Dr. Denis Onieal on Higher Education in the Fire Service

A Higher Grade
Dr. Denis Onieal shares his thoughts on higher education in the fire service

Across most industries in the United States, the last 50 years have seen a gradual emphasis on the need for education beyond a high school diploma or even an associate’s degree or a technical certification. More and more jobs require four-year degrees. The fire service is not immune to this trend, and as a result, we’ve seen more company officers returning to school for their bachelor’s degrees, and more chiefs pursuing master’s and even doctoral degrees. But all this education produces new questions. Who, exactly, should pursue a higher education? And how do individuals ensure that the degree they receive will be universally accepted by any department? Most importantly, what role does higher education play in the advancement of the fire service as a whole?


Listen to more of this interview.

To answer these questions, FireRescue’s Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach went directly to the source: Dr. Denis Onieal, superintendent of the National Fire Academy. Following are portions of their conversation.

Tim Sendelbach: What advice would you give to someone in the early stages of their career who says, “Why should I pursue higher education if I don’t intend to promote?”

Denis Onieal: I hear that question a lot myself. If it’s your choice that you don’t want to promote any higher than you are already, you’re probably not interested in training and education; you’re probably interested in dragging wet hose into burning buildings—and we need people like that, we certainly do. But the reality is, the fire service in America typically grows its own. We don’t get someone with an MBA from the financial system coming in to manage a fire department.

To the young person who’s coming up, I’d respectfully suggest that you don’t know what the future’s going to bring. You might feel that way now, when you’re 21 or 22 years old, but you might feel completely different about promotion when you’re 35 and you’ve got three children, all of whom need braces and a college education.

TS: If I have little to no previous college work, what’s the fastest path to earning a credible degree?
DO: There’s really no rush in getting the degree. The big warning that I’d give is to make sure that the school you choose is a school that’s regionally accredited. There are great online schools that are regionally accredited, there are great classroom schools that are regionally accredited, and there are combinations, schools that take both online and classroom attendance. But the big issue isn’t doing it fast; it’s doing it right.

TS: What’s the difference between regional and national accreditation?
DO: Regional accreditation goes back to the 1870s or 1880s. It was a process by which schools were evaluated on a whole host of things—funding, research, faculty, etc. National accreditation, in my view, is a step down. If these schools could get regional accreditation, they would. So the question isn’t, is there anything wrong with national accreditation? The question is, why aren’t these schools regionally accredited?

My recommendation to students: You’re buying an expensive product. If I was buying a car, I would talk to my friends, and I would talk to people who are getting serviced by that dealer. I would look at the NHSTA ratings for safety. I’d do the same things before entering an education program. What’s your curriculum? Do you follow the National Fire Academy FESHE [Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education] model? Who are your professors? What are their credentials? All of those things. Because believe me, a college education is way more expensive than a car, and it’s going to last a lifetime. I know people who got degrees from questionable schools and they are still dealing with that. There is a hierarchy, like it or not, in education, and if someone says to me, I got my degree from West Speed Bump College in Butte, Mont., that says something to me, as opposed to having a degree from Eastern Kentucky University or New York University. I’d hate for any of our brothers or sisters to be labeled for the rest of their lives with a degree from a school that’s not held in very high regard.

TS: Explain what’s meant by the term “nontraditional credit.”
DO: Right now, Congress is investigating a number of for-profit schools because of dishonest practices in recruitment, particularly of veterans coming back from war and enrolling in college under the GI bill. They’re telling students, if you did basic training and were overseas for a year, we’ll give you a year’s credit toward your degree. That’s probably noble; most of the schools that I know of that are regionally accredited will give you specific credits for service. For example, I got three college credits for physical fitness because I was an Army veteran. But it’s a nebulous area. If a school is going to give you three years of college credit for life experience, it’s probably too good to be true. Buyer beware—the key point is regional accreditation.

TS: Where does the NFA fit into higher education?
DO: For about 12 years now, we’ve worked with the state and local training systems and the colleges and universities in a program called FESHE—Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education. We’ve standardized the two-year degree programs and the four-year degree programs, so that a student who starts a program in Eastern Kentucky University and then moves to Colorado State can transfer the credits, because they’re all the same courses.

One of the tenets of a profession is a body of knowledge, the second is a system to acquire that knowledge, the third is that it’s accredited and recognized. So, we worked with book publishers that publish fire service textbooks, and they’re all following the model for the two- and four-year programs. We’ve worked with the IAFC to identify skills and competencies required for all levels, from firefighter to chief, and those all tie in to the programs.

TS: To me, FESHE is a monumental leap for the fire service, standardizing a curriculum so that we speak the same lingo and we learn the same things. Do you agree?
DO: If you look at other professions—medicine, law, nursing, architecture, teaching—they don’t learn different things. If you learn brain surgery in New York, you can practice brain surgery in Texas. If you’re a lawyer in California, you can practice law in Michigan. So why shouldn’t it be that a fire service professional who’s trained in Georgia would be equally trained in Montana?

But we come into the department, and you learn to raise a 35' ladder. You move to another department, and they want to train you on how to use a 35' ladder all over again. That’s pretty wasteful, particularly when we’re talking about the volunteer service. A volunteer department in Montana says, “Oh no, forget everything you learned in Georgia. We want you to go through this training again.” That’s a disincentive; people are just not going to do that again, any more than doctors would be willing to go back to medical school because they moved from Maine to Massachusetts.

That’s really what we’re trying to get to, this professional status, this uniform body of knowledge that’s acquired through a uniform system.

TS: We’re seeing more fire chiefs pursuing higher education to the extreme, getting doctoral degrees—is that taking it too far?
DO: I see a couple things going on. First, I’m very, very encouraged by the men and women I see coming up in the fire service. Second, there will always be levels of professionalism as you go up through the process. Every fire chief in America does not need a doctorate. There will always be the high school dropout who got a GED in the Marine Corps who will be one of the best chiefs this country has ever seen.

But what you will begin to see, and already have, is that the municipalities that are hiring people are using education as a line of demarcation. They’ll have 50 applicants, and 40 of them will have high school diplomas, five of them will have bachelor’s degrees, four of them will have master’s degrees and one of them will have a doctorate. They’ll look a little closer at the person with the doctorate or the candidates with the master’s degrees than they will those with the bachelor’s degrees. The level of education is really telling that employer that this person has taken the initiative to acquire new knowledge, and it’s been formalized and recognized by a regionally accredited body.

TS: What’s the NFA’s position on where we’re going with higher education?
DO: There will come a time, not in my lifetime, when this fire profession will be just like doctors and nurses and teachers. There will be a switch that will occur, and the way that you’ll know it is when the profession can pull your ticket to practice, independent of your employer. Let me explain that: If you’re a doctor, and you are the most popular doctor, and you’re curing people left and right, and you lose your license, is that hospital going to keep you employed? If you’re the best teacher in the high school, and kids love you and their test scores are off the charts, and the parents love you, and you lose your ticket to teach, is that school going to keep you? No.

There are two push-backs I get to that comparison: People point out that the fire service, at least on the career side, is a civil service system; the fire service has unions and the city is the employer. I got news for you, there’s no stronger union in this country than the teachers’ union, but I don’t care how good you are, if you lose your license to teach, you’re out of a job.

Other people argue that the fire service is 70–80% volunteer; they’re not going to meet professional standards. And I say, they are. If you’re a doctor or a lawyer who does pro bono work, you’re still held to professional standards. If you’re a surgeon performing free surgery on poor children, you’re not relieved of professional standards or obligations. If you’re a teacher and you go to some poor neighborhood in New York City or Los Angeles, and you volunteer to teach, you’re not relieved of the obligation to meet professional standards. Whether you’re volunteer or career, if you’re a professional, you’re still held to these standards.

That’s when you’ll know that the fire service has become a profession and is no longer just an occupation.

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Comment by Paul Hasenmeier on April 9, 2011 at 6:27pm
The fire service is, will, and must continue down the path of greater education and training. We are continually held to a higher standard than Mr, Mrs, Teenager, and Baby Jones. Post-secondary education for the up and coming in conjunction with the experience of the seasoned vets will make us a PROFESSION for years to come.

In this profession we will start to see more and more departments hirer entry-level firefighters with an associates degree. This should be no alarm for volunteer, combination, or metropolitan departments, but rather encouragement for putting us on the map as educated and powerful shepherds of public safety.
Comment by Oldman on April 5, 2011 at 2:17pm
"Whether you’re volunteer or career, if you’re a professional, you’re still held to these standards". This one line says it all.

I may not have a college education, but I have my PhD in common sense from the school of hard knocks. Dr. Onieal makes very valid points and I respect his knowledge. But I can almost guarantee he has met many more people than I have that are "educated fools". They have the book knowledge and the pieces of paper attesting to their intelligence, but lack the common sense found in a pile of buffalo bagels.

As with anything in life, there must be balance. Diplomas aren't worth the waste of paper and ink, if there is not a like amount of experience and common sense.
Comment by John Sherrer on April 4, 2011 at 3:18pm
Food for thought. I have a bachelors in a non fire related field and 2yrs exp. as a firefighter. Interviewed at full time fd and it went very well. I ran into one of the officers who interviewed me some time later and he told me 2 out of the 5 wanted me and the other 3 did not. He informed me the other 3 cited that since I had a degree that I would probable seek employment elseware when the economy turned around. I informed them during the interview I was not there for the money as most firefighters are not. This tells me they all need hearing adds at the very least. To add insult to injury the officer I was talking to informed me they hired someone with no fire experience, but that he was in emt school. This dept never runs medical calls. It does not matter how well educated you are if the people making the decisions are not.

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