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Fire Chief Justin Heim is one of two full-time firefighters working the day shift at his fire station in Eagle, Wis. As he sits in his office doing paperwork, he waits for the inevitable alarm that signals the next emergency.

On average, the Eagle Fire Department gets one emergency call each day. When he’s not running calls, Heim prepares for board meetings, training sessions and fire commission meetings.

Heim manages a mix of 40 volunteer and full-time staff and is responsible for covering the territory of two municipalities in southeast Wisconsin. Though his days might be typical for someone in his position, he isn’t a typical fire chief.

At age 27, Heim is the youngest known fire chief in the United States — and a 2010 graduate of the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh’s Fire and Emergency Response Management degree program.

An early pursuit

“I’ve been involved in the fire service since I was 16 years old and a cadet,” he said. “I completed the Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) program during my senior year.”

After high school, Heim went into the fire service working as a volunteer. At age 19, he was promoted to lieutenant and was hired as a career firefighter in 2006.

“It was at that time that I recognized how important it was to further my education, not only to better myself, but to better those around me,” he said.

He completed his Associate of Arts and Science in Fire Science in 2006 and his Associate of Arts in Paramedic Science in 2008.

At the age of 25, Heim accepted an offer for the fire chief position in Eagle, Wis.

“I was the youngest known career fire chief in the United Sates,” he said proudly, “but, again, I recognized the need to further my education.”

Heim researched bachelor’s degree programs that would allow him to maintain his responsibilities both as a fire chief and as a husband.

“Between my career and family, devoting every weekend to school would be tough. When I looked at the Oshkosh program and I talked to the program manager, she really sold the program as a way to pursue your education and still have time for everything else,” he said.

Heim said that because he already is a fire chief, his motivation for achieving a bachelor’s degree is more for self-fulfillment and to benefit his community than for career advancement.

“I feel it’s important to push myself to the limit and accomplish as much as I can. It’s not only going to benefit me, but also the people in my community and the people I work with,” he said.

Heim says that he has seen an immediate impact on the way he manages people and tasks.

“I find direct correlations with the things I learn in classes and the work I do everyday at my job. I have to run trainings, go to fire commission and board meetings, and I have to run emergency calls. I have a lot to do.

“Oshkosh’s program has helped me become a better manager and has given me the tools to relate a little better with my employees and members of my community,” he said.

More firefighters seeking degrees

Heim seems to be following the national trends for workers in fire and emergency services: The Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that in recent years, an increasing proportion of new firefighters have had some post-secondary education.

The bureau also stated that though employment in the fire service will grow faster than in most other areas due to population expansion, a bachelor’s degree and, in some cases, an associate degree in fire engineering or fire science will not only greatly improve an applicant’s chances for a job, but also may fulfill a requirement.

That prediction already has become a reality. Beginning in October 2009, the National Fire Academy required participants in the Executive Fire Officer Program, a training program for senior officers, to have a bachelor’s degree; they previously had required an associate degree.

Heim will receive a bachelor’s degree at UW Oshkosh in May; he has one year left in the national Executive Fire Officer Program.

“It’s one of the highest honors in the fire service, and it’s very competitive. It’s something that’s very well recognized. I’m so motivated to learn and grow,” he said.

Heim is also winning awards at the UW Oshkosh. This spring, he won the Lifelong Learner Scholarship for Academic Excellence, awarded to a UW Oshkosh student who transferred to the University, has a grade-point average of 3.6 or higher, and has a history of volunteer and community service.

“This was the first scholarship I’d ever applied for,” he said. “I think it’s cool that somebody acknowledges the population segment of older learners. An education isn’t just for 19-, 20- and 21-year-olds.”

Heim says after he graduates, he plans to continue with his education and pursue a master’s degree.

“Furthering my education gives me the knowledge to relate a little better with my employees, which helps them do their job. Ultimately, when they look good, I look good. And when they do well, our community benefits,” he said.

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