Company Officers: The Great Debate–Experience Versus Education

Published: 4/20/2011
Author: Alan L. Rufer, MBA

IAFC On Scene: April 15, 2011

It's the great debate taking place in many firehouses across the country: do you promote the firefighter who is state certified and has 10 years of experience, or do you promote the firefighter who has their associate’s degree and five years of experience?

This debate is becoming more and more common in the volunteer fire service. As the number of fires continues to decline, so does the opportunity for these firefighters to gain and retain on the job experience. There’s a line being drawn, and it closely follows the line dividing Generation X and Generation Y.

As Generation X began entering the fire service, state certification programs were the primary means for validating a firefighter’s skills, but at the time, many departments didn’t require firefighters to complete the program. For the most part, associate programs specifically designed for the fire service were in their infancy and were primarily marketed to career firefighters and chief officers. Promotions for members of Generation X were earned through their reputation for knowing the job, hands-on experience and seniority.

On the other hand, Generation Y has never known the fire service without the state certification programs, which are now required by most departments. An emphasis has been placed on education their entire lives, and secondary education has been marketed to them since they were in middle school. Many in this generation view an associates program as the beginning rather than the end. Much of their knowledge is derived from books and websites, while most of their hands-on experience has come from training events at local or state fire academies, utilizing simulators rather than actual fire scenes.

The older members of Generation Y are now becoming eligible for promotion. This is happening at a time when Baby Boomers are starting to retire and so they’re creating a sudden urgency to fill what’s becoming known as a leadership vacuum.

The fire service has changed a great deal over the past 20 years. The introduction of lightweight construction and synthetic materials in nearly everything we use has significantly changed our operations.

These changes, combined with a reduction in the number of fires, have made training and development a critical element in preparing the next generation of company officers. Experience can no longer be measured by the number of years the member has been in the department. If the fire service wants to fill the leadership gap that’s certain to be created with the exodus of the Baby Boomer generation, we must increase our commitment to professional development.

So, do you promote the firefighter with 10 years of experience or the firefighter with the associate’s degree?

It would be erroneous to think that the issue is that black and white. It’s imperative that we promote well-rounded individuals to the position of company officer. The amount of weight awarded for experience and education in the promotional process is relevant to the position. That is, less weight should be afforded to academics for a lieutenant’s position than for a captain or battalion chief’s position, but a balance of both is the ultimate goal.

Company-officer development programs should include a defined career path so individuals know what’s expected of them before advancing to the next level. These programs shouldn’t be fragmented by focusing entirely on those skills associated with operations. Rather, they should include modules designed to develop the officer’s knowledge, skills and abilities in areas such as management, prevention, safety, fire investigation and prevention.

To some in the volunteer fire service, this may seem like too much to ask. But the reality is that the expectations of the citizens we serve have grown significantly. We’re expected to do more today than yesterday and we’re expected to do it in a quick and professional manner.

Many volunteers responded in the same manner when state certification programs were introduced, but now those programs are accepted as the minimum requirements. While the thought of implementing a company-officer development program may seem daunting, the alternative should be considered unacceptable.

Everyday an article is written about a fire officer being held accountable for his or her actions on a fire scene or in the firehouse. We owe it to our people and to our profession to provide them with the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that are necessary to be successful at their job.

Alan Rufer is a lieutenant with the Monroe (Wis.) Fire Department and currently leads the department’s training division. He currently serves on the Company Officer Development Task Force for the IAFC.

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