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Firefighter Job Description, Career as a Firefighter, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training High school plus training

Salary Median—$18.43 per hour

Employment Outlook Very good

Definition and Nature of the Work

Firefighters protect life and property from fires. Called first responders, they are usually the first emergency personnel at traffic accidents or explosions and may be called upon to put out fires or treat injuries.

Firefighters are organized in companies under commanding officers. All have specific tasks. Tillers, for instance, guide the part of the fire truck that carries long ladders. Hose operators connect the hoses to fire hydrants, while pump operators make sure the water gets through the hoses to the blaze. Once at a fire, they use axes to break down walls or windows so they can evacuate people trapped by flames and other obstacles. Between alarms, firefighters maintain equipment so it is in good working order. Most firefighters work for city or community governments, although some work for private companies. Volunteer firefighters have other full-time jobs and fight fires only when they are called.

In large cities, firefighters may work on special squads that require advanced training. Rescue squads take first-aid equipment to fires and help the injured until ambulances arrive. They also may be called for injuries and accidents not caused by fire, such as heart attacks. Marine squads specialize in water rescues, while hazardous material, or "haz mat," squads handle gases, poisons, and other chemical substances that cause fire, explosions, and injuries.

Firefighters are organized into companies. Each member of the company has a special task. (Photograph by Kelly A. Quin. Thomson Gale. Reproduced by permission.)

Fire inspectors and fire-science specialists work to prevent fires. Fire inspectors usually work for fire departments, checking buildings to see that fire escapes, automatic fire alarms, and sprinkler systems are in good condition. Fire-science specialists not only inspect buildings, but also help plan fire prevention and suggest equipment for fighting fires. Some work for insurance companies, setting insurance rates, investigating arson, and helping claims adjusters determine compensation due those who were injured or lost property because of fires.

Education and Training Requirements

Prospective firefighters must be at least eighteen years old and high school graduates to take the fire exam. In recent years, most applicants have had a few years of college or completed two- or four-year programs in fire science at community colleges or universities. Experienced firefighters sometimes take these courses to prepare for promotion. These courses are also useful for those preparing for jobs as fire-science specialists.

The firefighter exam includes a written section; tests of strength, physical stamina, and agility; and a medical examination, including a drug screening. Applicants with the highest scores undergo several weeks of formal training at an academy. Some fire departments offer apprenticeship programs that last three or four years. Experienced firefighters go on practice drills to maintain their skills.

Firefighters must also be certified as emergency medical technicians (EMTs). Most departments provide this training at the academy, but others prefer that trainees have EMT certification before they take the firefighter's exam.

Getting the Job

Job seekers should apply to take the firefighter's exam, a civil service test. Local fire departments usually have Web sites that provide specific qualifications for jobs available. Other sources of employment information include union offices, state employment services, school placement offices, newspaper classified ads, and job banks on the Internet.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Firefighters are usually promoted from within the department. They advance to higher ranks by passing civil service tests and being recommended by supervisors. Advanced ranks include captain, battalion chief, and fire chief.

About 353,000 firefighters are employed in the United States. Some growth should occur in this field as paid positions replace volunteer positions. The employment outlook is very good through 2014, although applicants should expect stiff competition. Most openings occur when experienced workers retire or leave the occupation.

Working Conditions

Firefighters work under extremely dangerous conditions, risking their own lives to save others. They must have courage and stamina as well as great physical strength, for they often carry heavy and bulky equipment. Despite the dangers, firefighters take satisfaction from providing an important public service.

Because fire protection is provided around the clock, firefighters work in shifts, which vary by community. Some work eight-hour day shifts or fourteen-hour night shifts. Others work for twenty-four hours and then receive equal time off. Firefighters may be required to live at the fire station for days at a time. They must be able to work as part of a team and follow orders. Many firefighters belong to labor unions.

Earnings and Benefits

Salaries vary by location and years of experience. In 2004 the median salary for firefighters was $18.43 per hour. The lowest ten percent earned less than $9.71 per hour, and the top ten percent earned more than $29.21 per hour. The median salary for fire inspectors was $46,340 per year.

Where to Go for More Information

International Association of Fire Fighters
1750 New York Ave. NW
Washington, DC 20006-5395
(202) 737-8484

National Fire Protection Association
PO Box 9101
1 Batterymarch Park
Quincy, MA 02169-7471
(617) 770-3000

U.S. Fire Administration
16825 S. Seton Ave.
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
(301) 447-1000

Firefighters generally receive paid sick days and vacations and medical and liability insurance. They are usually permitted to retire at half pay when they are fifty years old and have served for twenty-five years. Firefighters who are unable to work because of injury on the job may retire at any age.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw and Public Service