Before elaborating on the possible benefits of each degree, you need to have a grasp of what fire science and emergency management entail.
What is Emergency Management?
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines emergency management (EM) as “the managerial function charged with creating the framework within which communities reduce vulnerability to hazards and cope with disasters.” (FEMA 2007)
Emergency management is also referred to as disaster management as, during a time of imminent catastrophes, such as a hurricane, their services are paramount. Therefore, emergency management deals with risk, risk avoidance, if possible, and the aftermath. The involvement extends well beyond the preparation, which involves the coordination of emergency personnel, citizens’ notification regarding evacuation, damage mitigation measures, the response of firefighters and EMTs during the event, and recovery efforts.
Federal, state, and local governments received criticism after the inadequate response after Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 that killed over 1,800 people, mainly in New Orleans and surrounding areas. In 2008, after the election of Barack Obama, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security made changes.
What is Fire Science?
Fire science is the study of fire from the perspective of its chemical properties. A typical program focuses on how fires start and how to extinguish them. To understand these two aspects, firefighters need to have some knowledge of the chemistry of fire. Hence, the science delves into not only combustibles and ignition temperatures but also building construction and materials. You learn about hydraulics, fire apparatus, inspection, arson, and fire codes.
Fire science includes the study of fire protection, prevention, hazardous materials, fire analysis, and fire investigation (cause and origin). Fire analysis might lead to procedures or regulations to prevent a future occurrence, as fire can be a deadly force. Nearly 4,000 people in the United States die each year in house fires, and over 2,000 have severe burns. These statistics are one reason for the creation of smoke alarm laws – to save lives. Placement of alarms in the kitchen is crucial as more house fires start from inattentive cooking.
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Of the more than 300,000 firefighters in the United States, over 90% of professional firefighters work for local governments. Many fire science majors begin as firefighters, which has its training for all candidates. The minimum requirements to apply are a high school diploma or GED and be over 18, and some departments have a maximum age to enter firefighting school between 28 and 35. Candidates must also pass a physical ability test. You may undergo a criminal background check to see if you’ve had an arrest, DUI, or DWI.
A college degree of any level is not needed to become a firefighter. However, you may increase advancement possibilities by adding a fire science degree to your accomplishments. The hierarchy with the typical firehouse is:
- Driver or Engineer, aka Fire Equipment Operator
- Fire Chief – in charge of one or several fire departments
- Battalion Chief – may supervise a county
After being promoted to captain, firefighters, who have displayed leadership qualities, may be eligible for a fire chief position – the highest-ranking officer within a fire department. Once elevated to this rank, chiefs assume various administrative and managerial roles. Their hands-on firefighting days are in the past, in most instances. A fire science degree would be advantageous if you plan to advance to a leadership position through the fire department ranks.
One difference between the occupation of a firefighter and an emergency manager is the training. As mentioned, all firefighters attend a fire academy, presuming they meet the state qualifications; for example, Illinois applicants must be 21 and don’t have a criminal record. Their training doesn’t stop upon graduation from an academy, and they are assigned to a fire department. After which, the instruction continues for up to twelve months. During this probationary period as new firefighters or probies, they are under constant supervision and evaluation.
In contrast, individuals choosing emergency management will need a degree to apply for entry-level. A college education is the start of your training in this field. In contrast, a degree is unnecessary for acceptance into a fire academy. However, a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in emergency management might be needed to land an entry-level position in the field of emergency management. Many jobs at the county level require a Bachelor’s degree in Public Administration or Emergency Management. In addition to your degree, you need to have leadership qualities. Senior positions demand experience in dealing with communications during both routine and emergency operations within a government unit.
One similarity is that emergency management and fire science education can start with an associate’s degree. A two-year degree program in fire science teaches the fundamental principles of fires with courses in fire behavior, fire suppression techniques, firefighting tactics, fire prevention, brush fires, and the chemical elements of fire. For example, there are numerous two-year fire science programs throughout California.
Purdue University Global, for example, has recognition from the U.S. Administration as a Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education institution. The online Associate of Applied Science degree in Fire Science includes fire strategy and tactics, occupational safety and health for emergency services, fire protection hydraulics, building construction, and combustion. The class titled Strategy and Tactics covers hazmat emergencies, fire control principles, and extinguishing agents.
Waldorf University in Forest City, Iowa, offers a two-year Associate in Arts in Emergency Management that prepares students for a bachelor’s degree in emergency management or Homeland Security. Some of the courses are:
- Disaster Mitigation and Preparedness – concepts in crisis management and disaster planning
- Disaster Response and Recovery – reacting to different types of catastrophes and recovery methods
- Terrorism in Emergency Management – possible hazards at the terrorist scene and evidence preservation
Noticeable between the two degrees at this level is that fire science deals more with the technology used in firefighting and how to use it to suppress fires. In contrast, emergency management concentrates on theories and proposals as to how to deal with various emergencies. To use an analogy, in fire science, you are the player – in emergency management, you act as the coach.
A bachelor’s degree in fire science continues with many of the same courses as the associate degree. For example, New Jersey City University in Jersey City has a Bachelor of Science in Fire Science that is almost a carbon-copy of the Purdue program above. Classes study firefighting tactics, building construction, firefighting strategies, fire detection and suppression, hazardous materials, and fire investigation.
The bachelor’s degree differs from the associate’s by including Fire Officer Management and Fire Department Organization & Administration. Here the curriculum recognizes the need for leadership training and knowledge. So too does the undergraduate online Fire Science program at Purdue Global that has courses in Personnel Management for Fire and EMS, Leadership, and Political, Ethical, and Legal Foundations of Emergency Services.
A Bachelor of Science in Emergency Management at Bellevue University in Bellevue, Nebraska, prepares graduates for a career in EM at the local, state, or federal level. Students have the option of on-campus or 100% online learning format for this 127-credits program. Some of the same subjects as the associate’s degree exist in this one, for example, courses in terrorism, natural disasters, emergency planning, legal issues in EM, and the National Incident Management System. The latter deals with multiagency coordination systems implementation.
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Although management is one of the two words in EM, the curricula lack instruction devoted to people skills. Instead, the emphasis is on managing the logistics associated with the impending disaster or responding to unpredictable terrorist violence. The undergraduate degrees in fire science differ because they provide material related to team dynamics, situational leadership, personnel management, and ethical decision-making.
There is a Master of Science in Fire Science at the graduate level, whose curriculum veers into math and statistics classes. These are in addition to the science of Material Flammability, Fire and Explosion, Fire Dynamics, Diffusion Flames, Burning Rate Theory, and Fire Safety. The Department of Fire Protection at the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland has an M.S. with these classes. Students may also combine that B.S. and M.S. in Fire Protection Engineering.
Individuals seeking a master’s degree in the fire science or engineering arena probably have their sights on a career outside of firefighting. The degree opens up job markets in the insurance industry, property inspection services, government agencies, consumer products, aerospace, transportation, and more.
The graduate program in Fire Science and Engineering at the School of Engineering at Case Western Reserve University has a partnership with NASA on Space Exploration Systems. A course titled Fire Dynamics explores ceiling jet, flashover, driven flow, and fire plume. There is a Flammability Lab class that teaches students about polymer flammability testing and other experimental hands-on methods. Those fascinated by the chemical components of fire may excel in this particular curriculum.
Case Western’s master’s degree is indicative of the scientific elements of fire science, which sets it apart from emergency management. The Master of Science in EM at John Jay College of Criminal Justice focuses on mitigation, preparation, recovery, and protection. Some electives allow students to pursue technical topics, for example, building and fire codes and theory and design of fire protection systems. Most electives cover risk analysis, safety, private security, terrorism, politics, and security systems. Therefore, non-science subject matter.
Similar to occupations in fire service, the majority of emergency management jobs are in civil service. Civil servants are individuals employed by federal, state, or local government entities whose salaries are paid by taxpayers. Therefore, the city, county, or state sets these salaries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that Emergency Management Directors earned an average of $76,250 in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree. And most do work in local government, excluding schools and hospitals with 5,410. The next group employs 1,570 at the state government level.
The BLS reports in the occupation of fire inspector with a median salary of $62,120 with a two or four-year degree in fire science or a related subject. As is evident, the salary differs between a bachelor’s in fire science and emergency management; however, the EM position is a Director – not entry-level. Again, local government tops the list with 10,240 inspectors, followed by state government with only 1,210 (BLS data). In fairness, becoming a fire inspector would require prior firefighting experience.
The salaries for fire science professionals vary considerably according to the job title and degree of responsibility. According to current (2020) data from the BLS, firefighters’ median salary is $52,500. The salary for a battalion chief ranges from $122k to $159k per year (2016), depending on the geographical location. First-line supervisors for firefighters average $80,310.
The novice firefighter may have the edge in median salary for entry-level jobs as no degree is mandatory to become a firefighter. Additionally, there are 335,500 firefighters in the United States with job growth of 6% through 2029 or a change in 20,300 jobs. In comparison, there are only 10,400 EM directors with a projected job outlook of 4% or only 500 new jobs over ten years.
Fire science and emergency management professionals might derive satisfaction due to the altruistic nature of being in a position to help others in need. In conjunction with the requisite experience and education, both degrees lead to leadership roles with the advantage typically favoring individuals with an advanced college degree, notably in directorship positions in emergency management.
Generally, you can excel in a firefighting role with an associate’s degree and less so with emergency management. Moreover, the fire profession offers several certifications through the National Fire Protection Association. For example, Fire Inspector (2 levels), Fire Protection Specialist, Hazard Recognition Specialist, Wildfire Mitigation Specialist, and several others. The Certified Fire Inspector I, for example, is a four-hour open-book multiple-choice exam.
By comparison, there are certifications in EM. However, most require a four-year undergraduate degree to be eligible. The lower national certification for emergency managers is the Associate Emergency Manager (AEM), which requires 100 hours of emergency management training before applying. At the next level is the Certified Emergency Manager (CEM) certification, for individuals with a bachelor’s degree, in addition to three years of comprehensive emergency management experience. Other criteria include documentation to support participation in a ‘substantive’ role in a catastrophe and three professional references.