When I was a young firefighter back in the 1970s there was only one means of getting a qualification that would be recognised for promotion within the service. The Institute of Fire Engineers (IFE) had been for years setting examinations in Britain for use across the Commonwealth. The qualifications were at three levels, i.e. Preliminary, Graduate and Member. This centralized British system was not an ideal situation. Why Hong Kong firefighters had to learn how to put out thatched-roof fires was a talking point, but nevertheless those graduating had an internationally recognised qualification and a great grounding in firefighting theory and practice. Many countries used this standard for recruiting people at middle to senior ranks. Unfortunately, some countries only used the IFE for internal promotion and still made fully competent firefighters go back through a recruit programme ‘because their fires are different to everyone else’s’!
That was back in the 1970s – yes, half a century ago. Although the IFE is still in existence, fire services and firefighters alike now have access to a myriad of skills-based courses from certificate level through to masters at universities and vocational training centres all over the world. These allow both generalists and specialists to prepare themselves for a career assisting the community when needed.
I am pleased to say that competence-based training has received recognition in many policy frameworks around the world. I will discuss the work I am most familiar with in Australia, not meaning to take away from work done in other jurisdictions.
Australia set about, through the Australian Fire Authorities Council, the mammoth task of gaining consensus and then documenting a competency-based framework that would guide firefighters through their careers. The aim was/is to make firefighting a qualification allowing for full portability for our profession. We only need to look back to where it all began in the United Kingdom to see a system working well where firefighters can apply for positions all over the country with the most suitable filling the vacancy.
To my surprise while sitting in on a Zoom meeting last month I was taken aback by comments from three countries/fire services (although I will not name them, it was three fire services from two different countries) that recognition of prior learning and competences from another service were not being implemented. Even 50 years ago this was not a problem as the IFE was recognised by everyone. Not to jump to conclusions as these people appeared to be frustrated with their employer, I did some investigations of my own, only to find that although there is a policy and procedure that allows recognition, it is not being followed through at the middle management level. In an extreme example, undergraduate qualifications are not being recognized at certificate level, resulting in a person with a degree having to do a low-level bridging course.
I am of the view that to become a profession, portability of qualifications and recognition of prior experience needs to be a corner stone that allows firefighters to move freely from state to state, country to country, as do engineers, architects, chemists etc.
Don’t get me wrong, we have come a long way. As late as 1999 I was the first senior officer to move from the (then) Melbourne Fire Brigade to the Country Fire Authority, in Victoria; now it’s a common occurrence.
The only thing I ask is that we recognise the benefits of being a true profession and when assessing portability of qualifications, err on the side of how we can make this work, not how do I hinder progress.
At a senior level this is practiced in a very open way, and these positions are filled by an open competitive process allowing full portability, expanding the candidate pool to the benefit of the agency. Those senior people taking advantage of such a system should ensure it is available at all levels of the organisation.