Fire service personnel are often not required to have a college degree, but that didn’t keep Zach Curren from earning one.
“I’m a believer in higher education, and I always had the goal of pursuing an advanced degree,” he said.
Curren completed the Master of Public Administration (MPA) Public Management Track online program from Arkansas State University (A-State) in October 2019.
He holds an associate degree in general studies and an online Bachelor of Science in fire administration from Cogswell Polytechnical College. Along the way he picked up technical certifications and his paramedic license.
“I was gaining work experience simultaneously. With shift work and my schedule changing every week, I was unable to attend a traditional program,” he said.
When Curren decided to pursue his master’s degree in public administration, he sought a program that would fit his criteria for affordability and flexibility. A-State’s MPA stood out as the clear choice.
“The degree was exactly what I was looking for, the cost was very agreeable and the online reviews were excellent,” he said. “As I looked over the courses in the program, there were topics that spoke to me in what I believed would be important for my career.”
While working on his MPA at A-State, he was promoted to division chief of operations and he became chief of the Napa Fire Department in California at the end of 2020.
Doing the Important Work
Higher education pursuits may not be the norm in the fire service, but Curren had big plans and didn’t have to look far for inspiration. He followed the example of the previous fire chief, Steve Brassfield, who completed his MPA.
“If I wanted to promote up through the ranks and take on additional responsibilities, then I needed more than just the on-the-job training,” said Curren.
A-State’s classes were all meaningful, but the topics of strategic planning for public financial management, public budgeting and finance stood out to Curren as being the most directly related to his job. He primarily did schoolwork in the evenings and on the weekends, which fit well with his schedule.
“I’m a student of leadership, so the classes that appealed to me the most were Administrative Behavior [POSC 6543] and Administrative Leadership [POSC 6613],” he said. “Certainly, other classes were just as applicable to my position, like human resources management and policy analysis.
“I have found my education to be more than the sum of my classes,” he said. “I have been able to apply so much of what I have learned in my MPA program to my job as fire chief. For example, I took Grant Writing and Administration [POSC 6573], and two days ago, I utilized that information when looking at the new round of FEMA grants available.”
Learning How to Learn
Curren may have stumbled upon his career in the fire service, but he loves how it enables him to help others. While in high school, he visited the Wilmar Volunteer Fire Department for an orientation day and ended up becoming a firefighter there.
“It’s difficult at times, but every single time you go out on a fire engine, you’re helping somebody in need. And the needs vary, and the situations vary and the people vary. But what is always the same is that someone is having a crisis, and you’re there to help. I fell in love with the profession from day one, and I never looked back,” he said.
Before landing a position in the Napa Fire Department, Curren worked as a seasonal firefighter for Cal Fire and served on the coast at Bodega Bay Fire Protection District.
The A-State program has only emphasized his passion for helping others, and he has enjoyed gaining new insight.
“I had to learn how to manage my time correctly so that I could maximize my learning potential in a short period of time,” said Curren who completed the online MPA program in just two years.
Living in California, Curren wasn’t able to make it to Arkansas for his commencement, but he had a special graduation moment of his own with his family.
“I felt this immense flood of unexpected emotion and gratitude for completing the MPA program. I was fortunate that my family was understanding the entire way. I would never have been able to complete this journey if it wasn’t for the support of my wife and children,” said Curren who has four kids between the ages of 10 and 18. They love activities like weightlifting, dirt biking, camping and hiking, and his 13-year-old son is considering a career in the fire service.
As an online student, Curren had to sacrifice time with his family, but they were “able to make up time in different ways.” He encourages others to pursue their ambitions, no matter where they are in their career or life.
“If higher education is a goal that you’ve started and had to put aside for a little bit, don’t give up — get back in,” he said. “The feeling of satisfaction that comes from earning a degree is incredible.”
His time in the online program has him strongly recommending A-State.
“Arkansas State and its staff were phenomenal,” he said. “Anytime I had a question or a problem on how to access or find materials or locate subject matter experts, I really had a positive experience.”
Chief Curren may have reached the highest level possible for his profession, but he plans to keep going.
“Don’t stop learning just because you’ve already attained a position or a promotion. Continue to learn and grow. I plan to apply what I have learned at Arkansas State to my city and to my fire department to make improvements that will endure long beyond my tenure as fire chief.”