Why are so many Firefighters Going Back to School? Research Focuses on Education Trends in the Fire Service
American Military University Professor Robert Ditch recently conducted a research project studying why fire service members are choosing to go back to school. He spoke about his research findings to Fire Chief Magazine during the Officer Development Program at Fire-Rescue International.
Professor Ditch discussed the trends in higher education and the factors influencing fire service members—from chiefs on down the ranks—to get their degrees.
“One thing that we find more and more is the fact that mayors, supervisors, the individuals who hire chief officers are recognizing the need to hire individuals who have parity with the other departments in their jurisdictions: human resources, directors of personnel, accounting, etc. So they want an educated individual who is going to be responsible for their fire service and public safety.”
Professor Ditch also talks about how the fire service has been trying to raise the level of professionalism within the fire service in general. The mechanism to do so, he says, is through higher education.
“It’s through that academic rigor and through the application of academics in the fire service that we will raise the level of professionalism and make the fire service a much stronger advocate for public safety, for our community and society,” he says.
How the Fire Service Culture is Changing
The culture in the fire service has come a long way in terms of its attitude towards education and learning, says Dr. Ditch. “Years ago, when you were going to college and you had to study in fire house you were almost belittled many times by individuals who thought ‘who are you trying to be, Professor?’” he says.
“All those things have changed over time. As a result of the spirit and the culture of the fire service people have grown up and now the fire service recognized it needs to give people time to go to school.”
In addition to time off, many departments are also offering shift changes and sometimes even tuition assistance for those who want to get their degrees. This demonstrates a shift in the value of education within the fire service, says Dr. Ditch.
Research Motivators for Higher Education
But what is ultimately motivating those in the fire service to go back to school? The findings may be surprising.
“It’s not always about pay and promotion,” said Dr. Ditch, rather “it’s often about personal gratification and the desire to learn.”
“That being said, a large number of individuals first go into education thinking they’ll get paid more and promoted, but that is not a strong enough motivator to get them to achieve, it’s a good motivator to get them to begin, but it doesn’t quite get them through the challenges and rigor of academics that they have to go through over the next few years,” he said.
Rather, personal gratification, desire to learn and to do better for themselves are the strongest motivators, he found.
The second biggest motivator involves succession planning. “Chief officers are establishing succession programs, with academic education programs being the baseline in many cases for entry into promotional programs,” he said. Those aspiring to advance must meet these academic qualifications.
The third motivating factor has to do with the presence of EMS in so many fire houses. “Over the years, EMS has brought about a higher level of educated individuals into the fire service,” he says. That has spurred a greater proportion of individuals with fairly high levels of education.
To hear more about Professor Ditch’s research on education in the fire service, watch the video interview here.
About the Professor: Dr. Robert Ditch is a retired Air Force Colonel and a 38-year volunteer firefighter/chief fire officer, EMT/paramedic (since 1974) veteran and homeland security/emergency management instructor. He has been an EMS first-responder firefighter/paramedic in eight fire/EMS agencies in five states. He also teaches Fire Science Management classes at American Military University and American Public University.
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