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How to Become a Firefighter

firefighter A firefighter faces dangerous situations. / Credit: Jack Dagley Photography | Shutterstock

Firefighters provide a useful and necessary service to the general public. They are responsible for protecting people against fires and other dangerous situations and are often the first responders at the scene of an accident.

Firefighting is a multifaceted job that requires a great deal of courage, physical strength, and excellent communication skills. It is one of the most stressful careers, but it is also one of the most satisfying careers. If you’re considering a career as a firefighter, then you should be aware of what qualifications you’ll need to get the job, what your responsibilities as a firefighter will be, and how much money you can expect to earn annually.

What firefighters do

Firefighting requires more than just putting out fires. This job also requires skills such as driving and operating a fire truck, finding and rescuing fire victims, and treating victims in need of emergency medical attention. Cleaning and maintaining equipment, preparing reports on emergency incidents, conducting drills, training in new firefighting techniques, and providing public education on fire safety are also part of a firefighter’s duties.

When on the scene of a fire or other emergency, firefighters are assigned specific tasks by their superior officers. Such tasks include connecting hoses to hydrants, operating water pumps, climbing ladders, clearing debris, or performing emergency medical care. And while firefighters must always be prepared to put out fires, most of the calls they respond to are for medical emergencies, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Some firefighters specialize in a particular area of emergency response, such as forest firefighting or hazardous material control.

Where firefighters work

Nearly all paid firefighters worked for local governments as of 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some firefighters work for federal or state governments, airports, chemical plants, and industrial facilities.

Many firefighters are volunteers who have the same duties and responsibilities as their paid counterparts. According to the National Fire Protection Association, about 70 percent of fire departments in the United States were staffed entirely by volunteers as of 2008.

Paid firefighters typically work about 50 hours a week and are on duty for 24-hour shifts, followed by two to three days of rest. Others work 10-hour shifts for three to four days consecutively, followed by 14-hour night shifts for three to four days consecutively, and then receive three to four days of rest. When firefighters are on duty, they must report to their fire station, where they are able to eat and sleep while remaining on call.

Not surprisingly, firefighters have a higher rate of injury on the job than those in most other professions. They regularly face dangerous situations such as collapsing structures, traffic accidents, and exposure to flames and smoke.

As of 2010, the median annual wage for firefighters in the United States was $45,250, and over half of all firefighters belonged to a union or were covered by a union contract, according to the Occupational Outlook Handbook.

Becoming a firefighter

The mandatory qualifications for becoming a firefighter vary in each jurisdiction, but all firefighters must possess a high school diploma or equivalent. In many locations, applicants for the job must also possess a postsecondary non-degree award in fire science or a related discipline. Associate’s and bachelor’s degree programs are also available for firefighters, and may be necessary for career advancement in some departments. Firefighters must typically pass written and physical tests, complete several interviews, and hold an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic certification.

All entry-level firefighters receive training at fire academies run by their departments or the state. New recruits are trained in firefighting and prevention, local building codes and emergency procedures. Academies also train firefighters in using standard equipment, such as axes, chainsaws, extinguishers, and ladders.

Some fire departments offer accredited apprenticeship programs for up to four years, which combine classroom instruction with on-the-job training. And some departments send firefighters to federal training programs, sponsored by the National Fire Academy.

Advancement in firefighting careers is based on experience and education. Firemen and women can be promoted to engineer, then lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, deputy chief, and finally, chief. In order to become chief, most departments require applicants hold at least a bachelor’s degree in fire science or public administration.

Elizabeth Peterson

Elizabeth writes about innovative technologies and business trends. She has traveled throughout the Americas in her roles as student, English teacher, Spanish language interpreter and freelance writer. She graduated with a B.A. in International Affairs from the George Washington University. You can follow her on Twitter @techEpalermo or .