Career-of-the-Month: Firefighter

Every year, fires destroy billions of dollars worth of property and take many lives. Firefighters help to protect the life and property of the general public by working to prevent, combat, and extinguish fires. Many people want to become firefighters because the job is challenging and gives them a chance to help others. But fighting fires is dangerous, while also requiring extreme physical effort. To protect themselves from flames, smoke, poisonous gases and other hazards, firefighters wear protective gear which can be heavy and hot. Heat stress and dehydration are a major issue due to the insulated clothing, because firefighters can’t shed the heat generated from physical exertion. The physical and mental demands of firefighting are largely underestimated and because of this, a number of firefighter candidates tend to drop out within the first few years on the job.

Yet most firefighters find the rewards of the work far outweigh any of the difficulties or hazards they face. Perhaps the foremost advantage of being a firefighter is the opportunity to routinely save the lives of others, a satisfaction that imbues the job with meaning. Firefighting frequently involves rescuing people who are trapped inside burning buildings. Firefighters are willing to risk their lives for complete strangers regardless of race, creed, color, or social status. Recognized for their bravery and their contribution to others, firefighters enjoy the esteem of their communities and of society at large. They are looked upon as real-life superheroes, and as role models they are often asked to speak to children in schools.

Basic firefighting skills are usually taught in a local, regional, or state approved fire academy. Firefighter recruits undergo special training which includes participating in firefighting duties where they learn to prevent and put out fires. They practice using axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, ladders, hydraulic rescue tools, and other devices. They study local building codes and emergency medical procedures such as first aid. Firefighters are also trained to use communications equipment to give and receive commands, request assistance, and report on conditions. After completing this training, they are assigned to a fire station.

Once on the job, firefighters typically work on rotational 24-hour shifts, reporting to work at 0700 until 0700 the next day. They usually work a total of 56 hours per week, but since these hours are worked on a continual basis, firefighters enjoy a lot of time off in between. (Firefighters working ten 24-hour shifts would get 20 days off each month.) Because fires break out intermittently, firefighters may not have much work to do on some days. However, on a busy night they may have to put in long hours with little sleep.

When they’re not out fighting fires, firefighter duties include routine maintenance of the firefighting equipment. They also participate in practice drills, improving their skills, and training in new firefighting techniques. In between alarms, firefighters must clean and repair their gear. They may perform fire inspections or install smoke detectors in homes. Fire prevention is a top priority in public education for almost all fire departments, so firefighters often give fire safety talks at schools and community events.

Firefighters live at the fire station much of the time. Most fire stations have living rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens. Many firefighters are known to be good cooks. Since firefighters essentially live together at the station and work closely together, they must be able to get along well with others. Firefighters typically develop a deep sense of mutual trust and respect. But spending more time with the rest of the crew than their actual families can sometimes be straining on personal relationships.

Firefighters have to be healthy, strong, and brave. They exercise regularly to keep physically fit. They also need to be alert and self-disciplined. When the alarm sounds, firefighters must respond quickly. They must be able to work through an adrenaline rush, darting into burning buildings even as other people are running out. Firefighters have to follow directions and cannot afford to stall or panic. Self-doubt has no place in the fire department. A firefighter often has to make quick decisions, and he must have good judgment. Most firefighters will say it’s just a matter of keeping your composure and concentrating on getting the job done, coupled with outstanding training and knowing that you are surrounded by competent co-workers who are always looking out for you.

Fighting fires takes organization and teamwork. Working as a part of a team in emergency situations is of paramount importance. Structure fires require both interior and exterior crews. A proper command structure will plan and coordinate the various teams and equipment to safely execute each tactic. Incident commanders also arrange for a standby search and rescue team, known as a Rapid Intervention Crew or FAST (Firefighter Assist and Search Team), to assist if any firefighters become lost, trapped, or injured.

Routinely subjecting themselves to the risks of fire, smoke inhalation, and collapsing buildings, firefighters hold one of the most inherently dangerous professions in the world. But Hollywood films have resulted in many misconceptions about the work of firefighters. For example, firefighters in movies are often shown entering a room with flames popping up in corners, searching for a trapped child. In reality, firefighters work almost blindly. The thick, black smoke that results from house fires is impossible to see through. Firefighters must learn to feel their way through the home without any visual guidance while simultaneously avoiding collapsing floors and aggressive flames.

Firefighters work closely with other emergency response agencies, particularly local and state police departments. Every fire scene is technically a crime scene until deemed otherwise, so there is often overlap between the responsibilities of responding firefighters and police officers such as evidence and scene protection, and specific powers of enforcement and control in fire and emergency situations. As in a typical law enforcement investigation, there will be a fire scene investigator or arson investigator.

In addition to fighting fires, firefighters provide emergency care for sick and injured persons, both at fires and in other situations such as motor vehicle accidents. In fact, most calls that firefighters respond to involve medical emergencies. Unfortunately, not every life can be salvaged from a fire or accident scene. Throughout the duration of his or her career, a firefighter will be faced with tragedy and death.

Few professions pay employees to routinely partake in such dangerous adventures as bashing down a door with an ax, and charging into a burning building. But despite all that they do, firefighters receive a relatively modest salary, typically between $40-45,000. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) listed a firefighter’s median salary as $21.76 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earn less than $23,050, and the top 10 percent earn more than $75,390, based on experience and seniority. Most firefighters are paid by the city or local community that they serve. In addition to their salary, firefighters generally receive generous benefits. According to the BLS, firefighters have excellent job security and the profession is in great demand. Many brave citizens even fight fires for free. Data from the National Fire Protection Association shows that about 70% of fire stations, particularly in rural areas, are staffed entirely by volunteer firefighters.

There are many different types of firefighting jobs. Some firefighters work at airports, in factories, or aboard ships. Hazmat specialists conduct cleanup of chemical and hazardous materials spills. Forest Rangers and forestry technicians with a fire protection background help to prevent fires, construct firebreaks, perform fire suppression activities, and respond to forest emergencies. Wildland firefighters fight forest fires. Smoke jumpers are wildland firefighters who parachute from planes to remote areas. High-risk first responders are trained to work under hostile conditions and in hazardous environments. Specialty training can include vehicle extrication, building collapse rescue, rope rescue, swift water rescue, confined space rescue, cave rescue, trench/excavation rescue, and more.

In most states, firefighters must be at least 18 years old and have a high school diploma. According to the BLS, a growing number of new firefighters have received a 2-year or 4-year degree in fire engineering or fire science. Many firefighters also have some kind of medical training as first responders, emergency medical technicians, paramedics or nurses. By receiving a Fire Science degree along with EMT certification, you increase your chances of finding that dream job. Possessing more skills than those required is a benefit you will have over other applicants. In addition, new applicants need to have tough mental, physical and behavioral traits to ensure successful selection.

In order to become a firefighter, candidates must endure rigorous physical training and also pass written exams. Entry-level workers in large fire departments are usually trained for several weeks at the department’s own training center or academy. New members are referred to as recruits, rookies, or probies (short for probationary). Some departments require recruits to wear special gear or markings (such as a red helmet) to denote their ranking. Fire departments may allow new recruits to ride along on fire apparatus as observers before undergoing the rigors of further fire training.

A great way to gain knowledge and experience in the fire service is to volunteer at a fire station. Volunteering is one of the best ways to get the necessary training and experience to be an attractive candidate for a professional firefighting position. Such candidates will have made a name for themselves long before the testing and interview process. An important thing to keep in mind is that reputation is everything in the fire department. Your reputation starts immediately when you get into the program.

If you are not yet 18, then you have time to plan before entering the field. More time means more opportunities for growth and a more diversified background. Work on building endurance and muscle stamina along with abdominal, grip, arm, shoulder, and back strength. You will have to run at the academy – so run now! You will also have to do pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups, and carry heavy objects while climbing stairs – so practice doing those things too. Use weights as optional training tools. Flexibility and dexterity are needed for duties like rolling and unrolling hoses quickly and correctly. Work outside, or in another hot environment, for an extended period of time to get used to hot conditions. Even if you are not going to a Fire Academy, carrying heavy objects while walking up stairs and running 10-20 yards is firefighting training.

Everyone in the Fire Academy has to perform to the minimum standards. There are NO exceptions. Being able to perform under pressure is critical. Most fire departments use the Candidate Physical Assessment Test (CPAT). This entry level physical ability test is taken during the recruitment process to get hired for various fire departments. The CPAT consists of physical tasks that simulate actual job duties. For example, candidates must be able to swing a 10-lb. sledgehammer; carry 75 pounds on their back while climbing stairs; run while pulling a 60 lb. hose; pick up and carry a chainsaw in each hand; raise an aluminum extension ladder; drag a 165-lb. dummy; use a crowbar to raise and lower a ceiling panel; and crawl through a dark tunnel with obstacles.

The job of a firefighter is rewarding, challenging, and exciting. It’s also one of the most physically demanding careers. Firefighting requires high levels of cardiopulmonary endurance, muscular strength, and muscular endurance. For those who can undergo the rigors of stress and physical exertion, firefighting can be extremely satisfying, given the fact that successfully performing their duties can help save many lives and properties. Firefighters are constantly reminded in a concrete way why they do what they do, which gives their lives a sense of purpose. For more information about firefighting, fire science careers, and resources for new students within the field of fire science, visit

Related Occupations:
Emergency Medical Technician
Police Officer
Arson Investigator
Building Inspector
Fire Protection & Safety Engineer
Occupational Health & Safety Technician
Hazardous Materials Specialist
Fire Safety Director
Forest Ranger
Forestry Technician

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