Trending Topics

Firefighter ranks and the right time to become an educator

Based on different structures of fire service ranks, education and experience level matter in climbing the firefighter career ladder


While initial firefighter training for those entering the service often occurs after appointment to a position, many small urban departments now require fire and EMS training prior to appointment.

Photo/San Diego Unified School District

By Randall Hanifen, faculty member, Emergency & Disaster Management at American Military University

In a recent conversation with a retired fire chief, the subject of what time in a firefighting career is a good time to become an educator came up. The fire chief believed becoming an educator for executive fire officers as a company officer was impractical, due to an inability to understand the concepts that would be presented.

For example, the fire chief said that a company officer could not possibly understand interactions occurring at the command level of a large-scale event or the activities that need to occur in an emergency operations center. However, this statement raised my blood pressure.

I informed him that at a lieutenant’s rank, I served as the planning section chief for a Type 3 Incident Management Team and a taskforce leader for a FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team. I also assisted with writing curriculum and supporting text for the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education Disaster Planning and Control course.

His reply was that I was unique. Sometimes, you just have to agree to disagree. But this conversation made me consider his perspective and I saw his point, to some degree.

Firefighter training after appointment

While initial firefighter training for those entering the service often occurs after appointment to a position, many small urban departments now require fire and EMS training prior to appointment. This requirement has both positive and negative aspects.

The positive aspect is that you are 100 percent sure an individual can pass the intense training programs, since they have already. The negative aspect is that many great people with the right values and traits cannot afford extra schooling with the hopes of receiving a position with the department and work in another profession at the same time. This situation often limits the choice of firefighters entering the service just out of high school.

However, after someone achieves a rank, it is almost assured that any training and education occurs after the appointment. While some forward-thinking departments require certain educational and training accomplishments in order to qualify for testing, this practice is far from common.

Often, getting a degree or taking officer training courses adds points to your career or your education helps you score higher on established tests. Nearly all states do not have certification or educational requirement for fire officers as they do for firefighters. As a result, this training prior to appointment will only be self-driven by the department for the foreseeable future.

Fire service rank structure

One of the largest factors that affects firefighter advancement is the rank structure of an organization. In many large metropolitan departments, the number of chief officers is plentiful. The likelihood of a company officer serving in a chief’s role until official appointment is very small.

However, even in large metropolitan departments, the acting battalion chief can be a company officer. In this case, the company officer may be only one to two ranks from the fire chief on a frequent basis.

Some smaller organizations throughout the United States have fewer levels of management. Jack Parrow, former president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), stated that when he promoted to fire chief, it was from the rank of captain due to the flat organizational structure of the department. In this case, the company officer may be the acting fire chief on a regular basis, depending on the activity schedule of the regularly appointed fire chief.

Different job responsibilities of the positions is another rank structure issue. A captain may be the shift commander of a five-station operation or the captain could be selected from the first rank of the company officers. It is important to review the four levels of fire officer as presented in NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications and determine the appropriate level, rather than look at someone’s rank.

Related experience and firefighter training

My retired fire chief had a great point from his perspective of a large organization with many layers of management. It is unlikely that the company officer in his organization had ever seen an EOC or would even be required to take the Advanced ICS Command and General Staff-Complex Incidents (ICS-400) course, which would make the concepts of ICS/EOC interface and large-scale command a foreign concept.

At best, company officers may have acquired knowledge from a book. However, having related experience and a training background is key to teaching new subjects.

If a company officer has a large cognitive basis for executive-level concepts, how long will it be before he or she is able to apply this executive education? Does some of the executive-level education cross over to the necessary knowledge at the company officer level?

Perspectives are built on a basis of education and experience. It would be great if the different ranks understood each other more and had more cohesive thoughts.

About the Author
Dr. Randall W. Hanifen is a shift captain for the West Chester Fire Department in Ohio and a fire service consultant. He is also a faculty member at American Military University, teaching courses in its Emergency & Disaster Management program. He has a B.S. in Fire Administration, a M.S. in Fire Service Executive Leadership, and a Ph.D. in Executive Management of Homeland Security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control.” Randall serves as the executive chairperson of a County Technical Rescue Team, a taskforce Leader for FEMA’s Ohio Task Force 1 US&R team, and is the vice-chair of IAFC Company Officers Section. He serves as a member of NFPA 1021 Fire Officer and NFPA 1026 Incident Management committees. He is credentialed as a fire officer by the Center for Public Safety Excellence and has been accepted as a fellow to the Institute of Fire Engineers. Randall has provided presentations and trainings for the Ohio Fire Chief’s Association, Fire Rescue International, Emergency Management Institute and the IAFC Board of Directors. To contact the author, send an email to For more articles featuring insight from industry experts, subscribe to In Public Safety’s bi-monthly newsletter.

In Public Safety is an American Military University (AMU) sponsored blog that features analysis and commentary on issues relating to law enforcement, emergency management, fire services and national intelligence. This blog features in-depth discussions authored by leading experts with decades of experience in their field. To stay updated on blog posts and other news relevant to these sectors, please follow us on Facebook by “liking” AMU & APUS Public Safety Programs. You can also follow us on our sector-specific Twitter accounts: @AMUPoliceEd, @AMUFireEd, @AMUDisasterEd, @AMUIntelStudies.