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City firefighters face new education requirements for promotion

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Hundreds of firefighters may have to go back to school to be promoted to top positions in Baltimore's department, as part of a broader effort to impose professionalism in a department where tenure often trumped education when rising through the ranks.

The move — staggered into three phases over the next seven years to give candidates time to complete training courses and pursue college credits — elevates the fire department's educational standards above those of the city police department, where officers are only required to pass a high school equivalency test.

"It's not your father's fire department anymore," said Chief James S. Clack, himself a college graduate who entered the Baltimore department at the top. "In order to prepare the next generation of leaders, they've got to get formal education in addition to their experience in the field."

But local fire union leaders criticized some of the new standards as unattainable for many, including the requirement that a battalion chief hold an associate's degree and a deputy chief hold a bachelor's. Critics said the standards impose an unfair ceiling on the careers of those who don't have the time or money to invest in their education.

"You can't fight fire with a book," said Michael Campbell, president of the local fire officers union. "To ask our guys, who are severely underpaid, who have to work two jobs just to feed their families, to tell them now they have to go to school to get promoted? I think that's ridiculous."

The requirements come as fire and emergency services nationwide continue to combine and evolve. Top positions are going to go to the most qualified applicants in terms of schooling and experience, Clack said, and he'd rather find Baltimore's new leaders within the department's existing ranks.

"We have to get our folks ready to assume leadership positions in the future, so that we are promoting from within," he said. "If we don't prepare our folks, they're not going to be in these positions, which I don't think is healthy for the department or the city. ...I think we should be growing our own leaders."

Existing labor contracts require the department to pay every member of the department up to $2,500 per year for college expenses, and the department already offers its members many of the non-college training courses required under the new policy in house. Clack said providing "avenues" for members to earn their educations is important.

Failing to meet the requirements will not result in an officer being demoted, Clack said.

Many of the highest-ranking officers in the department already meet the requirements, Clack said, in part because he required those without degrees to head back to school when he first took over the department five years ago.

But four of the department's 10 deputy chiefs and two assistant chiefs don't meet the degree requirements. On the other hand, five of them also have master's degrees.

The department hasn't tracked the higher education backgrounds for the more than 1,350 firefighters or more than 320 lieutenants, captains and battalion chiefs, but officials said they believe many do not currently meet the requirements to be promoted.

"We know that formal education was not encouraged in the past, so many members who are looking at promotion in the future will need to start going to school. This is why we put the compliance dates out so far into the future," Clack said.

The first phase of standards will take effect in 2015, and will require those applying for officer positions to have completed a series of Maryland Fire Rescue Institute and National Fire Academy courses already offered by the department. Campbell and Rick Hoffman, president of the firefighters union, said they approve of these requirements.

In 2017, captain candidates also will have to have 15 college credits, battalion chief candidates will have to have 30 college credits, and deputy chief candidates will have to have an associate's degree. In addition, candidates on all three levels will have to complete additional Maryland Fire Rescue Institute coursework.

By 2019, captain candidates will need 30 college credits, battalion chief candidates will need an associate's degree and deputy chief candidates will need a bachelor's degree. The degrees will have to be in fields relevant to their work, such as fire science, management, business or public administration.

Those requirements are more controversial among rank-and-file firefighters, said Hoffman.

"You're talking thousands of dollars to get to these levels. I don't have that lying around. We're talking firemen here; we're not talking lawyers and accountants and doctors," he said. "Back in the day when they didn't require a college education to be leaders in this fire department, we had a hell of a lot more morale, and we had a better fire department in my mind."

Clack said today's department can't be compared to the department of years ago. In the modern department, 82 percent of calls are for medical personnel, not firefighters — and that requires higher levels of education and financial acumen that isn't taught fighting fires, he said.

That's why, two years ago, Clack hired Virginia Eckard from the city's finance department to be his new logistics chief. Eckard, who has a master's degree in finance, holds the title of deputy chief despite never having fought fires, Clack said. He hired her after posting a notice for the job within the fire department and finding no takers.

"The profession is advancing, and we need to keep up," Clack said.

Paul Moore, Clack's deputy chief of training who wrote the new requirements into the department's Manual of Procedures, has risen through the ranks of the department while going to school. He earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of Baltimore in 2011, a process he said was "extremely difficult."

Still, the school offered flexible class schedules and formats — online, at night — and completing his master's was "probably the best thing I've ever done for my career," he said.

Moore was urged and inspired to enroll by a former boss who'd risen near the top of the department but, upon early retirement, had few options for work in the private sector because he'd never obtained a formal education, Moore said.

"The market didn't want an old fire chief who maybe had done a lot of great things but had nothing to show for it," Moore remembers his mentor telling him.

"People think that it's just somebody's good idea to have it done, but it's so much more than that," he said. "It allows you to put yourself in a position to progress within the department, but it also allows you to leave with something."

krector@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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