Estimated 16 min reading time.
Welcome to The USFA Podcast. The official podcast of the United States Fire Administration. I'm your host Teresa Neal. This month, we’re talking about the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program. EFO is USFA’s pinnacle program to support the needs of fire and emergency medical services agencies to prepare executive officers to meet the ever-changing demands of the communities they serve.
Just as the program was undergoing major renovations, the country began to deal with COVID-19. The pandemic provided an opportunity for NFA to restructure learning with the local demands — kept many students from traveling to Emmitsburg for classes. But now the academy is open, and students are back on campus. Christine Spangler, chief of NFA’s Leadership and Community Risk Reduction branch, will join us on this episode to discuss the EFO Program.
She’ll share some information about the changes, some challenges, but also the exciting future of this pinnacle program.
But before we hear from Christine, we will hear from the current EFO student assistant chief, Jamie Moore, from the Los Angeles Fire Department. I was able to speak with him when he was on campus taking classes.
I was first exposed to the National Fire Academy as a firefighter from City of Los Angeles. I was actually a captain, and I was taking a public information officer course. That was my first time ever coming out to the National Fire Academy and taking courses. When I returned to Los Angeles, I was talking to one of my peers, and she had told me about the Executive Fire Officer Program and that she had been involved in, and she highly recommended it.
We sat down, and we talked about what the curriculum was like; at the time it was a 4-year program. What it entailed, what the benefits were of the program, the challenges of the program. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree from UCLA. At the time, I’d already graduated with a master’s degree in emergency management from Cal State Long Beach.
Academics wasn’t new to me. I enjoy learning. And so, it sounded like the great next step. And so, I applied. I was accepted 4 years ago. And unfortunately, at that time, the National Fire Academy was overhauling their curriculum and how they were going to be delivering their curriculum. And they went from a 4-year program to a 2-year program.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges we’ve had is COVID and the pandemic and how that impacted us. But I’ll tell you, my experience with the Executive Fire Officer Program is exactly what she had told me. The networking opportunities are absolutely incredible. We have probably one of the strongest cohorts that I’ve ever been exposed to.
When I think back as a young firefighter, having gone through the fire academy, Los Angeles Fire Department, and we were a close-knit group. There were 18 in my academy. It’s a long academy at the time. And we had some strong bonds. The 2 weeks that I actually spent on campus, living in the dorm, going to class, having breakout sessions, going for walks — they call it a walkabout when you walk on campus with one or several of your peers — has had such an incredible impact on myself and my cohort that we have a text group of 20 of us. Honestly, we text each other with various issues, concerns — "how are you doing?" — just about every single day.
Wow, that’s great.
And I’ve never been closer to a group of professionals than I have from my cohort.
Now you’re in the 2-year program.
So, I’m in the 2-year program.
And how exactly does that work for you?
They’re in the process. They call this a pilot program, and it’s changing. It’s evolving, it’s had its challenges, but I hope that the challenges that we’ve overcome — the suggestions we’ve made from our classes and the surveys — that we take a survey after every single course, after every single assignment that we turn in. “How was the curriculum? How long did it take you?” I think it’s helped gauge the program for the National Fire Academy and they’re doing their best to modify it as we go. So, I’m hoping what we’ve been through is going to pave the way for any Executive Fire Officer candidate [in the] future.
And how do you hope this will affect your career?
I’m an assistant chief with Los Angeles Fire Department now, and I’m hoping — my plan is to work for another 10 years. And my goal is at least 1, if not 2, possible promotions. So, whether or not that’s within my own organization or eventually I leave and retire from the Los Angeles Fire Department and venture off to another organization, that’s still left to be decided, but I’m hoping it’s going to help me. Not only promote myself, but it helps me be the more effective leader.
Where I am as the assistant chief in Los Angeles Fire Department, I’m responsible for a quarter of the city. And so, when I think of the adaptive challenges that I face, and the problem-solving methods that I use today versus what I would have used 3 years ago, it’s definitely changed. It’s taught me to look at things from a different perspective. I think I find myself getting up on the balcony and taking a higher look at what the problems are as opposed to being on the dance floor and looking at the challenges that I’m facing and trying to muddle my way through those challenges.
… when I think of the adaptive challenges that I face, and the problem-solving methods that I use today versus what I would have used 3 years ago, it’s definitely changed. It’s taught me to look at things from a different perspective.
So, I think it’s taught me to really take a better look. It’s taught me to get buy-in and some support from the people who were involved rather than just thinking I know what the problem is and trying to tackle the problem on my own.
That’s great. And would you recommend this program to a colleague?
Absolutely. I’ve done it already. I’d like to see more members of the Los Angeles Fire Department come through this program. It is a long distance for us. It’s clear across the country. And unfortunately, when you come to study here, work doesn’t always stop as much as they try to not send you the email. So that there is a 3-hour lag difference, which it will be a challenge for anybody who comes out here. It’s a challenge for me, but it’s definitely well worth it. You’re on campus. You’re with some of the most incredible professionals within the fire service. We have captains, we have the chiefs. We have fire chiefs from all over the country. And the one thing that I have learned from my time on campus and my communications with them is that we’re all dealing with the same issues, just on a different level.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think if you’re looking for a challenge, and you want to be a better officer, this is definitely the program for you.
Thank you so much.
You are very welcome.
Hi Christine. Thanks for joining us. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Hi Teresa. My name’s Christine Spangler. I’m the branch chief for the Leadership Community Risk Reduction branch of the NFA. I’ve been with NFA now approximately 7 years. Before that I worked for the Army Corps of Engineers and also at EMI here on the NETC campus.
And I was in academia for a little over 15 years. I worked at The Johns Hopkins University and managed a lot of graduate training programs — worked with Harvard and Yale and Emory on some concerted recruitment and retention programs for graduate training programs as well.
What does NFA’s Leadership and Community Risk Reduction branch do?
What they do is, they are comprised of several different curriculum areas. So, we have the leadership and executive development area. That’s where EFO, the Executive Fire Officer, and the MO, the Managing Officer Program, resides. We also have outreach programs for people, particularly out in the field — different online, resident and field delivery offerings.
We have a fire prevention and a community risk reduction curriculum area. I believe you had a podcast on the community risk reduction area. So, there’s plenty of information there. We have planning and information management, training program management and wildland urban interface, which has become high priority with FEMA.
So, we’ve gotten some additional resources and we do plan on expanding that curriculum area.
Oh, that’s great. That’s good news because that does get a lot of highlights with the administration for climate change and how it rolls into all of that. So, I think listeners will be excited to know that’s going to expand.
Yeah, we’re excited about that too. There’s also going to be some additional resources with fire programs, so we’re going to make sure that’s really a coordinated, concerted effort. So, we’re excited.
So, can you explain the Executive Fire Officer Program?
The Executive Fire Officer Program, or the EFO, really is the pinnacle of USFA’s commitment to support fire and EMS.
It prepares their executive officers. One of the missions is to create an environment and opportunities that foster individual growth, development and appreciation for lifelong learning as a strategic community leader. Some of the program leadership outcomes include things like social responsibility within oneself, within the organization and within one’s community.
It prepares executive officers with conceptual and philosophical — as well as practical — components of ethics, integrity and accountability. We also look at strategic planning, diversity, equity and inclusiveness. So, it’s really broad-based, and we have public policy component, and then there’s some research and analytics.
I was able to speak to some of the students a couple of weeks ago. And one of the things that all 3 of them said was that EFO has really helped them to look strategically at things; strategically in that, instead of when there’s a problem that comes up, to go above the problem and look down on all of the different areas that they need to focus on instead of just where they are at that moment.
And I thought, well, because all 3 of them — in different areas of the program — I thought that’s a testament to how good the program is and what it’s teaching.
Yeah. It really is, and it’s interesting, so that’s from the balcony and from the dance floor. So that’s some of the texts that we refer to frequently — different perspectives — and yeah, the students really embrace it and work together and really build on that themselves.
Yeah, they told us how one of the gentlemen, he uses it back at his station. And I thought that really shows how great a program is when you’re able to see them take what they’re learning and then really use it to teach others in their organization back home, but also to address the problems. I think it’s neat to see it so quickly with people that they learn it and then they use it right away.
When most times it takes quite some time to see that.
Absolutely. They gel pretty quickly. And even though we don’t formally have a cohort system anymore, they self-identify in cohorts. And, and it’s nice because those cohorts then grow. We’ve also met with a lot of the EFO students who are finishing out what we call the legacy program, and we see a need to increase some of the alumni outreach as well to continue those important connections and almost a community of practice even after students leave here.
And can you explain the structure of the program and maybe how it’s changing or has changed?
There’s some significant changes, but I just want to spend a little bit of time and maybe talk about some things that haven’t changed.
So obviously the underlying values and beliefs that have always been the foundation of the EFO Program, those are staying consistently the same. For example, self-awareness through reflection, the integration of fire and EMS organizations into the whole community, and whole community is a huge FEMA concept.
And it’s more than just a concept. So, we really like to build on that from various perspectives. The development of sustainable partnerships beyond geographical and political boundaries. And as I mentioned before, we’re really building in a much broader diversity, equity and inclusiveness component. That was always implied and discussed before, but we’re really building on that in the new program. The focus remains on adaptive challenges, which is what we were talking about with the lingo from the balcony and the dance floor. So, adaptive challenges for anybody who doesn’t know, they’re complex situations, where there might not be any clear solutions or where there might be several solutions that require in-depth analysis and creative thinking.
… we’re really building in a much broader diversity, equity and inclusiveness component. That was always implied and discussed before, but we’re really building on that in the new program.
So, we really focus on that. So executive officers learn to lead people through the process of resolving those complex problems. It forces them to learn or develop innovative ways to initiate change and impact culture. So, they’re not just relying on what’s already worked in the past. Maybe the most important aspect of the program, which hasn’t changed and won’t change, was what we already alluded to, was the networking and comradery that the students build throughout the program.
Maybe the most important aspect of the program, which hasn’t changed and won’t change, … (is) the networking and comradery that the students build throughout the program.
It’s really impressive to see. You should actually come by one of the classes. Now, the changes of the EFO, the primary changes are pretty much the structure. This was taken on initially to address several issues. And one of the big issues that we’re focusing on right now is to hopefully help students balance the academic need and the competing personal and professional demands that they have both at home and professionally.
We’re also updating content and instructor criteria to ensure academic rigor and professional relevancy. We’ve collected a lot of data. We’ve conducted a lot of surveys. We’ve gone back and looked at years of evaluation material, and there’s some consistent themes there. And currency and relevancy are a constant thread.
So, we’re really paying attention to those things. So, the major changes first and foremost is that we’re moving from a fixed 4-year program. So, the original program was you came to campus once a year for 4 years. After that resident experience, you wrote a lengthy paper and that’s how you progress through the program.
So that has changed, and now we have a more flexible format where executive officers can actually complete the program between 2 and 4 years, depending on their personal and professional demands. That’s another reason why we don’t necessarily have cohorts. So, if somebody has the ability to come here twice a year and to conduct the research and do everything they need to do, then that will speed up their timeline.
… now we have a more flexible format where executive officers can actually complete the program between 2 and 4 years, depending on their personal and professional demands.
So that works well. And then some people who may have more challenging or demands on their time, or maybe more complex research that they’re conducting, they might need to use those full 4 years. So, it’s really good that they have that flexibility. The reorganization update of the 4 resident course content is well underway.
The legacy courses contained imperative content for executive officers but had some redundancies and data material that we talked about before. Now, we’re going to have 4 very clear and progressive courses. So, they actually build on each other. The first resident course is focused on self. The second one is focused on the organization.
The third one will be focused on community, and then we have a capstone component and a final resident course, and that’ll be a culminating experience of everything else. One of the big changes that a lot of people have talked about are we’re moving away from the 3 to 4 applied research paper format. Depending on previous EFO students, when they got through the program, they may have had to write 3 or 4 papers. We’re moving that now to a more formalized and in-depth research requirement. So, we only have one capstone research paper. We’re building a very intense mediated course that will really help students kind of mold and create the research to really make as big of an impact on their organization and community as possible.
In the past, some of the students have had to work through that individually. It didn’t necessarily have an advisor or somebody that they can work with. And we really want to create an infrastructure here so that if students want to publish in peer-reviewed articles, we can provide that support for them.
However, really, it also is going to support the person who just really wants to make an impact in their community, and academic writing might not be their primary goal. So that’s a huge difference. The other thing that I’m really excited about is we’ve really opened up our collaborations. And what that means is while we have always had great instructors from different places over the country, right now, we’re really collaborating with various universities to make sure that we’re getting that academic rigor to really ensure that we’re having faculty and advisors involved who have different areas of expertise.
… right now, we’re really collaborating with various universities to make sure that we’re getting that academic rigor to really ensure that we’re having faculty and advisors involved who have different areas of expertise.
And we have a lot of new faculty that maybe we didn’t have before. So, for example, Kate Kapalo, she’s an assistant professor, um, at the University of Nebraska. Her specialty is in information systems and quantitative analysis. So that’s something that we haven’t really had before. Dr. Misty Kilz. She’s the vice provost of academic affairs and dean at the College of Safety and Emergency Services at Columbia Southern.
So, Misty brings a whole new skill set of experience as we’re creating some of this. We have some existing faculty that we’re working with. Dr. Rob Skirtitch. He’s a professor and director of the public administration and organizational leadership program at Point Park University. Rob spoke with program a while — very impressive career with the fire service.
So, we’re really so lucky to be working with a diverse set of people that we can then impart their wisdom to the students, and the students may not have access to this level of expertise before. On the other hand, like I was saying in the classroom itself, we also see that it is very important to have instructors there who have current relevant experience.
So, somebody who’s been a chief, a fire chief, within the last 5 years, we’re making sure that all the classes have those critical components as well.
That’s great. Back to when you were talking about networking. That was another thing that a student said, was that they created either WhatsApp or email groups or text message groups.
And they would say we’ve all kind of bonded. And so whenever we have an issue, besides the people that they talked to at their own departments, they go straight to that group and throw out, "This is something I’m thinking," or "This is an issue that we have," and they get help from people that are from across the country, who can speak to it, how they dealt with it or are dealing with it, or have seen somebody deal with it. So, they’re getting this expertise. That it’s not just their location. We’ve always done it this way, or this is the way people expect it to be. They’re getting it from everywhere. So, really takes people outside that box that they live in and say: “Why can’t we do it the way that they do it in a town across the country that’s similar to ours? We can try that.” So, I think that’s really exciting, that they had that comradery. That they automatically go to their fellow students for help and for guidance. That’s again, I keep saying it, but a true testament to how great the program is.
It really is. And we really need to create a better infrastructure for that.
We’ve set up a system that is, for lack of a better term, more of a scholar practitioner kind of mindset. And this isn’t new. So, having come from public health myself, a community practice is something that’s been established for a long time in different academic, research and then practice communities.
And that’s really what we want to do here. And we want to formalize that and make it stronger. So, it’s great that the students have taken that on, and they do that themselves. Ultimately, once we have a working LMS, we want to build a component that people can stay in and interact. So even if they haven’t met each other in person, they can share the kind of information.
… we want to build a component that people can stay in and interact. So even if they haven’t met each other in person, they can share (that) kind of information. That really is going to create a true community of practice.
That really is to — going to create a true community of practice. So, we’re really looking forward to that. Speaking to students and looking at the new need, I think we need to also look at some more alumni planning to keep that continuing practice going.
So, what is the process for applying?
So, currently the application process is on hold while we finalize the program content and are able to move over the 200 existing students that we have in the pipeline right now. COVID had a devastating impact on the program redesign and pilot process. And for anybody who doesn’t know, course pilots, that’s what we call the first iterations, of course, when they’re offered. So that’s in a test phase and we really use that phase to gather student feedback and instructor feedback, and then that way we can update and improve the materials.
So anyway, we are using this delay as an opportunity to review our acceptance criteria and to create an equitable application rating system for the consistent review of applications moving forward. Looking back, what we’ve found over the years is that maybe that system had some wiggle room or subjective input.
So, we really want to put a formalized rating system together and be transparent about that. And we will update our website and then that way we get contacted by students all the time saying, “Hey, how can I make my application stronger?” And I think that if we’re very clear about the criteria that we’re using to evaluate those applications, students can take it upon themselves to do that.
So, please keep checking our website. We’re going to post updates on the application process there, and also any changes to the program will be updated there as well.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think that’s pretty much it. The big thing again is if you could please visit our website; also, you can google “NFA” or “EFO.” The website itself for NFA is usfa.fema.gov/nfa.
And again, the EFO Program itself has our current handbook for the EFO Program, which has a lot of details in it, research guidelines. And you can also find a — more or less — a cheat sheet that compares what we’re referring to as the legacy EFO Program in comparison to the new one. So, it’s a really quick guide to show the differences.
Yeah, and I like that it’s on the webpage and it is completely transparent so that people can understand it. Not everybody can leave for 2 weeks to go to a residency. They can do it online. They can take 2 to 4 years to do it. I mean, that is awesome that there’s flexibility in there and not what it used to be.
Lots of things can change. We know that. With technology, if our universities can use the technology in such a way to make it easier for students to pursue degrees. We have to be with the times, and our National Fire Academy needs to do the exact same thing.
It’s answering an adaptive challenge.
That’s what we’re doing.
Just real quick though, because you did bring that up. I think what’s really also important to note is that you’re right, a lot of people have transfixed on the idea of the reduction of the research papers. However, with the new structure, there’s a lot of pre-course work, which there’s a lot of writing for the resident courses, and there’s also final papers after those resident courses.
… with the new structure, there’s a lot of pre-course work, … a lot of writing for the resident courses, and there’s also final papers after those resident courses … research criteria will actually become much more involved.
So, while there might not be a 30-page ARP, I assure you, the students will be writing at least that much in the new program. So that is a little bit of a misconception that it’s getting dumbed down or made easier. When in fact, again, the research criteria will actually become much more involved.
I think that when Eriks Gabliks was on, he also said that final paper is a doozy. It is going to take them a lot of research and dedication. You’re preparing them to be able to defend it, to be able to use it when they get back to their communities as something that can really stand on its own, not just couple sheets of paper together.
Another thing that will change is the whole paper evaluation process. So that paper will actually be incorporated into a course; more than 1 person will be reviewing it. There will be consistent standards applied to those papers. So, while what we have found is if some of the previous ARP papers, just because its human nature, are subject to very individual preferences, maybe different benchmarks or standards.
So, we will hopefully be, if not eliminating that, reducing it significantly. Which I think is going to end up raising the bar for product across the board.
I think this is exciting. I’m not an EFO grad. I’m not fire service, but I think this is exciting. I think that anybody who wants to be part of it or is already in it, can feel assured that NFA has listened to them — has made it more adaptive for their professional and their personal lives.
And I just think it’s going to be a great thing going forward.
Yeah, I’m really excited too!
Thank you so much for joining us today and telling us about this program. It’s exciting. The changes are exciting.
Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
Great. Thank you for listening to The USFA Podcast and thank you to our guests, Chief Moore and Christine Spangler. Want to learn more about the Executive Fire Officer Program? Visit usfa.fema.gov/nfa/programs/executive-fire-officer/.
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