When Emilio Salabarria retired last year as Tampa Fire Rescue's chief of special operations, he had 29 years of service, not only responding to emergencies but also making sure trouble stayed far away.

Super Bowls, severe weather, the 2012 Republican National Convention — these and other complex situations required planning and effort behind the scenes to help them take place without a hitch. But Salabarria liked the work. He also saw its value to multiple fields, beyond firefighting. He began to think about ways he could use the skills he had gained in his retirement.

"I was always thinking in the back of my head — is there something else I can do? I want more," Salabarria said. "I didn't want to ride off into the sunset."

He began taking online graduate courses in critical incident management through Saint Leo University and found that his job experience dovetailed nicely with what he was studying.

Starting a new career as safety director

Now 52, Salabarria is enjoying a new career that builds off his decades at Tampa Fire Rescue and the master's degree he received in 2013. He is well into his second year with Port Tampa Bay, which hired him as its new director of safety and training. He is responsible for the safety of all port operations as well as community outreach on port safety initiatives.

The port handles more than 36 million tons of cargo annually and is among the top eight U.S. cruise ports, with nearly 900,000 passengers a year.

Before Salabarria was hired, several employees shared the responsibility of port safety. Salabarria is charged with taking a holistic view of the entire organization, examining its infrastructure and looking at ways to make the port a safer place. He rewrote the port's emergency plan, which had not been updated in years, and made sure it addressed what Tampa had learned after a series of hurricanes in 2004. It needed to recognize changes in technology as well, whether it was addressing cell phone use or concerns about cybersecurity at the port.

Salabarria also has been strengthening valuable connections outside of the port, locally and statewide. They discuss the port's role in disasters and recovery. What would the port's role be after a hurricane? How could it open quickly to accept fuel and supplies?

Value of graduate degree in the real world

Knowing what contacts to make and what questions to ask comes from his education and background. As a firefighter, he had responded to and helped manage incidents at the port, but Saint Leo's program backed up what he was learning and helped him understand how to apply it in the workforce.

The university's online master's in criminal justice with a specialization in critical incident management and online master's in critical incident management provide students with both theoretical knowledge and practical skills. Students learn to identify threats, minimize risk and lead organizations in crises.

Why he recommends Saint Leo University

Salabarria was unsure what path he wanted to follow when he graduated from high school and tried the fire academy at the suggestion of his father, who had worked for Tampa Fire Rescue. He first got an associate's degree in fire science and then a bachelor's in business administration before deciding to pursue a master's.

Working full time and sometimes 12 hours a day, Salabarria knew online classes were the only way he would reach his goal. But he was apprehensive at first about communicating with professors and whether he would absorb the information if he wasn't in a classroom. He found that the process was smooth, and he never had trouble contacting professors.

The experience was so good that he started recommending it to others, including his own family. His brother recently completed his master's degree in critical incident management through Saint Leo University.

No matter how valuable your work experience, a graduate degree can set you apart from other applicants, Salabarria says. It also can help you avoid making mistakes when you move into positions of leadership.

"A lot of people have great field experience but no formal education to back it up," Salabarria says. "Others have education but not field experience. It can open the doors."

Image credits: Courtesy Port Tampa Bay and Emilio Salabarria