Do You Need to Swim to be a Firefighter?

Firefighting requires a very unique set of skills and abilities. Firefighters are the “catch-all” for any incident or situation where there is uncertainty or questions about how to safely mitigate incidents or events. From weird odors to technical rescues, if there is any question about how to do it, the fire department will be called.

Swimming is not required to be a firefighter. However, knowing how to swim in the fire service brings many opportunities. Firefighters need to be prepared for all hazards and always ready to act. Emergency events involving water can be safely mitigated relying on boats and personal flotation devices (PFDs) on firefighters.

Firefighters face a myriad of challenges in their daily response to emergencies and calls for help. There are many talents and abilities that firemen possess to accomplish the job before them. Many of these abilities are parts of their character; abilities such as bravery, dedication, trustworthiness, and determination.

What Skills and Abilities Do Firefighters Need?

There is a whole other set of abilities that come into play when faced with the physical nature of the job. Firefighters need to be physically fit. They need to have the endurance to function in extreme conditions for long periods.

Also, firefighters need to be strong enough to do their jobs. Physical strength is probably the most important physical trait a firefighter needs to be successful at his occupation. At the very core of firefighting is the need for strength.

Do You Need to Swim to be a Firefighter?

Besides simply wearing gear and equipment that can add 40-50 pounds to their weight, they also need to be able to push, pull, lift, and climb, often in conditions that add even more weight to the firefighter and demand even greater strength beyond simply being able to wear heavy gear.

The ability to learn and apply knowledge is another skill that successful firefighters need. Life hangs in the balance and the decisions firefighters make can have glorious results or tragic endings. Much of this depends solely on a firefighter’s ability to learn their jobs and excel in the confidence in their decisions.

Still, other abilities are preferable to have but are not a necessity. This is the category where swimming falls. A firefighter does not need to know how to swim, but it can help the firefighter advance in his career. Other examples of skills that would be helpful yet not required are speaking multiple languages, knowing sign language, advanced degrees, or knowledge of specific trades, such as an electrician or plumber.

The list is very broad of skills a firefighter may need. This is because the daily call volume can include everything from a medical call to high angle rescue. Some of this can be learned and taught in the fire service, but many times answers and solutions are found from the previous jobs or skills a firefighter brought with them to the career.

When Might Swimming Be Required for a Firefighter Job?

As stated earlier, swimming is not required to get a firefighter job. However, there are certain instances where the ability to swim could be a requirement. Fire departments that are located in areas with navigable waterways, large bodies of water, or specific job responsibilities may require the ability to swim to hire firefighters.

Fire districts that have navigable waterways in many circumstances have boats and other watercraft to use in case of emergency. The firefighters who staff these watercraft may be required to swim as part of their job description.

Beyond the emergency possibilities of navigable waterways, other non-emergency conditions may necessitate a fire department response that requires capable swimmers to enter the water, including victim location and recovery, but more on this later.

Do You Need to Swim to be a Firefighter?

Large bodies of water also require certain aspects of the local fire departments to be staffed in such a manner that swimmers may be a necessity. Areas such as ocean beaches and large lakes bring with them a special set of problems compounded by populations and industries that may also require firefighters who can swim.

An example of this is the Sand Diego and Los Angeles Fire Departments. These fire departments oversee the lifeguard programs within their fire districts. In the case of the Los Angeles Fire Department specifically, the same lifeguards that man the beaches are the ones that also man fireboats and rescue craft and are used and specially trained in marine firefighting.

This ties us into the last category of when swimming may be needed for a firefighter job, and that is when specific jobs within the fire department require swimming, such as the lifeguards in the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Other examples include shipboard firefighters used in private industry and the military, fire department underwater recovery and dive teams, and fire departments that may have a specific station that requires the firefighters stationed there to be able to swim to adequately staff equipment.

Special Operations and Opportunities

Do not let the above list of times when swimming may be required get you down. The overwhelming majority of fire departments have no swimming requirements for their firefighters. Most career firefighters go their entire career without ever needing to swim, and there are vast and far-reaching opportunities for career firefighters who cannot swim.

But even in the fire departments that do not require swimming as a basic firefighter skill, there are times where the ability to swim is still needed. Certain special operations units and rescue companies may need crew members who can swim. Dive and underwater recovery units were mentioned earlier, but along with that are swift water rescue teams and specialized marine units.

While staffing these units may not be mandatory for you during your time in the fire service, they do present opportunities for promotion and financial gain if you get assigned to these units. Lacking the ability to swim can prevent you from moving to one of these units.
There are plenty of career firefighter jobs out there a non-swimmer would be perfectly qualified for, however, if you have an eye on a fire department that may fall under one of the above-mentioned criteria, then it may behoove you to take the time and learn to swim.

The fire service is full of learning opportunities, and learning to swim for a fire department advancement should be treated the same as a firefighter who takes a hazardous materials class to advance their career or one who becomes a paramedic to continue moving up in the fire service.

Learn step by step what to expect we becoming a firefighter HERE!

Personal Motivations to Learn to Swim

One of the primary reasons to commit to learning to swim is simply because it may be the best way to ensure your safety and that of your crew. Safety is the primary driver in all firefighter activities, and your learning to swim may put you in charge of your outcome.

Many firefighters dedicate their lives not only to helping and protecting the people in their district, but they work to constantly better themselves and their crews or shifts. If you are willing to take the time and effort to become a paramedic or acquire multiple certifications, learning to swim may be a great way to accomplish that.

Related Question

What are other optional skills to make my time in the fire service successful?

There are many skills you can acquire or improve on to make your time in the fire service successful. Some of them are purely the expected natural progression of your career, such as becoming an apparatus driver/operator, while others are beneficial but necessarily required, such as learning a second language.

The ones that are considered part of your natural career advancement would be looked at as the “bare minimum” to maintain your position in the fire service. These need to be taken very seriously and should be considered job-dependent-meaning that if you are sent to a class to acquire a certification or skill, and fail, it could cost you your job.

Many departments have budgets to send you to additional training that are not mandatory. These are classes and courses that, while not mandated by your fire department, will look good on your resume, and when you are ready to promote up the ranks, will serve you well. But these classes also have a practical application in that they can help you function better on the job and be more successful.

Some additional skills and abilities you should pursue early in your career that has not already been mentioned include leadership development, fire officer development, fire investigation, fire prevention, fire inspection, and emergency management.

Being proactive in gaining knowledge and experience is the best way to advance your career in the fire service. By taking advantage of opportunities and available skills advancements within your fire department, you will guarantee yourself a long successful career in the fire service.

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