Fire chief debate: Book smarts vs street smarts

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Billy Hayes

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

It really doesn't matter which you think is right, there will be someone who will argue the opposite. It's one of the oldest questions that mankind continues to debate.

Which is more important: training and experience or formal education? That's right, the chicken and egg have nothing on this fire service debate.

While this isn't a new conversation, it is one that has re-emerged with the story of a group of volunteer firefighters who quit their department because the fire chief who was hired lacked training certifications and abundance of experience, but possessed formal education.

The chief's argument was that success in his role is determined by how good of an administrator he is, not how good he is at tactical and strategic firefighting.

As always, the story is just the starting point. It's the comments and blogs that follow where the debate really heats up.

So what is the right answer?

Tale of two chiefs
When I first entered the fire service, my fire chief, whom I will always respect for giving me my shot, was a retired member of a large urban department. He had a great amount of firefighting experience and was respected accordingly. He was a salty old captain who brought his previous department's way of doing things into his fire chief role.

However, as city managers came and went, he found greater difficulty speaking their language, articulating our needs, and building relationships with the new breed of managers that the city was hiring. As such, he became more frustrated and eventually stepped down to a shift commander's position.

In came a new chief from the outside, a man whom I equally respect for the opportunities he allowed me to pursue. However, this chief was an instructor with the state fire academy and although he had experience as a firefighter/medic with many of those who served in the organization, he was hired because of his education.

The new chief was able to communicate much more effectively with the city manager, as well as the mayor and council. He possessed a graduate degree, which automatically gave him credibility, despite his level of experience and training.

Despite his effectiveness, this created debate in the firehouse as to which was more important: experience and training or education.

My hot seat
Fast forward a few years, when I was named fire chief of a department in the same county. I possessed a degree and training, but certainly had less experience than many of the people I was leading.

I was hired to implement external change, build a relationship with upper management, and address the organization's needs. I made many mistakes as I was growing in my position, as there was no real fire chief school other than trial and error, in many cases.

Similar to when I was a firefighter skeptical of an educated chief replacing my experienced chief, there were many who felt the same about me.

So what is the right answer? Is it experience and training? Is it education? Or, is it balance of all three?

Striking a balance
I know there are still departments where seniority is the sole basis for promotion. Trust me, I have known many 20-year firefighters with only one year of training and experience. That's not going to get you a bigger dinner plate at the city or county manager's table, or on the mayor's cabinet.

Times have changed.

On one of my recent radio shows, I hosted Chief Rich Marinucci of Northville Township, Mich., who was also the former chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration and past-president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. In addition, Dr. Scott Rounds from Columbia Southern University and Dr. Burton Clark (retired from the National Fire Administration) joined in for the discussion.

What do we want in today's fire chief? In our discussion, we all agreed, today's fire chief must have it all, but an education is imperative. You can listen to the show here.

Most career departments now require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, with a master's preferred. Executive Fire Officer as well as Chief Fire Officer Designation (CFO) are also common minimum requirements. Minimum experience expectations are typically in the 10-year range.

So what has changed? What happened to the days of seniority, when 20 years of experience was enough?

Professional grade
Don't misunderstand me, training and experience are not only necessary, they are essential.

But today's fire service has become more scientific. It has become more data-driven. It has become more research-based. In other words, it has become more of a business.

That's not often very popular to say because we still enjoy fighting fire, responding to calls, and getting the adrenaline rush. We are still public servants, but there is more emphasis placed on being a professional than ever before. As such, the fire chief's boss has higher expectations of him or her, thus pushing education to the top of the list.

Those expectations include budget and human resource management, risk reduction, policy development, and strategic planning just to name a few.

Risk reduction, in particular, is an area worth a closer look. Better known as firefighter safety, risk reduction is an example of where formal education has a street-level impact.

A well-educated chief can conduct and interpret new firefighter safety research. That chief can write new safety policy and push administrators for the funding to put research-driven policy into place, be it through new equipment or training. The well-educated chief has the administrative skills to implement that policy in the department.

What is a better measure of a good fire chief than the ability to reduce firefighter deaths and injuries? Isn't that where the rubber meets the road?

The impact of education
Fire chiefs who have demonstrated a commitment to education and obtained college degrees have acquired the skillsets to conduct research and analysis to not only meet expectations placed upon them, but to make their department and their community better.

Now, working at Columbia Southern University, I see every day how education impacts the fire service. I have the honor and privilege of hearing from fire chiefs, company officers and firefighters who share their stories of how their degrees prepared them for promotion, put them in positions of opportunity, and enhanced their careers.

In many cases, it prepares them for their next career after the fire service.

Ultimately, it takes a balance of education, experience and training. There must be a foundation of training and experience of the trade and profession we know as the fire service. Today's fire chief needs to understand resource deployment, the needs of the men and women who proudly ride those rigs and fight the fight every day.

Equally, today's fire chiefs needs to have the educational and political skillset to acquire those resources and work with their bosses to enhance the internal and external customer service delivery. It's not the fire chiefs' role to be on the nozzle, work the pump or ventilate the roof.

It's their job to make sure every firefighter goes home in the same condition they arrived. It's their job to get the resources, training and deployment model to make it safer for all involved, not to mention lobby for the pay increases and benefit packages in a calculated and educated manner.

For years we have complained that the cops have always had a better seat at the table. They get better pay, vehicles, equipment and more respect.

Police chiefs have long been ahead of the educational curve that the fire service is now entering. That's why they are often the public safety directors or city managers.

Now it's our time. Let's not permit the "we've always done it this way" mindset of our culture and tradition to be our barrier to being the best. Let us celebrate our experience, let us demonstrate our training, and let us embrace education as the future of our fire service.

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