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The Butcher's Bill
by Tom LaBelle
Sponsored by Globe

Firefighting and degrees: Does higher education matter?

The ability to learn does have great value to me and my employers, both past and present

By Tom LaBelle

There's been a great deal of debate as of late regarding higher education in the fire service, its value and its impact both positive and negative.

A recent article decried the hiring of a chief officer who didn't have a "higher" education. I put the higher in quotes because I'm not always sure what the education is higher than.

My father and grandfather (and many cousins and uncles) were career firefighters and I was one of the first in my family to go to a four-year college for a Bachelor of Arts degree.

My father would often ask me (because he was paying a lot of money for me to go to school), "So, what are you going to do again with this degree?"

I had to constantly remind him that my degree was not a vocational degree, not a trade school, but that his money wasn't being wasted.

He will now tell you he was very glad I went to school as that's where I met my wife. But I can see how it is difficult to determine the value of something like a bachelor's degree.

In the end what I learned was how to learn. That is, I learned how to pick up a book on just about any subject, listen to some lectures and then do it.

That ability, the ability to learn, does have great value to me and my employers, both past and present, when I've used it.

It has been very helpful for me to pick up apparatus manuals and learn the inner workings to develop pump operations and aerial operations programs for my fire department.

But; at the same time, I doubt anyone in my fire department cares two hoots if I have a higher education degree.

At the same time there are many who place much too much emphasis on the diplomas of colleges and national, state or local classes without understanding their role in the education of a fire officer or firefighter.

Learning is almost always a worthwhile endeavor for the individual, but it doesn't mean that all learning brings value to the organization.

Too often, because members don't understand the mission or goals of their organization, they quickly embrace or dismiss higher education.

I was told once that running laps is a lazy coach's way of filling in practice time. In the same way, I think adoption of some classroom training is chosen by fire service administrators as an easy way out.

Instead of looking at the needs of your organization, you just require the following classes and move on.

Many would say that there's no need for higher education in our industry. That fire suppression is a trade, pure science and as such can be taught in trade schools and fire academies, or institutions of higher learning.

Others will claim that fire suppression is art, that cannot be taught in school but only on the "back step" or by the saltier senior members of the squad. I like to think it's a mixture of both.

I met a great group of training officers a few weeks ago. We discussed the mixture of art and science in the fire service.

And I mentioned that if you had the chance of having two different plumbers work on your house; one was very capable, had come out of a training academy and knew how to perform the steps necessary to perform the job, the other had the same training, but had received a degree in engineering, understood the chemical reactions in the work he did, understood both how the plumbing worked and why it worked; which would you want to work on your house?

All indicated they wanted the second.

I believe, at the end of the day, that that is the value of higher education for our industry. Learning the strategy, tactics and tasks cannot come solely from a book.

You have to jump in the seat (as we're not allowed on the back step any longer) and get your hands dirty. But having a degree allows you to learn even more, at a faster pace.

For some of us higher education and additional training allows you to get more out of the experience. Some of us simply had to learn how to learn.

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at

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Keegan Tozaki Keegan Tozaki Saturday, May 10, 2014 4:02:10 AM In a Department that is looking to place much more emphasis on higher education Id have to say this article sums it up. Higher education is good for the fire service. That being said, this is not a career you can learn by just reading a book. You have to get your hands dirty. Every call and every time you turn a wheel you mature a little more as a firefighter. Those who have been here before us are a wealth of knowledge and while they may not have a piece of paper they have definitely been to school. The school of hard knocks , school colors are black and blue. Never devalue that knowledge skill and experience by placing emphasis on a piece of paper that says you can learn. Both are valuable but one needs the other and as such there should be an equal weight placed on both. Now if ou don't mind I have to go run some calls and learn. Great Article!
Douglas Fee Douglas Fee Monday, July 07, 2014 5:29:39 AM I think the key here is to understand what you are really learning when you go to college. All those pieces of paper from college degrees or training certificates or even state licensures show that a person has been shown the right way to do something and therefore when doing it in the field, even though you may not be able to do it exactly like in the class, a person has a solid foundation in the principles of the task and they arent just winging it and hoping for the best outcome. Our job is all about outcomes; that is saving lives or saving property or preventing further loss of either and both. You can learn on the job and you will still save lives and property but if have a solid foundation in training and education when you start the job and get your experience you will save more lives and more property over the extent of your career than that old "salty" guy that claims all his knowledge from experience but cant show you the "right" way to do something in the first place because he never learned it, he only learned what didnt get him killed on scene and thats just not enough in this day and age as a firefighter. Get your foundation built and then get your OJT and you will be squared away, you can have training and education without experience but you should never have experience without some training and education!!
Peggy Ann Roche Peggy Ann Roche Monday, July 07, 2014 7:02:20 PM While higher education is always a plus in life, I think that prior military service is a better pre-rec for the fire service. Self-discipline, and the ability to follow orders, lack in many departments. Those qualities build character, and enable the FF to use education to advance his skills.

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