Learn About a Career as a Firefighter
In emergency situations, firefighters are often the first responders on the scene. They not only fight fires but respond to all types of emergencies where lives and property are in danger. Firefighters provide a vital public service that people rarely think about until an emergency strikes.
The vast majority -- 91% according to US Bureau of Labor Statistics information from 2010 -- of paid firefighters work in local government. Excluding widespread natural disasters, firefighters respond to emergencies in their communities.
The Selection Process
Like other civil service positions, the hiring process for firefighters has several tests built into it. Because of the physicality required at any moment on the job, firefighters must meet certain benchmarks on physical tests in order to be considered for employment. Civil service exams and drug tests are also required.
The physical tests and random drug tests may be necessary for continued employment. Failure on one of these tests may be grounds for suspension or immediate termination.
Interviewing may be part of the process. If it is, it will be one of the last steps before the hiring decision is made. It is easier for the department to disqualify someone using a standardized test than to choose between individuals based on an interview. To add a heightened aura of fairness, departments may employ panel interviews.
According to Firehire, Inc., obtaining a firefighter position can take a long time. “On average, it can take 5 years or more to get hired on a full-time permanent basis. For every single position available, there are generally between 1,000 to 3,000 people applying for that one position. Therefore, remember to cast your net far and wide … don’t simply apply to the one department you are hoping to work for.”
For most fire departments, a high school diploma will suffice. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree can give someone an advantage in the hiring process, but a degree is not required usually. A driver’s license is generally required.
Once hired, firefighters will need to obtain the necessary license and endorsements to drive a fire truck and other emergency vehicles. An EMT certification is required, but some departments allow new hires to earn this certification as part of the overall new firefighter training program. These programs are intense physically and mentally.
Because the new hire training program is so rigorous, firefighters do not need experience to be hired. There would be no practical way for someone to gain experience if it was required. Firefighting is such a unique job that the training has to come only once a position is secured.
Serving as a volunteer firefighter can help someone land a full-time job, but volunteering may be impractical given other demands on someone mid-career trying to change jobs. Many small-town and unincorporated area fire departments have only volunteer firefighters. They simply cannot afford to hire professional firefighters.
In addition to the new hire training, firefighters receive regular training in emergency management and the latest firefighting techniques and technology.
Firefighters respond to fires and other emergencies such as traffic accidents, medical emergencies, and natural disasters. They drive fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to the incidents. Once there, they use the equipment on the vehicles and on their persons to address the situation.
Firefighters work with paramedics, emergency medical technicians, police officers and emergency management personnel depending on the incident they face. For example, a building collapse will have firefighters pulling people from the fallen structure, paramedics and emergency medical technicians attending to injured people and police officers ensuring citizens do not get too close to the building and diverting traffic away from around the scene.
Depending on the available personnel, firefighters may attend to injuries as well since most firefighters are also certified as emergency medical technicians. Trust and teamwork are essential to managing the response to an emergency. Each professional at the scene must be confident that others will do their jobs safely and effectively.
Saving lives and property is the dangerous and glamorous part of the job, but there are other important aspects. Once an emergency situation is stabilized, firefighters write reports about it. Such reports keep managers within the department informed and help firefighters assess what went well and what could have gone better.
In order to get the trucks rolling as soon as possible after the firehouse alarm sounds, firefighters clean and inspect their equipment on a routine basis. Problems and mechanical failures are prevented to the greatest extent possible so that they do not arise during an emergency.
Firefighters conduct drills and participate in training to keep their minds and bodies in peak condition to fight fires and address other emergencies. They take some of this knowledge and share it with the public through speaking engagements and public demonstrations.
Firefighters work with public information officers to develop public service announcements, press releases and other promotional material aimed at educating the public on fire prevention, disaster preparedness and burn bans. Firefighters do not work a normal eight-hour day. They often work 24 hours straight followed by 24, 48 or 72 hours off. They may also divide their time between 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts.
According to 2010 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, firefighters make an annual salary of $45,250. The top 10% of earners make more than $75,390. The bottom 10% earn less than $23,050. Firefighters with management potential can promote through the ranks of the department.
For lower level supervisory positions, testing may be a significant factor in the hiring process. Once an individual obtains the rank of fire chief, that person can only promote out of the department. The next logical career move for a fire chief is a city manager or assistant city manager position.