‘What do you mean I have to start at the bottom? I have a degree’
A cautionary tale for fire service personnel who are just starting in their careers
It has become increasingly common for recruits to come into the fire service with college degrees, and as previous articles have detailed, this is good for the profession. However, new personnel should tread carefully, understanding what a degree does and does not mean for their career trajectory or pace.
So, what does it mean for the recruit who enters the firehouse for the first time, equipped with basic firefighter training and college education? It means nothing at this point. Yes, the degree may have been beneficial in the recruit’s quest to stand out from other candidates during the initial hiring process. The degree will also undoubtedly be an asset for the recruit once promotional opportunities become available. However, as a recruit in the firehouse, the degree really has no meaning, especially to the senior members of the crew.
The fire service is a business where everyone starts at the same place. It doesn't matter if you have a high school diploma, GED, associate degree, bachelor’s or master’s degree, or a Ph.D. If prospective members meet the minimum educational requirements for the department and complete myriad other conditions, they just might get hired. Everyone starts as a recruit. Everyone receives the same training. The degree does not earn any privilege in the firehouse. A recruit’s regular job duties will generally involve the dirtiest, hottest, coldest and wettest jobs around the station – in other words, the least desirable station duties.
None of this is to say that a degree won’t help someone joining the fire service. Quite the opposite is true. It’s easy to find multiple examples of fire service personnel that owe much of their career success to attaining a degree. However, until a member gets to the point in their career where their educational background is necessary for either administrative or operational purposes, most of their peers won’t care if they have a degree or not.
A simple tip: Don’t boast
The beginning of your fire service career is not the time to flaunt a degree. Rather it’s an opportunity to learn. Learn operations, public relations, and how to operate as team member. If you’re going to flaunt anything, it should be a willingness to adapt, an eagerness to serve, and a commitment to give their best effort to the task. These are all attributes that really can’t be taught; either you have them or you don’t.
The fact that you’ve earned your degree shows that you can be a critical thinker and remain focused on an important goal. Many students come out of their degree programs with solid writing skills. Put these attributes to work to become a helpful crewmember. Maybe one of the senior members hates writing reports. Offer to take a few off their plate. Offer to put your research skills to work to help solve a problem. Show off your study skills by diving into learning your department’s standard operating procedures/guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) and even the streets in your response area.
A tale of two new members
Suppose two people begin their fire service careers at the same time. They were hired, graduated from the academy, and are assigned to the same station. One went to college and earned a degree in fire science, while the other joined the military right out of high school and spent the enlistment as a culinary specialist on a state-side base.
Both recruits come into the station at the same rank and with the same basic firefighting and emergency medical skills.
After introductions to the crew, the former culinary specialist is not likely to bring up the military service very much. Unless, of course, there’s a specialty to be created in the firehouse kitchen. Why is this likely going to be the scenario? First, the former culinary specialist is used to the military rank structure and understands that new personnel start at the bottom and work their way up. Second, while they should be proud of their military service and willingness to serve the nation, the four years as a military cook at a state-side base isn’t the most exciting job to discuss. It might come up once in a while as part of another conversation, but it is unlikely to be the main topic.
On the other hand, the college graduate will probably have more opportunities to inject some “tidbits of knowledge” into the day-to-day operations in the firehouse. After all, this person completed coursework related to building construction, hydraulics, investigation, and personnel management. If the senior members are training the new personnel effectively, all of those topics will likely be part of the firehouse curriculum. So, the possibility of interjecting a vast amount of book knowledge into the field-level, hands-on training is alive and well for the degree holder.
This situation begs the question, “Just because you can do something, should you?” The answer here is “probably not.” Nobody likes a know-it-all, and the last thing your crewmembers want to hear is a “point of fact” from the rookie. A much better course of action is to follow the lead of the former culinary specialist. Keep your mouth shut, absorb all you can, and be a good team member. Resist the urge to talk about all that you learned in your books. It may be well-intentioned, but it will probably sound like bragging. That is not the way to start your fire service career.
Think about someone who earned their degree in early childhood education and has just started their first teaching job. Do you think the new teacher will be sitting at the lunch table with some of the other teachers, talking about the finer aspects of higher education? Probably not! They’ll probably be chatting about a problem student they’ve all had, plans for the weekend, or a movie everyone wants to see.
Be proud, but let your work tell your story
When you first step into the firehouse, armed with your degree, you should be proud. Earning that degree is no small feat, and now you’ve hit the lottery with the best job in the world. But that pride needs to be tempered with a healthy dose of humility. Let your attitude and work ethic tell your story and build your reputation. The degree will show its value soon enough, and you probably won’t have to say anything.