There are approximately 1,115,000 career and volunteer firefighters in the United States. It is one of the most popular civil service positions and also one of the most rewarding. However, do not be fooled by the numbers. Becoming a firefighter is a long demanding process.
So, if you are considering pursuing a career in the fire department, you need to know what to expect. Here, you will find a step-by-step guide on how to become a firefighter, including how long does it take, what the requirements are, the civil service exam, the pros and cons of being a firefighter, the expected salary, and more.
Is becoming a firefighter hard?
As we mentioned before, becoming a firefighter is a long demanding process. Thus, yes, it is hard! Becoming a firefighter is an accomplishment on both a professional and personal level.
Firefighters go through a well-rounded and strict hiring process, and once they are in the station, a lot is expected from them. As a result, they are usually individuals with extensive knowledge in different fields, including chemistry, math, medicine, biology, and more. They also must have excellent physical conditions and a particular set of skills and abilities.
Hence, before you are admitted to the fire academy, you must comply and successfully pass all of the following:
All candidates looking to enter the fire academy must:
- Be between 18 to 30 years old at the time of applying (although limited on-the-job training can begin at a younger age with parental consent)
- Have a high school diploma, GED, or its equivalent
- Be a U.S. citizen (or a permanent resident)
- Have a valid U.S. driver’s license
All applicants will have to agree to a background check. Why? Simple. You cannot become a firefighter if you have a criminal record. Candidates with adult criminal offenses, convictions, or serious misdemeanors will be instantly disqualified. On the other hand, candidates who have a criminal record, including minor offenses or Class C misdemeanors, can still apply. However, these could hurt their chances of being accepted into a fire academy.
In some departments, candidates with minor offenses such as disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, vandalism, etc. are often considered on a case-per-case basis.
Other offenses, including driving under the influence or severe driving offenses, can ban candidates from becoming a firefighter for five years (or more) after the crime. Additionally, candidates with poor driving records can be put on a waiting list or have their applications deferred until they can prove at least two years of refined driving.
Note that a “Dishonorable Discharge” from any of the U.S. Armed Forces can also disqualify candidates, as well as a failure to pay debts or an unstable work history.
Medical Evaluations & Physical Conditions
All aspiring candidates must be able to pass a medical exam (including physical and psychological evaluations) and a drug screening test. As you know, firefighters face extreme physical conditions daily while on the job. More so, according to recent statistics from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), 43% of firefighters die of overexertion and stress.
Thus, fire academies are very strict when choosing their candidates. Additionally, know that if you do become a firefighter, you will have to endure periodic medical examinations to ensure you continue to have the best physical (and mental) conditions for the job.
A typical firefighter physical evaluation assesses candidates on their:
- Aerobic capacity — measuring a person’s heart rate and how fast they recuperate after strenuous physical activity.
- Body composition — Body Mass Index (used to determine if a person’s weight is healthy in proportion to their height) and Skinfold Test (identifies an individual’s fat percentage.)
- Grip, arm, and leg strength — testing an individual’s capacity to carry a hose, lift heavy objects, jump, and more.
- Muscular endurance — to test a person’s ability to withstand fatigue and remain active for long periods.
- Flexibility — measuring an individual’s flexibility in the hamstring muscles, lower back, and shoulders.
Additionally, firefighters and aspiring candidates go through several medical exams, such as psychological evaluations, blood analysis, urinalysis, pulmonary function tests, chest x-rays, infectious disease screenings, cancer screenings, audiometric exams, vision testing, and electrocardiograms (EKG.)
It is vital to note that some medical conditions can also instantly disqualify a candidate from entering the fire academy and becoming a firefighter, including:
- Any skull or facial deformity that could interfere with the uniform/gear
- Any eye condition that could result in the candidate not being able to safely and adequately do his/her job (e.g., monochromatic vision, monocular vision, far visual acuity that cannot be corrected with contact lenses)
- Chronic Vertigo
- Hearing Impairment
- Coronary Artery Disease
- Renal failure
- Scoliosis (greater or equal to 40 degrees)
- And more
Also, know that as part of the medical examinations, departments will take note of any piercings or tattoos (as some fire departments do not allow tattoos or piercings that are visible while in uniform.)
Civil Service Exam
The Civil Service exam is a broad assessment conducted in many countries across the world for all civil servant jobs, including (but not limited to) firefighters, police officers, teachers, postal service personnel, military members, and more.
It is also known as “public tendering,” and usually, each evaluation covers a specific set of topics depending on the job. In other words, the requirements of your potential employer significantly impact the areas that are being tested within your Civil Service exam. Below we will share the most common sections:
- Reading Comprehension
- Language Proficiency
- Logic-Based Reasoning
- Situational Judgement
- Figural Reasoning
- Specific Aptitude Areas
Almost all Civil Service exams include 165-170 multiple-choice questions and usually take between 2 to 2.5 hours to complete. Moreover, the exam can be paper-based or computer-based (depending on the authorized center you decide to take your evaluation.) It is also important to note that you might be required to pay a non-refundable fee to be able to take the test, varying from $15-$30 depending on the state. And that your test score is only valid for 1-4 years depending on the position you are interested in and your jurisdiction.
Know that some Civil Service evaluations might require you to fill-in supplemental questionnaires with questions about prior training, education, and previous employment. Additionally, some Civil Services exams also contain a personality assessment portion measuring your behavioral tendencies and individual work style to estimate how your personality traits coincide with the demands of the job.
For instance, in the case of candidates applying to become firefighters, you will be expected to fulfill certain personality traits, including:
- Ability to remain calm in stressful situations
- Excellent communicational skills
- Being able to work well with others
- Knowing when to act and when to follow orders
- And more
The score you get on your Civil Service exam is crucial, as candidates who get higher scores are included on an eligibility list. Thus, the higher your score, the better your chances of landing the job. Overall, a passing score will be in the 70% range. Nonetheless, for firefighters, the passing score is tougher — roughly 80-85%.
If you fail your exam, you must wait between 3-8 months to be able to retake the test.
Once you have successfully passed all the evaluations mentioned above and complied with all the general requirements, you are accepted to the fire academy.
How long does it take to become a firefighter?
Okay, so, you made it this far! What is next? Well, once you enter the fire academy, your firefighting journey is just starting. For easier understanding, we will divide the process into 5 phases:
– Phase I: Training Program
The average fire academy’s program takes between 12 to 14 weeks to complete. Aspiring firefighters must complete a total of 600 hours of training. On average, that is roughly 8-10 hours per day. However, some programs geared towards college students or working people offer night and weekend classes and can be completed in more extended periods.
Know that within this three-month program, students will partake in theoretical and practical lessons. During the classroom portion, you will learn the mechanics and technical aspects of firefighting, as well as how to apply sciences like math, chemistry, and physics to your new job.
In other words, you will gain extensive knowledge of:
- Fire behavior and combustion
- Building Codes
- Emergency services procedures, safety, and survival
- The proper use of standard firefighting equipment (e.g., fire hoses, axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, ladders.)
- Legal aspects
- Firefighting strategy and tactics
- Protection of hydraulics and water supply,
But, because the only way to truly learn to fight fire is through experience, there is also a live-fire training portion within the program. It is important to note that this part of the trainee program is very demanding, as candidates will conduct drills and training in real burning buildings.
– Phase II: Bachelor in Fire Science
Know that, after completing the trainee program, some firefighters decide to undergo more advanced studies and pursue a to 2 or 4-year program. As a result, they graduate with a Bachelor’s in Fire Science — allowing them to pursue other high-paying positions within the field.
– Phase III: EMT and other Certifications
Furthermore, consider that upon graduation, most firefighters are required by their departments to get certified as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) as an addition to their basic first-aid training. Mainly because, as first responders, firefighters a copious amount of calls involving medical emergencies (e.g., injuries, heart attacks, respiratory complexities.) Plus, in the U.S., the vast majority of public hospitals do not own ambulances, which means that ambulances across the country are mostly owned either by fire departments or private businesses.
The EMT program usually takes between 120-150 hours to complete and requires individuals to pass the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) exam. Course topics include learning to evaluate a patient, performing CPR, dealing with blood loss, administering medications, managing respiratory problems, treatment for common injuries, and emergency childbirth.
Note that if you decide to acquire a formal degree and become a paramedic, the program usually takes between 2-3 years to complete.
– Phase IV: Volunteer Work
You then have to take into consideration the hours of volunteer work. No department will hire someone who has no sort of previous experience. In the majority of cases, however, this volunteer phase takes up almost a year (although it may vary depending on the department.)
– Phase V: Probation
Lastly, know that you may have been hired and trained, but this does not mean that you are an official firefighter (yet.) All departments require new members to undergo a probation period. And depending on the Fire Chief, this could take anything between 6 months up to a year!
Thus, based on what you expect from your career as a firefighter becoming, one can take anything from 3 months to 7 years considering:
- Application process
- Fire Training Program
- EMT Certification
- Fire Science Degree
- Paramedic Degree
- Volunteer Work
Though many firefighters start their career with just basic training, formal education can give you an edge, better salaries, more benefits, and a room to grow — especially considering that firefighting is a very demanding physical job and hence, after 45-50 years you might not be able to continue actively serving your department.
What do firefighters do?
You might think you have a basic knowledge of what firefighters do. Nonetheless, there are many other tasks, duties, and responsibilities associated with the job that you might not know about.
Overall, firefighters have four primary responsibilities:
- Putting out fires — including urban fires, rural fires, wildfire extinction, extinguishing industrial fires.
- Rescuing and caring for people in distress — including traffic accidents, vertical rescues, water rescues, emergencies with dangerous goods, withdrawal of hazardous elements, collapses and trapped people search, the rescue of trapped animals, and more.
- Preventing future fires
- Investigating the sources of the fire — especially when arson is suspected.
And while these activities take up the majority of their time, firefighters do a lot of behind-the-scenes work to maintain communities safe — including natural disaster preparedness, serving as educators, maintaining all the equipment in pristine conditions, studying to keep up with new techniques and technological advances, and more.
Additionally, firefighters are members of a team who are all responsible for maintaining the department and helping out with basic chores such as cooking, cleaning, and organizing.
Plus, like many other jobs, firefighting has a bureaucratic side. Meaning that officers are also required to file documents, write up reports, keep the department’s finances in order, and other administrative tasks.
Learn about the firefighter exam here: https://civilservicehq.com/ace-your-firefighter-exam-with-these-7-preparation-tips/
Types of Firefighters
It is also essential to know that there are different types of firefighters. Thus, when we talk about the typology of this brave man (or woman), we have to consider several basic differences — some of which are more general than others.
To start, we must distinguish between career firefighters and volunteer firefighters. A professional or career firefighter is the one who receives a salary for his work and has undergone a more extensive program than that of a volunteer.
Nevertheless, within the professional or career firefighter segment, there also some distinctions including:
- County Firefighters — employed by counties, they serve only within a specific territory.
- National Airport Firefighters — employed by the federal government to serve within specific airports.
- Forest Firefighters — especially recognized for their important labor, they are normally under the supervision of State Government.
- Military firefighters — they are part of the U.S. Army and have very specific duties.
Volunteer firefighters are those that do not receive a salary, and his/her work is classified as “community work.” These firefighters are normally members of the community who undergo special training in order to help professional firefighters with emergencies.
Lastly, many states (like California) also have a less common type of firefighter: private firefighters. These are officers who graduated from a fire academy but decided to work for companies, industries, universities, or individuals.
For instance, given the crescent spread of wildfires in Los Angeles, many artists and celebrities hired private firefighters to look out for their homes. According to reports, their services cost approximately $3,000 a day and mostly focus on preventing fires and drafting emergency or contingency plans.
Pros & ‘Cons’ of Becoming a Firefighter
Like any other job being a firefighter has its advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, before you undergo the intense process of applying to become a firefighter, consider these pros and cons:
Benefits of Becoming a Firefighter
- Low Educational Requirements
Compared to other career choices, the educational requirements are pretty basic. In other words, to become a firefighter, you are only required to have a high-school diploma, GED, or equivalent.
- Flexible Schedule
Not many people know this, but most firefighters have a lot of time off. Usually, they will work 24 to 48 hours shifts and then have 2-3 days off to rest. Nonetheless, depending on the location of your department and the season, it may change considerably.
Hence, if you work in a busy district, you might have up to 5 free days because of how active is your on-duty time. While in rural areas (or smaller communities), you might only end up with one day off, given that the post is not as strict.
- Work Security
One of the greatest things about becoming a fire officer is that it comes with high levels of job security. Think about it! Virtually every municipality requires firefighters! Plus, except for those who voluntarily serve, this job is usually classified as a government job.
According to recent studies, government jobs are more secure than private-sector jobs, and employees are more likely to keep their positions during economic downturns and crises.
- Government Benefits
Another advantage of firefighting being a government job is that the post comes with a great set of benefits. For instance, one of the most attractive advantages is full health insurance coverage. Most government job’s coverage options include medical benefits with prescription drug coverage, emergency medical care, dental coverage, vision coverage, etc. Plus, states like New York also offer lifetime health care benefits for immediate family members (e.g., children, spouses, parents.)
Firefighters are also eligible for programs exclusively available to civil servants such as tuition reimbursement programs, special loans, credit union memberships, retirement funds, and more.
- Very Rewarding
Becoming a firefighter is one of the most rewarding careers within the public service sector. By putting out fires and acting as a first responder, you get to save countless lives and work towards the greater good.
Few jobs in the world give you this type of satisfaction and this kind of self-fulfillment.
- Public Approval
Overall, firefighters are esteemed members of the communities they serve. More so, firefighting is not the type of job that could raise ethical or moral concerns.
Therefore, you can find comfort and peace of mind in knowing that people approve of your job and perceive you as a worthy member of the community.
- Career Advancement Opportunities
Becoming a firefighter also allows many chances for growth. Firefighters can often expand their roles by becoming specialists within the same organization. Some specialized areas include Urban Search and Rescue, Fire Investigation, Regulatory Fire Safety, Tactical Advisor Rescue, and many more.
Additionally, given that it is a merit-based career, there is also plenty of room for promotions subject to your performance of the job, compromise, skills, and experience.
‘Cons’ of Becoming a Firefighter
- It is a dangerous job
The most obvious “con” of becoming a firefighter is how dangerous the job itself can be. Every day you put your safety and health at risk. By entering burning buildings, evacuating people (before you can evacuate yourself), rescuing individuals from harm’s way, and manipulating heavy machinery, you have a higher risk of being hurt.
Plus, in recent years, many studies have shown that firefighters are dying from occupational-related illnesses and injuries like cancer, pulmonary complications, and stress.
- Your mental health might be at risk
Given that firefighting is an extremely stressful career choice and that you are continually exposed to trauma (e.g., death, injuries, hard situations) many officers have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) Studies have found that 37% of firefighters meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis.
- It can interfere with your personal life
Being a firefighter can take a toll on your personal life. Often firefighters, sacrifice spending birthdays, anniversaries, or the holidays with their family and loved ones because they have to work or they are called in due to an emergency.
And know that you might be okay with it (after all, you are the one who wanted to become a firefighter in the first place). But, not everyone surrounding you will be as supportive or understanding.
- Constant Training
Firefighters must maintain exceptional physical conditions and overall high fitness levels. Consequently, firefighters not only engage in physical activities while on the job, but they must also train and exercise during their free time to keep up with the demanding chores.
- Relatively Low Pay
Stating that firefighters have a “low pay” is very subjective. Mainly because many factors come into play when considering the wage of a specific member of the department, including expertise, years of experience, geographical location, hours (e.g., part-time, full-time), and rank.
However, overall, firefighters have low wages when compared to other professions (even within the civil service sector.)
Below some of the most common questions related to firefighting:
How much does a firefighter make?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average firefighter makes around $22.53 per hour or $46,870 per year.
Nevertheless, this figure can vary considerably depending upon location and experience. For example, a firefighter in New York City makes around $87,226, while a firefighter with the same rank in Boston makes $48,083 annually, and the same post in Florida can earn you up to $37,415 per year.
Can women become firefighters?
Yes! Women have been successfully pursuing a career as firefighters and officers for 25+ years (and as volunteers for much longer.) More so, the first official female firefighter was Molly Williams, who joined the force in 1818.
However, according to recent statistics, only 4% of women are career firefighters, and roughly 11% of all volunteer firefighters are women.
What is the largest fire department in the country?
In the United States, the largest municipal fire department is the New York City Fire Department (NYFD). It employs about 11,033 uniformed firefighters, 4,301 uniformed EMTs and paramedics, and 1,894 civilian employees serving more than 8,000 residents in a 302 square mile area.
Interestingly enough, the NYFD is also the second-largest fire department in the world after the Tokyo Fire Department servicing the 23 Wards of Tokyo and parts of Western Tokyo and employing roughly 18,408 full-time employees and 26,490 volunteers.
To learn how to best prepare and study for your firefighter exam click here.
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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
Civil servants are some of the hardest working, most generous people I know. I have been passionate about all types of civil service career paths for years now and enjoy sharing everything I continue to learn about them.
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