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How to Become a Firefighter in 2021

October 4, 2021 | Staff Writers

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Becoming a firefighter offers a demanding yet rewarding career. These professionals are called to handle various emergency situations, including fires, accidents, chemical spills, and wildfires. Due to the demands of the job, firefighters must meet stringent physical, mental, and aptitude requirements.

While many men and women across the country serve as volunteer firefighters in their local communities, those with the right skills can turn this interest into a professional career. In fact, statistical data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics reveals that the demand for professional firefighters is expected to grow by more than 6% over the next 10 years.  

If you’re considering beginning a career as a firefighter, this guide is for you. It will explain more about what firefighters do and how to become one.

Requirements to become a firefighter

If you want to become a firefighter, there are certain requirements you must meet as well as some options steps you can take to enhance your hiring potential.

Gain experience

While not required, many firefighters start their careers by serving as volunteer firefighters in their local communities. This step can help you acquire firefighter skills and enable you to determine if this is the right career choice for you or not.

Most volunteer fire companies require their firefighters to be at least 18 years old. However, younger volunteers can serve as junior firefighters, but they are limited in the type of services they can provide. Additionally, many local fire departments require their team to complete mandatory training. This early training and experience can advance your job potential throughout your career.

Complete an educational program

Professional firefighters must have a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. However, applicants who take steps to earn a degree in fire science have a better chance of securing a job as a firefighter.

Degree options available at the undergraduate level include an associate degree in fire science and a Bachelor of Science in Fire Science degree. An associate degree typically takes two years to complete and is offered at select trade schools, tech schools, and community colleges.  A bachelor’s program, on the other hand, takes an average of four year to complete. These programs are offered by numerous colleges and universities across the country.

Despite which degree program you choose to enroll in, you can expect to take a combination of general education courses and fire science-related classes, such as fire prevention, fire behavior and combustion, and community fire risk mitigation.

Those wishing to advance their career opportunities can also consider enrolling in a graduate course once they complete their undergraduate studies. These students can work towards earning a Master of Science in Fire Science degree or a Ph.D. in Fire Prevention Engineering.

If completing a two or four-year program is not in your plans, you can also consider earning a certificate in fire science. These certification programs are offered at numerous trade and tech schools. Typically, these programs can take anywhere from a few weeks to 18 months to complete. These programs cover a range of topics, including code enforcement, wildfire control, firefighter operations, and HAZMAT response.

Other relevant certification programs available include:

  • Fire investigator
  • Rescue technician
  • Wildland firefighter
  • Apparatus driver
  • Airport firefighter

Physical fitness

You should begin a rigorous physical fitness training program as soon as you decide you want to become a firefighter. For example, if you’re enrolling in a degree program, you should start a fitness program at the same time. It can’t be said enough just how demanding this job is both physically and emotionally. You must be at peak performance to handle the day-to-day duties of the job.

This step will not only help you prepare for the demands of the job, but it will also prepare you for the physical fitness exam, which is required for all firefighter recruits. You can choose to work with a professional trainer or create your own fitness program. Either way, you want to practice wearing weights, climbing stairs, and exercising carrying heavy objects. This type of fitness program will help you build both strength and stamina.

Age requirements

All fire departments require candidates to be at least 18 years old prior to applying for a position. What you may not realize is that most fire departments also have maximum age limits. Typically, this cut-off age ranges anywhere from 28 to 35 years old. It’s important to check these age requirements before applying for any job.

Driver’s license

Nearly every fire department requires firefighter recruits to have a current driver’s license. This requirement is to ensure that every firefighter is able to drive the department’s emergency vehicles, if necessary. Although firetrucks often meet the weight and size requirements to be considered commercial vehicles, a CDL license is not required to drive them. Instead, firefighters receive a special exemption that allows them to drive these larger vehicles without a specialized license.

EMT Certification

While not always required, obtaining your Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification prior to applying for jobs can help you stand out from other candidates. This added qualification allows firefighters to provide immediate medical treatment to victims at the scene of an accident, fire, or other emergency situations until additional medical personnel arrives.

EMT training requirements vary by state, but you can expect it to take several weeks or months to complete. This training will cover a variety of issues, such as bleeding control, wound care, oxygen administration, CPR training, spinal immobilization, and airway management.

Firefighter career skills

Not everyone is cut out to be a firefighter. It takes a special type of person with the right aptitude, personality, and skill set to succeed as a professional firefighter. Here’s a look at just some of the skills and credentials a professional firefighter should possess.

Courage

It might go without saying, but firefighters must have a high degree of courage. While others run as fast as they can from dangerous situations, such as fires and accidents, these first responders must push forward into these dangerous environments to save lives and mitigate damages. To be a successful firefighter, you must be able to handle these tasks without hesitation.

Stay calm under pressure

Firefighters must also be able to remain calm under immense pressure. Their lives and the lives of those around them depend on it. No matter what’s going on around them or how stressful the situation is, they must be able to think fast and take immediate action. Most importantly, firefighters must be able to use their unique skill set and knowledge to deal with any situation quickly and safely.

Strong communication skills

Firefighters work as a team, so strong communication skills are a must. They must be able to give clear orders as well as understand and obey direct commands. Additionally, firefighters must have the ability to communicate effectively with victims, especially when explaining safety procedures. For example, a firefighter trying to assist a victim out of a burning building must be able to give direct orders in a clear and concise manner.

Adaptability

Firefighters quickly learn that no two emergency situations are exactly the same. While proper training can prepare firefighters for most situations, they must be able to quickly adapt as on-site conditions change. For example, firefighters trying to control a wildland fire must continuously adapt to ever-changing wind and weather conditions.

Decision-making skills

Successful firefighters must have strong decision-making skills. While the goal is to work as a team to safely and effectively deal with emergency situations, this is not always possible. It’s not uncommon for a firefighter to be separated from the team and be forced to work alone, if even for a few moments. In these times, a firefighter cannot depend on their team leader to give orders and provide assistance. Therefore, firefighters must be skilled at evaluating the situation and in making split-second decisions.

Physical fitness

Without a doubt, firefighters must be physically fit enough to handle the demand of the job. Firefighters must climb ladders and stairs, find their way around smoky environments with little to no visibility, and crawl through small spaces while wearing heavy gear and carrying proper equipment. To handle this type of job, you must have a high level of strength and stamina.

Nearly all fire departments require potential firefighters to complete a physical examination, such as the CPAT exam when applying for a job. The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) requires candidates to complete a series of eight firefighter-related tasks, such as stair climb, hose drag, search, rescue, forcible entry, and ladder raise and extension, in under 10 minutes and 20 seconds. On top of this, the candidates must be wearing a helmet, gloves, and a 50-pound weighted vest while completing these tasks.

EMT certification

Firefighters are often the first responders at the scene of an emergency. In fact, it could be several minutes before additional medical personnel arrives on the scene, and these minutes could mean the difference between life and death for some victims. In order to properly assists these victims as soon as possible, many fire departments encourage, or require, their firefighters to obtain certification as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT).

To obtain this certification, firefighters must complete a comprehensive EMT training program and pass both a cognitive and skills test. EMT training programs cover a wide range of topics, including airway ventilation techniques, wound care, CPR certification, pharmacological intervention, and trauma care. With this certification, a firefighter can treat victims as soon as they arrive at the scene of an emergency or until a paramedic arrives.

Proper training

While every fire station in the country invests in comprehensive training for their firefighters, most employers expect candidates to have some type of training or experience prior to applying for a job. There are several ways you can obtain their training, including:

Volunteer work

Working as a volunteer firefighter can provide you with first-hand experience that is invaluable in the field. Most volunteer fire companies work with volunteers that are over the age of 18, but some also use junior firefighters, so interested teenagers can obtain limited experience at an early age.

Fire science certification

You can earn a fire science certification from a trade or tech school in just a matter of weeks. Many of these schools offer both online and traditional classroom training options. This option allows you to gain some basic firefighting experience without the cost or time of earning an undergraduate degree.

Fire science degree

If you’re looking for a great way to jumpstart your career as a firefighter, earning an undergraduate degree in fire science is the perfect solution. These programs take two years for an associate-level degree and four years for a bachelor’s degree to complete. This step is ideal for any career firefighter who hopes to advance into an administrative role after gaining several years of experience.

Fire academy training

Fire academies typically offer two types of training options. One is for firefighters who have been hired by a specific fire department. The other training programs are for individuals who want to gain skills in the firefighting industry. If you have not obtained any other type of training or experience, you may want to consider taking several courses at the nearest academy. These courses can help you learn everything from hazardous material mitigation to fire prevention techniques and will look good on your firefighter resume.

Day-to-day activities for firefighters

Professional firefighters typically work for fire departments in larger cities or metropolitan areas. Since these professionals can be called to handle emergency situations at any time of the night or day, they often work 12 or 24-hours shifts. Depending on the fire department, firefighters may be expected to stay at the fire station for three to four days. They often eat and sleep at the station during these shifts.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for firefighters in the United States is $52,500. Although, these range from $26,940 at the low end and $93,790 at the high end.

The states with the highest number of professional firefighters include:

  • California: 86,860
  • Texas: 56,610
  • Florida: 52,720
  • Ohio: 50,440
  • North Carolina: 34,230

While the states that offer the highest firefighting salaries include:

  • New Jersey: $86,880
  • California: $86,860
  • Washington: $77,770
  • New York: $77,380
  • Hawaii: $68,590

However, California is home to all five metropolitan areas with the highest paying firefighter salaries, including:

  • San Jose – Sunnyvale – Santa Clara: $125,680
  • San Francisco – Oakland – Hayward: $109,480
  • Vallejo – Fairfield: $105,670
  • Los Angeles – Long Beach – Anaheim: $100,230
  • Oxnard – Thousand Oaks – Ventura: $99,260

Firefighters respond to a wide range of emergencies, including house and commercial fires, accidents, hazardous material spills, explosions, and wildfires. While the specific duties firefighters handle at the scene of an emergency vary greatly based on need, here’s a look at their most common responsibilities.

  • Extinguish fires using fire extinguishers, water hoses, and water pumps
  • Handle onsite search and rescue efforts
  • Provide basic medical treatment to victims as needed
  • Analyze hazardous spills and manage the cleanup efforts
  • Drive fire truck to and from the scene of an emergency
  • Extend and climb ladders for rescue and mitigation purposes
  • Extract victims from vehicles and buildings
  • Prepare victims for transfer to medical facilities
  • Coordinate with medical response teams
  • Coordinate with local police departments
  • Identify and mitigate threats from hazardous materials
  • Inspect damage for safety issues
  • Operate firefighting tools and equipment
  • Handle cleanup efforts as needed

Following the emergency, firefighters, typically the lead firefighter or fire chief, must complete an incident report and all necessary documentation. Depending on the situation, firefighters may also be called to testify in court as to their observations when arriving at the scene of the emergency.

When not dealing with emergencies, firefighters must take steps to maintain their fire apparatus, vehicles, and station. This involves a variety of duties, including:

  • Ensure all department vehicles are properly maintains
  • Frequently clean and wash all department vehicles, including every fire truck
  • Ensure all vehicles are properly stocked with all necessary tools and supplies
  • Properly maintain all emergency tools and equipment
  • Ensure all firefighter tools and equipment are functioning properly
  • Ensure all company vehicles have the appropriate level of fuel
  • Clean and stock fire station as necessary
  • Conduct frequent workplace drills
  • Maintain a physical fitness plan
  • Maintain emergency medical technician certification
  • Complete all required training and continuation education requirements

Firefighters are also expected to work closely with their local community. To meet this expectation, they offer a variety of services, such as:

  • Provide fire prevention education
  • Conduct fire drills at local schools and agencies
  • Conduct child safety seat inspections
  • Provide fire safety education at local schools and childcare centers
  • Participate in community events, such as fairs and parades

Phases of the firefighter hiring process

Firefighters face some of the most dangerous, hazardous, and demanding work environments. Due to these conditions, most fire departments have created a comprehensive and stringent hiring process. On top of this, firefighting is one of the most competitive occupations.

You can greatly improve your hiring opportunities by better understanding the firefighter hiring process. Unfortunately, this can be an extremely long process, which can take several weeks or even months from start to finish.

While the order of the hiring process may vary slightly from department to department, the main components remain the same for most employers.

Choose a fire department

Your first step is to compare various fire companies with open positions. There are several online job search databases that you can use to identify which fire departments are currently looking for qualified candidates. Start by making sure that the fire department’s location is within driving distance or determine if you are willing to move if necessary. You also want to make sure that any of your credentials will transfer to this location, if in a different state.

Next, be sure to thoroughly read each job description and only apply to those positions for which you are qualified. For example, if the employer is seeking candidates with a degree in fire science, only apply to this position if you have the required degree or you are soon graduating.

Once you’ve selected a job to apply to, complete all sections of the application. Some departments require applicants to complete several stages within the application process. Be sure that you complete all required and recommended sections. Finally, be sure to submit any requested documents, such as a resume, cover letter, certification, or diploma by the set deadline.

Physical exam

Being a firefighter is a very physically demanding job. Not only must firefighters tackle fires, search and rescue, and climb ladders, but they must do so while wearing heavy protective gear and carrying cumbersome tools and equipment. Naturally, fire departments want to know that the firefighter recruit has the physical strength and stamina to meet the demands of the job.

For this reason, most employers require prospective candidates to successfully pass one of the primary physical fitness examinations designed for firefighters. Some, fire departments today prefer candidates to complete this training prior to applying for the position. Taking this test prior to applying for jobs may speed up the recruitment process and help you stand out from the competition.

The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) and the BIDDLE test are two of the most popular testing options. These exams are used to test the candidates’ physical strength, ability, and stamina. Candidates must successfully complete a series of tasks, such as climbing stairs, search and rescue simulations, and dry hose deployments while wearing a helmet, 50-pound vest, and gloves.

Written exam

In addition to a physical exam, firefighter applicants must pass a written examination. This test varies greatly from department to department and unfortunately, firefighter candidates don’t typically know what type of test they will have to take until they arrive for testing day. However, most tests are multiple-choice and take an hour or two to complete.

While the exam includes basic questions pertaining to firefighting techniques and services, the bulk of the test rates the applicants’ skills in reading comprehension, spatial reasoning, observation skills, and mathematical aptitude. The inconsistency in testing options can make it difficult to study for the firefighter exam, but there are online resources available to help you prepare.

Background check

Nearly every fire department today runs a comprehensive background check on prospective candidates. This stage will include a criminal background investigation as well as a credit check. In fact, some employers even conduct a social media review of each applicant.

To ensure you don’t jeopardize your chances of becoming a firefighter, it’s important to maintain a clean criminal record, have good credit, and be very selective about what you post on social media.

Psychological testing

Many fire departments also choose to run a series of psychological tests on candidates they are considering. These exams are designed to ensure that the candidate is mentally stable and prepared to handle the duties of a firefighter. This examination typically consists of a written test that requires you to answer a series of multiple-choice questions as well as an oral interview with a trained psychologist. The best strategy for passing this test is to remain calm, answer the questions to the best of your ability, and refrain from second-guessing your answers.

Firefighter interview

It may take several weeks between testing to be called in for an interview. As mentioned earlier, firefighting is very competitive. Employers may receive hundreds of applications they have to filter through. If, however, you are called in for an interview, you’ve been identified as one of the leading candidates and you’re one step closer to being hired.

Typically, these interviews are conducted by a panel of 5 to 10 officers within the departments. This type of interview can be very intense since multiple interviewers will be asking you a series of questions. The best way to prepare for this type of interview is to practice answering some of the most commonly asked interview questions, such as

  • “What is your greatest weakness?”
  • “Why did you want to become a professional firefighter?”
  • “Name an adversity in your life and explain how you overcame it?”
  • “Where do you see yourself in five years?”
  • “How have you prepared for this position?”
  • “Why should we hire you?”

Chief’s interview

The final step in the hiring process is a one-to-one interview with the chief of the department. Only the best candidates are called in an interview with the chief. If you’ve made it this far in the hiring process, there is a high likelihood that you will be hired. During the interview, the fire chief will ask you a series of questions to determine your aptitude and fit for the department. It’s important to answer each question as thoroughly, accurately, and honestly as possible.

Probationary firefighter

If selected, you will start as a probationary firefighter until you have received the proper training and complete a set number of on-the-job experience hours. After successful completion of this probationary period, you will be hired as a permanent firefighter within the department.

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