Faculty Q&A: Thomas Cook, Public Administration Instructor and Pennsylvania Fire Commissioner
"Point Park's public administration program is led by instructors with real-world field experience, and we emphasize the presentation of real-world practices based on current industry processes. A solid academic foundation and real-world experience inform an educational superstructure."
Point Park University's faculty bring years of real-world experience to the classroom, and many remain active in the fields they teach.
In the Rowland School of Business' Public Administration program, instructor Thomas Cook offers a distinctive perspective on what it takes to excel in fire safety as the fire commissioner for Pennsylvania with nearly 40 years of experience in emergency services.
In the Q&A below, he discusses his career path and how it informs his teaching approach.
What does it mean to you to serve in the role of state fire commissioner?
I am humbled and honored to be selected to serve the fire and emergency services of Pennsylvania. The Office of the State Fire Commissioner is responsible for a variety of administrative tasks, but I see our core role as advocacy – ensuring the availability of the resources our first responders need so that they can keep the citizens and visitors to the Commonwealth safe. The office represents a diverse community of professionals with experience, from career fire departments like the City of Philadelphia, to the most rural volunteer fire companies in north-central Pennsylvania. The emergency response community is in a state of crisis, and we must now build vision and partnerships and secure needed resources to map our way out of this crisis, allowing those agencies to continue their mission of protecting lives and property.
Describe your career path.
While working in corporate finance, I started about 40 years ago as a volunteer with the Monroeville Volunteer Fire Department. It did not take long to discover that the corporate environment was not where I saw my future heading, and I secured a position as a full-time fire instructor at the Allegheny County Fire Academy. A desire to get back on the streets led me to successfully pursue a position as a company officer in the Mount Lebanon Fire Department. During this time, I became heavily involved in regional and statewide programs to improve training and delivery of services through the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy.
Based on my experience and performance, I was recruited to compete for the role of assistant fire chief in the City of Pittsburgh when I worked hard to improve the work environment for the firefighters, ultimately enabling the bureau to provide improved services. In 2018, I was recruited to work at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy full-time and lead the statewide training system. In 2021, when Fire Commissioner Bruce Trego retired, former Gov. Tom Wolf's administration asked me to take on the role of fire commissioner on an interim basis. I was later asked by Gov. Josh Shapiro's administration to continue serving as commissioner and formally nominated to fill the role.
My education and career are a blend of private industry experience and service in all three types of delivery models, which gives me a unique perspective on leading Pennsylvania's fire and emergency services into the future.
How do you incorporate your real-world experience into your courses?
At Point Park, faculty in the public administration program use real-world case studies to reinforce academic concepts and principles, many of which are pulled directly from our own field experiences. Students are asked to research and synthesize information to provide innovative solutions for the problems presented in case studies. Then we challenge them to view the problem while considering how their own organization operates and assess the risk of such issues occurring internally. This leads to robust discussions of how to structure processes, policies and operations to minimize the likelihood of negative outcomes happening within their own organizations.
What are the distinctive benefits of Point Park’s public administration program?
Point Park's public administration program is led by instructors with real-world field experience, and we emphasize the presentation of real-world practices based on current industry processes. A solid academic foundation and real-world experience inform an educational superstructure. The real-world examples we utilize in class allow students to build a strong background that leads to greater achievements in employment. Point Park students graduate with a solid academic background, prepared for the realities of public administration, and they're better prepared to lead than other students who only get the academic approach.