An Insider's Perspective: Fire Science Associate's Degree
Do you know you want a career that involves helping others? How about a career that can build character from interactions and relationships with coworkers, as well as keep your community safe? If you answered yes to these questions, you may want to consider pursuing a degree in fire science.
With a degree in fire science, you will learn about fire alarm systems, fire suppression systems, emergency services, ground control and more. In addition to earning a degree, the curriculum offered can help advance your career in fire services with earning Fire Officer I and II certifications; giving you a competitive edge in this career field.
Competition is big for future firefighters looking for a career, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics, so students who receive a degree in fire science are more likely to obtain a career in the field and/or advance in their current position.
I interviewed Jon Ibrahim, Battalion Chief and Director of Operations for the Romeoville Fire Academy (RFA) in Romeoville, Illinois for a deeper look into Rasmussen College’s new Fire Science Associate degree program and to learn more from an insider’s perspective about this career field.
Kendall Bird: Why do you need a fire science degree? How does a degree in fire science help you stand out from everyone else?
Jon Ibrahim: The fire science degree is really more for the three-to-five-year firefighters who at that point in their careers would be considering promotional testing at their departments, such as the rank of Lieutenant, which is the first officer level (middle management).
In the modern fire service, most departments require an associate’s degree for promotional testing or require testers to earn a degree within a year or two of being promoted; or at the very least they give them preference points in the testing process.
Now, that is not to say new firefighters have no need to obtain an associate's degree. Some of the courses in the degree give good entry level exposure to the fire service. In addition, in Illinois you cannot be hired as a full-time firefighter until age 21. So beginning the associate’s degree program is perfect for aspiring underage firefighters who want to get a head-start on their fire service education and can attend higher education at the same time.
KB: Do you have a specific example of someone with the degree that succeeded? If yes, can you tell us more about them?
JI: There are so many elements to the promotional testing that sometimes tenths of a point separate people on the list when the testing process is done. Those [who have] an associate’s degree [receive] two full points for having the degree; when people are separated by only tenths of a point on the list, two full points [can] make you pass up four or five people on the list that scored above you.
I did very well on my promotional testing, but there’s no doubt having the associates degree was a major factor in me getting promoted. Most vocations require a college degree to advance, and the fire service is no different.
KB: How does this new degree promote leadership and camaraderie?
JI: Students enrolling in the associate’s degree program will most likely be “civilians” [with] little to no exposure to the fire service. The fire service is a paramilitary organization. In order for one to function in the fire service and be successful, they must have a change in thinking from a civilian mindset to the mindset of a firefighter.
With that comes a deep belief in camaraderie and devotion to one another or what we call “brotherhood” (regardless of gender). Once the individual looks at one another as a brother and sister, rather than just a co-worker, chances are they [will] put their lives on the line in order to save the other.
Not many other vocations can expect that from their employees, but the fire service does. That mindset transition does not happen naturally, we need to teach [it] to them. That begins with the courses in the fire science degree AND in the Fire Officer series.
KB: How do you transition into a brotherhood and firefighter mentality from being a civilian?
JI: Some civilians naturally have the ability to put themselves in harm’s way to help others, but generally it has to be taught – and usually that is taught in entry-level fire academy, which is the boot camp for firefighters.
KB: What is training for a firefighter like? What are some of the skills or training methods you use?
JI: Depends on what level of training, as all firefighters, regardless of rank, train their entire careers. [New] firefighters begin with [the] entry level academy, which is like a boot camp. After that, firefighters have a pretty equal balance of emergency medical training (EMS) because in the modern fire service, firefighters have to also be [trained as] paramedics. [To be a paramedic, you have to first become an EMT.] EMT school is about 4 ½ months and paramedic school is a year. Firefighters [then] attend dozens of specialty classes for certification.
Of course there are many [who] deal with different aspects of firefighting, but many also relate to whatever specialty service firefighters commit themselves to in their departments, such as hazardous materials response, technical rescue, water rescue, fire investigations, etc.
In addition to those external certification classes, firefighters train almost every single day on shift with daily drills and lessons; both classroom and hands-on skills in all disciplines of emergency response mentioned above.
KB: What triggered the idea for a fire sciences degree at Rasmussen College?
JI: The idea for the degree was actually Rasmussen College’s idea. Rasmussen College [identified that] there was a need for a degree [in our area]. With the partnership [for] the Fire Officer series, [and] RFA’s experience, infrastructure, and student base [the program could begin.]
KB: How did the RFA and Rasmussen College partnership begin?
JI: As part of (one of) the RFA expansion plans, we set out to offer a series of courses for veteran firefighters aspiring to be officers called “Fire Officer I and II.” In order to receive course approval from the Illinois State Fire Marshal’s Office (OSFM) we were required to partner with a college or university.
We explored several of the colleges in our area, and with Rasmussen College having a campus here in Romeoville, [Rasmussen] was at the top of the list. After meeting several of the staff at Rasmussen College and looking into their programs and their history, we realized they shared the exact same educational and delivery philosophies as us, so it was a perfect fit. The relationship blossomed from there.
KB: So, what’s the most exciting part about the new degree program?
JI: There are a lot of exciting parts of the degree program, such as the ability for firefighters who have some fire services classes already under their belt to turn those classes into credits from Rasmussen College free of charge.
The most exciting part of the partnership is that a long time ago the RFA’s vision was to create a sort of “one-stop-shop” fire service educational facility where firefighters can get their education throughout their entire career from the very first day they enter the fire service all the way up to higher educational degrees. There is no other organization of that kind in Illinois – even the nation. This partnership has moved us both closer to that goal.
KB: Lastly, what do you wish you knew about firefighting before you began your career?
JI: Well, when I was a new firefighter just getting into the fire service I wasn’t very good at it, as I came into it without a shred of experience or education.
[Back then] what I wish I knew about the fire service is that relying on the job training would never be enough to become a good firefighter. Realizing that I was struggling and the skills weren’t going to come to me just by “getting by”, I threw myself into it focusing on training and taking as many external classes as I could.
Eventually, I obtained an associate’s degree in fire science from a local community college and then a bachelor’s degree from Western Illinois University. I’ve been promoted over the years, and without a doubt having my degrees not only helped me in the promotional exams, but also taught me many skills that help me in my administrative job today.