Planning Section Chief for a Type 3 Incident Management Team (IMT) and a Taskforce Leader for a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team. I also assisted with the writing of the curriculum and supporting text for the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) Disaster Planning and Control course.

His reply was that I was unique. Sometimes, you just have to agree to disagree. But this conversation made me consider his perspective and his validity; I saw his point to some degree.

Firefighting Is One of the Only Professions to Train after Appointment

While the initial training of firefighters entering the service occurs after appointment to a position, many small urban departments now require fire and emergency medical services (EMS) training prior to appointment. This requirement has both positive and negative aspects.

The positive aspect is that you are 100% percent sure an individual can pass the intense training programs, since they have already. The negative aspect is that many great people with the right values and traits cannot afford extra schooling with the hopes of receiving a position with the department and work in another profession at the same time. This situation often limits the choice of firefighters entering the service just out of high school.

However, after someone achieves a rank, it is almost assured that any training and education occurs after the appointment. While some forward-thinking departments require certain educational and training accomplishments in order to qualify for testing, this rule is far from common.

Often, getting a degree or taking officer training courses adds points to your career or your education helps you score higher on established tests. Nearly all states have no certification or educational requirement for fire officers as they do for firefighters. As a result, this training prior to appointment will only be self-driven by the department for the foreseeable future.

Rank Structure in Firefighting Organizations

One of the largest factors that affects this firefighters' dilemma is the rank structure of an organization. In many large metropolitan departments, the number of chief officers is plentiful. The likelihood of a company officer serving in a chief’s role until official appointment is very small.

However, even in large metropolitan departments, the acting battalion chief can be a company officer. In this case, the company officer may be only one to two ranks from the fire chief on a frequent basis.

Some smaller organizations throughout the United States have fewer levels of management. Jack Parrow, former President of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), stated that when he promoted to fire chief, it was from the rank of captain due to the flat organizational structure of the department. In this case, the company officer may be the acting fire chief on a regular basis, depending on the activity schedule of the regularly appointed fire chief.

The next rank structure issue is the different job responsibilities of the positions. A captain may be the shift commander of a five-station operation or the captain could be selected from the first rank of the company officers. It is important to review the four levels of fire officer as presented in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1021 and determine the appropriate level, rather than look at someone's rank.

A Company Officer Requires Related Experience and Training Before Becoming an Educator

My retired fire chief had a great point from his perspective of a large organization with many layers of management. It is unlikely that the company officer in his organization had ever seen an EOC or would even be required to take the ICS-400 (Advanced ICS Command and General Staff-Complex Incidents) course, which would make the concepts of ICS/EOC interface and large-scale command a foreign concept.

At best, company officers may have acquired knowledge from a book. However, having related experience and a training background is key to teaching new subjects.

If a company officer has a large cognitive basis for executive-level concepts, how long will it be before he or she is able to apply this executive education? Does some of the executive-level education cross over to the necessary knowledge at the company officer level?

Perspectives are built on a basis of education and experience. It would be great if the different ranks understood each other more and had more cohesive thoughts.

Randall Hanifen Dr. 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.