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Certification shelf life differs for fire and EMS

It is worth exploring if fire-fighting knowledge should have mandatory recertification like EMS

Like many others, I earned my Firefighter I over 15 years ago. Since that time I have done a lot of drills, but have not needed to do anything to keep up my Firefighter I certification.

On the flip side, I earned a paramedic certification six years ago. Since then I have had to take hundreds of hours of CMEs, pass dozens of tests and recertify every two years.

Does this mean my EMS certification is more important than my fire certification? Or does it mean that the fire service does not need to recertify? Maybe drills are enough, and there is no testing needed in the fire service.

I know that if I had to retake the Firefighter I exam today, I would probably have a 50-50 chance of passing it. I have added a lot of certifications and patches since my first course, but I couldn’t even tell you what would be on the Firefighter I exam.

This is probably true for most firefighters, and I am sure the course has changed quite a bit over the past 15 years. The bigger question is whether or not it actually matters if the exam or recertification has any benefit.

Book learning
Firefighter I (or its equivalent) is now the base-level entry requirement for most departments due to regulations or insurance requirements. But it is often seen as just something that you need to get done so that you can really learn how to put out fires.

I remember the “dinosaurs” at my department telling me the book is only good for a wheel chock. I know that most of what we learn comes from experience, but certifications do provide both a knowledge basis and simulated experiences.

The other thing a certification provides is a structured, systematic approach to learning and skill building. On-the-job training and drills are much more haphazard and often do not provide a well-rounded curriculum like a certification program does.

I can’t see a department allowing someone to do EMS without a current EMT or paramedic certification. It is not even an option. This is probably due to a combination of strict regulation and liability issues.

Even basic skills such as CPR require recertification every two years. That is because extensive research shows that we only retain our skills about two weeks after a CPR course, which is true for most skills that are not used regularly.

The book knowledge still has limited applicability day to day, but there is a value.

Certification disparity
The question then becomes, why is it more important to keep up our skills by recertifying, completing formal CMEs and retesting in EMS than in a fire certification?

Maybe it is because a lack of knowledge on the EMS side will have a direct impact on a patient, while on the fire side it is more likely to have an impact on the fireground and our group as a team? Or maybe it is because at a fire there are more of us and a structured chain of command. Or maybe we just assume that whatever drills we do are enough and that we don’t need formal training in firefighting.

I’m not sure what the answer is, but there are a lot of good questions here. I do know that we all need to keep our skills up, both for the sake of our public and our fellow firefighters.

Certifications are a measurable way of demonstrating and maintaining our skills, even if they may seem like a lot of work. With the increasing difficulties behind drilling with live fires, it may be that certification programs are the only opportunity to get real, measurable experience.

What are your thoughts?

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