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The USFA and NFA: The foundation of fire service professionalism

How these institutions changed firefighting – and my career trajectory


The NFA has certainly changed over time, but its overall mission remains the same: to promote the professionalism of the U.S. fire service through training, education, research, networking and expanding our personal growth.

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While several people and events helped make a difference in my fire service career, the biggest outside influence has been the National Fire Academy (NFA). Both the NFA and I have been connected to the American fire service for more than 40 years.

‘America Burning’

The basis for much of how today’s U.S. Fire Administration supports the fire service stems from America Burning,” the September 1972 report by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control. The report was issued about the same time I was returning from Vietnam as a captain in the U.S. Air Force, and President Richard Nixon was about to win his ill-fated second term.

“America Burning” not only outlined the need for a U.S. Fire Administration to assess the needs of the fire service nationally, but also specifically called for a national academy to educate fire service leaders on better ways to attack the increasing numbers of destructive and fatal fires across our country.

In time, the current site of the National Fire Academy was purchased from Mount St. Mary’s College, then a women’s college in Emmitsburg, Maryland.

The NFA experience

In the mid-1980s, the NFA was not yet on every firefighter’s radar. To increase awareness, the NFA sponsored state-specific weekends featuring basic classes that could appeal to a wide array of firefighters and officers. It was on one of those Ohio weekends that I first attended the NFA.

Across Ohio, firefighters loaded into buses at various pick-up. We arrived at the academy just before midnight, for classes on Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the return trip to our original pick-up areas.

In these early years, the accommodations were not exactly what you would expect in a dormitory today – two-person bedrooms, with a single common shower and restroom facility down the hall on each floor. Only years later were these dorms reworked for more individual privacy. But in a way, this original arrangement led to networking as our roommate was usually from a different department that was situated in another part of the State.

These first classes that I attended focuses mostly on topics related to fire prevention, but even then, the classes touched on prevention within our community, not merely individual or family safety.

Executive Fire Officer Program opens eyes

Friend and fellow officer Bruce Smith, who was part of the inaugural class of the Executive Fire Officer (EFO) program, persistently suggested that I too apply for the program. I really had to think about the multi-year commitment, but signing up was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

By then, three instructors – Dr. Burton Clark, Don Manno and Chuck Burkell – conducted most of the classes. The ideas and topics discussed opened our eyes to the possibilities of the future fire service – things we take for granted today, such as hazmat, USAR, paramedicine, technical rescue and more. It also struck home about our need to be better at overcoming fire and life safety barriers with smoke detectors and home sprinkler systems.

But the experience was more than the classes. Networking with fellow students and being mentored by the instructors started to make a difference in my fire service career. For example, Manno convinced me that in a jurisdiction the size of mine, fire service resources needed to be applied to both a permanent Fire Inspection Bureau and to public education, or what we now call community risk reduction. Don was truly prophetic.

Expertise and education at NFA

Burkell, and later Ken Farmer, were instrumental in having me return to instruct or to be a subject matter expert (SME) for developing new classes such as “Politics and the White Helmet.” Later, Burkell added me to his team of evaluators for the needs assessment conducted by FEMA for the FDNY following 9/11.

But it was Dr. Clark who repeatedly encouraged me to work toward a master’s degree. Little did I know where that would lead me. I finished that degree in 1995.

The Harvard experience

Beginning in the 1990s, the USFA, in conjunction with the NFPA, offered several summer scholarships to the Kennedy School for State and Local Government at Harvard University. After applying several times, in 1995 I was offered a chance to interview for a scholarship and ultimately selected to attend the school. Also selected were Chief Otis Latin of the District of Columbia Fire Department, Assistant Chief Darrell Higuchi of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and then Training Chief Debra Amesqua of the Tallahassee (Florida) Fire Department.

The Harvard experience not only reinforced what I had learned at the NFA but clearly showed the interoperability recommended to state and local government entities in planning for the future. It was clear that the Harvard experience helped me be selected from a well-qualified field of applicants for the position of state fire marshal in Ohio four years later. It also helped me more easily transition back to being a municipal fire chief when I left that position.

The National Fire Academy today

The NFA has changed some of its delivery to online courses, in part due to the COVID pandemic. I still recommend the on-campus experience whenever possible. My reasoning:

  1. As stated before, you’ll have the opportunity to network. Today, I am still in contact with several individuals from my NFA days. We float ideas and discuss new operational procedures with each other regularly over email.
  2. The NFA takes us away from our routine fire department duties and gives us time to focus fully on the importance of the course work. For your department, there may be an expense involved, perhaps overtime to fill your spot, but it will pay off in the long term. My family and my chief understood that – and I hope yours does too.

The NFA has certainly changed over time, but its overall mission remains the same: to promote the professionalism of the U.S. fire service through training, education, research, networking and expanding our personal growth. I strongly recommend the NFA to all of you.

Stay safe!


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Chief Robert R. Rielage, CFO, EFO, FIFireE, is the former Ohio fire marshal and has been a chief officer in several departments for more than 30 years. A graduate of the Kennedy School’s Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at Harvard University, Rielage holds a master’s degree in public administration from Norwich University and is a past-president of the Institution of Fire Engineers – USA Branch. He has served as a subject-matter expert, program coordinator and evaluator, and representative working with national-level organizations, such as FEMA, the USFA and the National Fire Academy. Rielage served as a committee member for NFPA 1250 and NFPA 1201. In 2019, he received the Ohio Fire Service Distinguished Service Award. Rielage is currently working on two books – “On Fire Service Leadership” and “A Practical Guide for Families Dealing with a Fire or Police LODD.” Connect with Rielage via email.