Higher education for the fire service

CarolinaFireJournal - Bonita Waters
Bonita Waters Greenville Technical College
07/25/2010 -

Nothing stays the same and the fire service is no exception. Even while maintaining a sense of tradition the fire service has evolved into a complex provider of multiple services. The general public expects more from their first responders today than in previous decades.  The community expects their first responders to protect them, educate them, and manage fire department budgets in a responsible manner. Higher education gives the fire service a way to meet these expectations, and provide an educational path beyond that of basic firefighter.


The National Fire Academy has made a clear commitment to higher education. It created the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education (FESHE) programs to help support this effort and provide a national model. College programs that follow this model give firefighters an advanced education in fire related areas and a degree in Fire Science or Fire Administration. The general education courses that are part of these degrees build a well-rounded person along with providing courses related directly to the fire service. Even with the model there are still many variations of higher education degrees available for members of the fire service.

The reasons for pursuing higher education are well documented, but understanding that a college education is beneficial and taking the first step to apply can be intimidating. The idea of attending college classes after years away from school often makes adult students nervous. Add to that the number of options available to today’s firefighters and the whole process can be overwhelming. The best advice is to ask a lot of questions. Then take it one step at a time.

The ability to take classes online has created access for people who never considered college an option. The fire service has benefited greatly from the increase in online programs.

However, there are important factors to consider when taking online classes. Online classes are an excellent option but there are some things that the online experience cannot duplicate. Face to face contact and interaction for example. Also, remember that there is generally more reading involved in an online class. Procrastination can complicate the online experience, whereas traditional classes have a high accountability level for attendance. Be realistic about how much time you are going to need to successfully complete the course. The next step is to decide which college or university is the best fit for you.

Accreditation is an important consideration. There is no single accrediting agency for colleges and universities.  To simply ask a representative of an institution if their school is accredited is not enough. Regionally accredited schools will generally only accept credits from other regionally accredited schools. This is important to note for several reasons. First and foremost never make the assumption that the degree you are currently pursuing will be the only degree you ever want.  After earning your associate degree you may very well decide a bachelor’s degree is the next step. The same is true if you are currently pursuing a bachelor degree. That master’s degree that seems very unlikely to your future may one day be a necessity. You don’t want to find out when you decide to pursue an advanced degree program that none of the credits you’ve earned will transfer. In the southeast the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is the regional accreditation agency.

Another important part of attending college is applying for financial aid.  In order to determine eligibility for federal aid a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) must be completed. Remember that the first “F” in FAFSA stands for FREE. There are several “look-a-like websites” that will charge you to file your FAFSA.  Be sure you use the official website- www.fafsa.gov. Remember that the FAFSA is for federal financial aid. You will be applying for the Pell grant, loans, and work study when you file your FAFSA. If you are not eligible for this aid, remember that there is other aid available from other sources that you may qualify for. Check with the financial aid advisor at your school to learn about state funds that may be available, as well as funds available through your school. Also, if you are currently working or volunteering as a firefighter check with your department, local chiefs’ association, and state firefighters’ associations. Money is at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days. The cost of tuition may seem like an unnecessary expense that you cannot afford right now. Remember that tuition for college is an expense but it is also an investment. It’s an investment in you and your future. Take the time to find out if there is assistance out there for you before you decide not to pursue your college degree. Finding out if you are eligible for financial aid from the federal government or other sources will take time and effort on your part, but you may find the payoff to be well worth the effort

In addition to these steps there are many other considerations when beginning college. It is tempting to look at how many courses it takes to complete a degree and have one of two reactions, the desire to take as many classes as possible or think why even start. Neither of these is a very good option. As a firefighter you work full-time and possibly have a second job, not to mention family obligations. Overloading your classes can lead to frustration, disappointment, withdrawing from courses or worse, failure. Not starting guarantees never earning a college degree. Instead, proceed with moderation. Take one to two courses to start. Then add more classes the next semester if you feel you can handle it.

There are several online programs available nationwide. State by state requirements differ but higher education is becoming the expectation rather than the exception. Last year Greenville Technical College began offering the first Fire Science associate degree in South Carolina. The degree offers training for those wanting to enter the fire service and accepts IFSAC training for FFI and FFII from those who are already members of the fire service. General education courses, such as English and math may be completed in traditional classroom format or online. All of the advanced level Fire Science courses are offered online.

If you would like more information about the program you may contact Todd Milam at 864-228-5004 or [email protected].
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