Shared Experience in Fire Science Education

By Warren Jones, Ret., Fire Chief

One of the key responsibilities as a fire chief is to connect his or her agency with other public and private organizations in solving community problems. It requires the ability to articulate how fire and emergency services create greater community value. It demands superior communication skills, critical thinking, cooperation and empathy for the circumstances of others. It often requires the give and take of diplomacy and compromise. Today a fire chief is not judged just by how well he or she manages their internal organization, they are also judged on how well they function as a team with other public and private sector leaders. Higher education provides an unparalleled opportunity to build the external shared experience that is so important to this key organizational leadership responsibility. In many cases fire service professionals begin building shared experience by pursuing fire science degrees offered either in a traditional classroom setting or through online degree programs.

Learn More About Fire Science DegreesFire chiefs place great emphasis on their shared experience with the people they lead and manage. Most begin their careers as front-line firefighters and make their way up through the ranks of company and chief officers. They develop not only well rounded technical and interpersonal skills but build a foundation of credibility that is highly-valued within the fire service. Their offices are adorned with pictures and mementoes as evidence of this history. It helps them understand the culture of their organizations as well as the opportunities and constraints when managing change. For many, it forms the foundation of the personal networks they rely on to manage and lead. Fire chiefs are often told not to forget where they came from. This is the essence of internal shared experience—experience shared internally to the department or fire service. Without it few fire chiefs are successful. However, internal shared experience is not enough for a fire service leader to be successful in today’s environment. Today, citizens often value the overall effectiveness of local government more than the performance of individual agencies. External shared experience, experience and connections outside of the department and fire service, is vital to fire chiefs who seek to lead their agencies within this context of comprehensive public service.

Like the pictures and mementos that demonstrate their experience as firefighters, higher education degrees demonstrate their experience with other public service professionals.

So how does higher education help build external shared experience? Higher education brings people together from different backgrounds, technical disciplines and levels of government. This is especially true at the graduate level where students come not only from the fire service but also law enforcement, finance, public works, utilities, recreation, planning, human resources and general administration. Learning together across disciplines, students gain appreciation for the challenges faced by all managers and leaders regardless of their affiliation. It increases the technical knowledge of other disciplines, as well as the commonalties they all face as public servants. In many cases it builds long-lasting professional relationships that can form the basis for future cooperation. It’s a shared experience of learning from each other, appreciation for the circumstances of others and the value of cooperation. Like the pictures and mementos that demonstrate their experience as firefighters, higher education degrees demonstrate their experience with other public service professionals.

Much has been written about the role of higher education in preparing future fire service leaders and managers for increased leadership and management responsibility, especially those who aspire to fire chief. In addition to acquiring advanced technical and relationship skills, higher education helps students develop shared experience with those who can help a fire agency fulfill its larger mission of serving its community. This shared external experience will help them better lead and manage in an increasingly complex profession and complicated world.                                                         

Warren Jones is the retired fire chief and CEO of the Evans Fire Protection District in Evans, Colo. Prior to Evans he served in the Poudre Fire Authority in Fort Collins, Colo., where he held almost every position other than fire chief. He holds associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. He is an adjunct faculty member at Colorado State University where he teaches in the fire and emergency services administration program.