What’s the future of continuing education in the fire service?

A Fire Protection Research Foundation report offers a potential CE model for the fire service

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I recently read the article 5 debate-worthy questions for fire and EMS members, and question #3 really got my attention: How do education and certification reinforce the professionalism of fire/EMS as a discipline?

The authors explain the problem of fire service personnel resisting professional certifications, which can drive public support for authority, funding and prevention efforts: “The public tends to view professions as tied not only to professional certification and licensure, but also to education, especially at the higher levels, yet many in the fire service routinely argue against mandating educational requirements, either for the discipline or for their own agency.”

I personally believe that the fire service continues to lack a focus on education and certification, so I was particularly interested to read the recent NFPA Fire Protection Research Foundation report Fire and Emergency Service Personnel Knowledge and Skills Proficiency.

A State Fire instructor watches as firefighters spray fire suppressant foam to douse flames on a tanker truck in a simulated oil-spill fire during a drill.
A State Fire instructor watches as firefighters spray fire suppressant foam to douse flames on a tanker truck in a simulated oil-spill fire during a drill. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)

Report background and methods

The goal of this Fire Protection Research Foundation report was to identify, clarify and evaluate the current approaches used in the fire service for proficiency training and continuing education (CE).

As background, the current editions of the NFPA Professional Qualification (ProQual) standards (e.g., NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications and NFPA 1021: Standard for Fire Officer Professional Qualifications) require fire service members to remain current with the knowledge and skills related to their certification. The report’s authors wrote that the need for knowledge and skills proficiency has been expressed in various ways in the NFPA’s ProQual and training standards for more than two decades.

The study assessed approaches used by similar professions (EMS, nursing, law enforcement and teaching). Based on these findings, a CE model was developed, and stakeholders were surveyed to determine the impact of implementing this CE model in the fire service.

Detailing the CE model

The last paragraph from the Executive Summary reads as follows: “These continuing education programs [from law enforcement, EMS, and nursing fields that were evaluated in the study], along with the NFPA standards, most commonly required recurrent training on an annual basis. Considering all the professions and average hourly requirements, a 24-hour per year certification ‘renewal’ model was recommended for firefighters. The continuing education program would include a minimum of one live-fire training per year, as well as methods to evaluate all associated job performance requirements. A variety of methods could be used to support completion of continuing education requirements, including face-to-face and online training.”

A survey of stakeholders showed that the impact of this proposed renewal model would be positive to very positive. On the other hand, there was more negative feedback from those same stakeholders about the impact on completion of existing CE requirements, especially for those individuals who hold multiple NFPA ProQual certifications, with each requiring continuing education credits.

Understanding the study – and what’s next

I had the opportunity to discuss the report and its results with the project co-leaders, Jamie McAllister, a fire protection engineer and toxicologist, and Brian McAllister, a fire captain. The McAllisters are co-owners of FireTox, LLC, the contractor chosen to conduct the study by NFPA’s Fire Protection Research Foundation. Jamie shared several insights with me about the study.

Robert Avsec: Tell us a little bit about this study.

Jamie McCallister: The NFPA Research Foundation study panel included people from Pro Board and International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC) as well as people from the NFPA Professional Qualifications Technical Committee.  I think their interest in all of this was to get an understanding the current state of the art when it comes to CE and proficiency within the fire service – and really trying to figure out where do we go from here, based on where we currently are.

What were the questions the Research Foundation tasked you with answering?

They were largely focused on current practice. What do the NFPA standards say that we're supposed to be doing with regards to CE? What is the fire service currently doing with regards to CE? And then what are other types of similar professions (e.g., EMS, law enforcement, nursing) doing when it comes to CE. Then taking all that data and massaging it out to determine what a CE model might look like for the fire service if we were basing it off that data.

Where did that discussion go? What direction did the data point you?

The model that we've developed was largely weighted on what is currently happening in the fire service, knowing also that it's the proposed model compatible to what other professions are also doing. And that's kind of where we ended up with regards to how we develop the model that we did.

Was there any one thing that stood out during your work on this project?

I think what was most interesting is that we found out that NFPA 1000: Standard for Fire Service Professional Qualifications Accreditation and Certification Systems has required the certifying entities to have a policy to address CE for the certification that they issue for over two decades [NFPA 1000, 1997 edition].

We also found that 20 out of 50 states had policies regarding CE for firefighters. Now there are likely other policies out there at the local level that we didn't have access to, but just looking at the state-level programs, and most fire service certification takes place at the state level except for some larger cities or counties – and 20 out of 50 is what we came up with.

What did you find as you looked beyond the numbers?

We've always really had this requirement [CE for all certifications], but it appears that not very many certifying entities are complying with it. We learned that every state and every Canadian province had at least one certifying entity [Pro Board or IFSAC] and in some cases more than one, which implies that there should be CE programs in place for each one of those entities that addresses this issue.

Did anything really stick out in your mind as you conducted the study?

I think it’s the justification that we need to home in more closely on this and have those certifying entities, whether they’re Pro Board or IFSAC, working more closely to develop an approach that will work across all the states and provinces.

That was something that came up in our discussions with the panel and the Research Foundation because one of the advantages of having a Pro Board or IFSAC certification, say Firefighter II, is that, in theory, I can then take that and I can go anywhere I want to go because it should really mean the same thing across state lines. So, then the question becomes, “If we're not doing the same thing with regards to CE, what does that certification really mean?”

The study also looked at what other professions currently require for CE, correct?

One of the things that came out of our discussions during those workshops was the recognition that the fire service is a profession. So, when we looked at some parallel professions – for police, for nursing, for EMS, for teachers – they all have CE requirements, and largely across every state, there is something in place that says you must do this to maintain your certifications.

So, the idea that the fire service is in its infancy when it comes to CE, I think that’s very interesting given the fact that CE for certifications has been on the books for more than 20 years [NFPA 1000, 1997 edition].

Based on what you learned conducting this study, what do you think is one of the bigger challenges for the fire service going forward?

I think without a doubt it’s multiple certifications and what would be required to maintain those multiple certifications. For example, you’ve got someone who’s certified to Firefighter II, and then they become certified as a Fire Inspector and Investigator, and after a few more years, they earn their Fire Officer certification. That person could be looking at four sets of CE requirements to maintain their certifications. So, we think that is one of the bigger issues that needs to be addressed before anyone starts working on CE requirements for any one type of certification.

So, what comes next?

We’ve delivered the findings of our study to the sponsors [the NFPA Fire Research Foundation], and they’re in the process of evaluating our findings and determining what are those next steps.

What we took away from those discussions in the workshops conducted for the study was that NFPA 1000’s requirement – for those certifying entities (e.g., state training academies) to have a policy to address CE for the certifications they grant – probably needs to be revised to provide those certifying entities with a clearer picture of what that policy should address. The requirement has been in the standard since the 1997 edition of NFPA 1000, but it’s very nebulous, which is likely why currently only certifying entities in 20 out of 50 states have any CE requirements for the certifications they grant.

On a second level, every NFPA ProQual standard has language like that found in the fire officer standard: The fire officer at all levels of progression shall remain current with the general knowledge and skills and job performance requirements addressed in the level of qualification [NFPA 1021, 1.3.5]. But for each of those standards, there’s currently nothing that describes what it takes for an individual to remain current and how to go about getting it done. So, a likely scenario is that those individual standards committees will revise their standards to include the CE requirements for a standard and how an individual can meet those CE requirements.

Setting the expectation of continued learning

For many years I’ve believed that the fire service has needed to address the need for CE, particularly if we want the fire service to be viewed as a profession. But being called a profession also requires that those professionals engage in continuous learning and improvement. We expect that from our paramedics, our nurses, our lawyers and other professionals in our lives. We should expect no less from our firefighters and fire officers.

Editor's Note: What do you think about the NFPA's proposed approach to continuing education? Share your thoughts in the comments below or at editor@firerescue1.com.

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