Is recertification the right thing for the fire service?

The NFPA’s recent proposal to add recertification has reignited the recertification debate


The NFPA is currently considering strengthening recertification requirements in NFPA 1000: Standard for Fire Service Professional Qualifications Accreditation and Certification Systems. A September 2019 NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation (FPRF) report titled “Fire and Emergency Service Personnel Knowledge and Skills Proficiency” shares a good look at the issue, and provides the basis for public comments to be made on the first draft of the 2022 revision of the NFPA 1000 series.

Outcry from some of our constituent organizations was immediate, loud and clear following the report’s release: “Recertification would kill volunteers”; “Recertification would crush budgets”; “Recertification would make people go to other jobs”; and so on.

I ask everyone to step back for a minute, take a breath, and after you consider the facts below, consider this simple question: Is recertification the right thing to do?

In this Sunday, April 14, 2013 photo, firefighters man a hose line during a training burn in Berlin, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
In this Sunday, April 14, 2013 photo, firefighters man a hose line during a training burn in Berlin, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

The short answer is yes; however, there is a much more complex long-term answer.

Understanding the current standards process

The fact is that the existing NFPA 1000, Section 5.2.7, Current Knowledge and Skills Recertification or Renewal, already requires agencies to have a renewal policy. The Section stops short of putting forth specifics or a timeframe on the certification, which separates the current language from the Foundation’s final report recommendations.

I spoke with NFPA Specialist Bob Fash, who offered some clarity to the static we’re hearing in the field: “There was a workshop conducted in October by the FPRF, ‘Workshop: Fire and Emergency Service Personnel Knowledge, Skills and Maintaining Proficiency,’ which used the report as a starting point for discussion purposes. The proceedings of that workshop are still being finalized and will not be available until after the closing date for public inputs to NFPA 1000. The findings and recommendations from the workshop are non-binding and will contain viewpoints expressed by the attendees related to maintaining proficiency.”

Fash added that the revision process is open to anyone to follow and attend the draft meetings. The first draft of the 2022 standard will be published after input from the public comment period is compiled.

Going beyond a one-and-done mentality

We’ve all heard firefighting described as a blue-collar profession that’s not exactly rocket science. Well, I’ll agree it’s not about rockets, but there absolutely is a science to what we do. Whether it’s physical fire science programs, fire investigations, reading smoke, understanding flow path, the art of leadership or command and control, or even the brawn of pulling a 2-year-old baby or a 300-pound victim out of a window, we certainly do have to push ourselves – bodies and minds – to effectively perform our job.

I took my 80-hour Firefighter Basic course as a volunteer in 1982. While I went on to fulfill all of the requirements of the career recruit training and more, with the exception of the OSHA respiratory standards that came along later, as a volunteer there was NOTHING requiring me to do anything more beyond this initial training. While the department or my chief-of-the-day (note turnover sarcasm) might from time to time require some additional training, there was nothing that formally required me to recertify my firefighting skills, ever. I’m not aware of any other public safety profession where you could say the same – not that we have to do as our neighbor does, but we do need to do what’s right for our community.

Circling back to that idea of firefighting being a blue-collar profession, let’s key on the word “profession,” as in “Professional Qualifications” – the NFPA 1001 Standard. And once again, I challenge that the word “professional” has nothing to do with a paycheck.

How can we as an industry possibly get behind the notion that firefighter training is OK with a one-and-done mentality? While many of you are likely thinking, “But chief, I require [this or that],” the fact remains that there is nothing as universally accepted as a requirement to recertify.

To those of you who have adopted a lasting program of recertification, bravo. To those of you who have not adopted a requirement to recertify firefighting standards on some regular basis, there is work to do!

Smaller steps move us in the right direction

This discussion goes back to one of the “next giant leaps” we need to take. In the article “What’s the next ‘giant leap’ for the fire service,” I talk about the need for fire and EMS services to come under one cabinet-level federal agency, as opposed to the bifurcated agency dispersal under which we currently exist. Until then, universal standards are a smaller step we could take without federal involvement. Universal standards with high expectations, whether you’re paid or volunteer, is what’s right for the communities we serve, and it’s what’s right for you and your crew.

Structured recertification might be difficult, it will add some process, and it might add some expense; however, I submit that the NFPA has created a nationally recognized and widely accepted industry standard in NFPA 1001 that very simply SHOULD have a structured recertification element.

Let’s face it, one of the reasons the standard has been so widely accepted is its “one-and-done” structure. While certain organizations implement continuing education or recertification requirements, there has been no universally accepted method to ensure a firefighter’s knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) are kept at the top of their game. At least the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) has robust reaccreditation programs with the CPSE fire officer designations; however, there are few nationally recognized firefighter recertification opportunities.

Finding a way to accomplish the goal

Is recertification the right thing to do? Once again, the simple part of the answer is “yes.” The more complex part is figuring out how to fashion a recertification program that doesn’t break the bank or discourage willing volunteers from participating.

Leadership is key in this discussion, and as the NFPA works through the standards process, there will certainly be many who will opine about the positives and negatives of a recertification standard.

I will never advocate for cutting corners to satisfy a constituency group any more than I would advocate for loading up requirements to satisfy some other group. I will always advocate for what’s right for the communities we serve, what’s right for the safety and wellbeing of our firefighters, and what’s right for the oath we are sworn to uphold.

Editor’s Note: What are your thoughts on the firefighter recertification and CE process? Share your thoughts in the comments below or with the editors at editor@firerescue1.com.

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