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.