by Chief Josh Waldo, CFO, CTO, FM

Quality training programs are one of the highest priorities in any fire department, as organizations look to ensure that members are prepared for the daily challenges and demands of the job.

Departments use a variety of different training programs, ranging from in-service training exercises to 400-hour academies, to maintain member proficiency. Many of these same departments also push for their employees to obtain certifications via agencies, such as Pro Board and the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress (IFSAC), to provide training validation, but this still leaves multiple opportunities for growth and development on the table.

One common question asked by fire service members is, what do I need to do to progress in my organization? Many people point to certifications and experience, but do those elements accurately prepare members for the next step in their career? Do members of your organization have a clear road map to follow for their professional development? If so, does the current road map encourage and challenge members to continue to work toward being a true fire service professional? Having a clearly developed professional development plan helps members track their personal growth with clear expectations that they can follow throughout their career.

Why Seek Credentials?

If your organization is in the process of developing a professional development plan or wants to improve on an existing plan, adding professional credentialing is a must. Credentialing recognizes individuals who fulfill prescribed standards of performance, ethics and conduct, and who demonstrate a high level of competence, as witnessed by their peers, through documentation of professional, educational, technical and community service achievements. Different from completing a training course or passing a certification exam, credentialing evaluates a member’s overall body of work as a professional. For fire service professionals, the most recognized and respected credentialing body is the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE) Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC) which provides internationally recognized, third-party verification of professional competence in fire and emergency services. Unlike IFSAC and Pro Board certifications, where acceptance varies from state to state and one organization to another, CPSE Professional Credentialing is recognized by both the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) and the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) as the gold standard for fire service professionals.

The ICMA states that “professional designations were developed to help advance professionalism via an extensive application process in which candidates demonstrate competency in various areas by detailing their training, education, experience, technical competencies, professional contributions, associations, memberships, and community involvement in a portfolio or application.”

The CPSE CPC offers five different professional designations for fire service professionals:

  1. Chief Fire Officer (CFO)
  2. Chief Training Officer (CTO)
  3. Chief EMS Officer (CEMSO)
  4. Fire Marshal (FM)
  5. Fire Officer (FO)

Each of the professional designations requires the completion of a candidate portfolio that is submitted to the CPSE where it is then forwarded on to peers for review. The peer reviewers evaluate the candidate portfolio, conduct interviews with candidates and forward recommendations to the 11-member CPC Commission, which makes the final award determinations. Different from most other training or certifications in the fire service, CPSE professional designations have a three-year renewal process, thus requiring designees to continue to work on their professional development in multiple areas.

A Starting Point

A firefighter who’s looking to grow and develop in their organization could start their path by applying for the fire officer (FO) designation. The FO designation is open to all company-level officers, junior officers and above who have supervisory responsibilities, and to those who have served in an intermittent acting status for a minimum of 12 months. Applicants must meet eligibility requirements in order to apply for any designation, but for the FO designation, items such as secondary education degrees, academic certificates and the IFSAC/PRO Board certifications help candidates meet minimum requirements. The designation process also requires that applicants be active in professional organizations, such as the IAFC, NFPA, ICC or ISFSI, just to name a few.

Community involvement is assessed in the application process and can include items like school PTAs, sports programs, volunteer organizations and other functions or activities that get candidates involved in their community. These pieces of an applicant’s portfolio, along with the addition of training, certification and experience, present a more well-rounded individual than someone who completed a single training exercise or obtained a single certification. Incorporating the credentialing process into not only the organizational professional development plan but also the promotional process will help strengthen these processes and the organization.

Other Options for Growth

Although the FO designation is the starting point, there’s more room for growth in the CPC model, as people progress in their career, depending on the path they choose. Whether a member decides to pursue passions in prevention, training, EMS or other chief-level positions, the CPC process offers designations that can guide members through each area of interest. Each designation has some specific requirements, but the overall process remains the same and again requires the three-year renewal to evaluate continued growth.

Dealing with Disequilibrium

Incorporating the CPSE CPC process into your professional development or promotional processes may create some disequilibrium among some of your organizational members, because it is a change, and the process may be unfamiliar to them. From past experience, when I added the CPSE CPC process to my previous department’s professional development plan, I experienced some push-back from members who were concerned about a professional designation carrying more weight in promotions than other areas, such as training and experience. Adding the CPSE CPC process requires education that explains that professional designations are issued based on training and experience, along with many other aspects.

Return on Investment

After completing the education segment with members and getting the process going, the return on investment can be tremendous. In my experience with implementing the CPSE CPC process, I saw many members become re-engaged in their professional development plan; as a result, the number of certified Fire Officer I members increased from 16 to 34, and the number of certified Fire Officer II members increased from zero to 12, all within an 18-month period. This re-engagement was primarily sparked by members who began working on obtaining their professional designation.

Re-energizing people and giving them something to work toward helped the department add 15 professional designations among 13 people in three years, with several more in the works. Growth and development are an all-time high in my organization – and it all started when my department added the CPC process to the plan.

Fire service members, by their competitive nature, want to be successful and considered professionals in their field; providing them with the proper guidance and direction is sometimes all they are missing. The CPSE CPC process gives members a goal to work toward, and the return on investment for your organization easily justifies investing the time and resources to complete the process.

Additional Benefits

The process of adding professional credentialing to your professional development and promotional plans will have an immediate impact on organizational members and their future growth. Additional benefits of this implementation include members serving as mentors to other department members who are seeking professional designations, and the overall increase in professionalism throughout your organization results in better succession planning options.

Rise to Meet Expectations

As the expectations and demands for the fire service profession continue to evolve, the expectations of future leaders must adapt to meet those new challenges. The days of Fire Officer I certifications being the standard for leaders are fading fast; communities today expect professional leaders for their organizations. The CPSE CPC has developed the process that provides direction and validation for current and future leaders of the fire service. The next step for your organization to excel is to adopt the CPSE CPC process into your organization.

Josh Waldo, CFO, CTO, FM, is a 15-year student of the fire service, currently serving as the fire chief in Bozeman, Montana.  Waldo is a triple designee via the CPSE CPC and is a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. Waldo holds a master’s and bachelor’s degree from Eastern Kentucky University and has presented programs at national conferences such as CPSE Excellence Events, Firehouse Expo, Fire-Rescue International and the ISFSI.