While eyeing the job of fire chief in Warwick, a young James McLaughlin had his father, who retired as Providence fire chief in 1991, as a role model.
Yet, growing up with exposure to the fire service was only the beginning for McLaughlin, 49, who would obtain a fire science bachelor’s degree at the Providence College School of Continuing Education (SCE) in 1989 after becoming a firefighter through Warwick’s fire academy.
In 2012, McLaughlin earned a master’s degree in emergency and disaster management from American Public University.
By January of 2016, he had made his way to the Warwick Fire Department’s top job.
“There’s no question the study and preparation gave me the edge” in getting repeatedly promoted, he said.Studying sociology at PC in 1985, McLaughlin realized his heart belonged to the fire service and switched gears in 1988 to train at the fire academy.
A steadily growing career in the fire service followed, where McLaughlin took on the roles of firefighter, captain, lieutenant, battalion chief and assistant chief. But he knew he wanted to lead the department. “SCE afforded me the opportunity to have the flexibility to go to the academy during the day and take courses at night,” he said. “There are not many degrees like it in the country.”
SCE’s fire science degree was approved by the Fire and Emergency Services Higher Education Network (FESHE) of the U.S. Fire Administration’s National Fire Academy in 2014, said SCE Dean Janet L. Castleman. FESHE provides a national model curriculum for fire science, which standardizes and improves undergraduate education.
Some of the skills McLaughlin developed by completing the SCE degree, as well as studying sociology earlier, include knowing how to engage with civic groups, being prepared for budgets, and serving as a representative of the department, he said.
“Formal education helped me out immensely with all of those things,” he said. All of his education helped give the chief the confidence to lead his colleagues and interact with the media, he said.
“Schooling is valuable,” he added. “Some people are born with those skills and good for them, [but] that wasn’t the case for me.”
Most vivid in his memory are the fire tactics classes, in which the professor set up a scenario at the start of every class. As one of 20 firefighters studying from across the state, McLaughlin and others would offer “20 different perspectives” as they responded to a hypothetical emergency situation.
“It made you think outside the box,” he recalled. “It made you think about all the different options you had when you went to a scene.”
Learn more about PC SCE’s BS in Fire Science