How Hard is the Firefighter Exam?  The Beginner’s Introduction 

For those looking to the fire service as a career, there are many steps and events along the way that require preparation and study.  Typically, the firefighter exam is comprehensive offered to a student after completing coursework in firefighting.  In most cases, the exam has a physical test and a written test. The firefighter exam can be difficult for those with experience in the fire service.   

For beginners with no prior knowledge of the fire service passing the firefighter exam can be especially challenging.  There is a physical skills test that will push the limits of your endurance and strength, as well as a written portion that will draw from potentially months of instruction and challenge your recall and knowledge. 

Who Certifies Firefighters, Anyway? 

This discussion must be premised on the fact that many jurisdictions set requirements for being a firefighter, mostly at the state level.  There are different standards that firefighters are tested on based on the location where the test is given and the entity providing the certification. 

For example, firefighters in the state of Texas will be tested on some material a firefighter in Maryland may not be tested on.  While the core concepts and principals are the same, there are differences from state to state.  There are accepted national standards, but many states have additional content included in their exams. 

How Hard is the Firefighter Exam?  The Beginner’s Introduction 

Federal firefighters, such as military firefighters or United States Forest Service firefighters are tested in different ways and may not meet the same certification standards as the states in which they reside.  Meaning a firefighter in Montana may be working as a firefighter at an Air Force Base but not meet the requirements to be a firefighter in the state of Montana. 

In addition to where a firefighter works and who they work for, the type of firefighter they are adds to the complexity of a firefighter exam.  There are many classifications of a firefighter, some of which function independently of each other. Wildland, structural, and ARFF (Aircraft Rescue and Fire Fighting) firefighters are a few of the many classifications available. 

So, as a beginner in the fire service, you have a lot of decisions to make.  Where do I want to work, who do I want to work for, and what kind of firefighter do I want to be are all questions that must be researched and answered.  Remember, it is where you work that establishes your necessary testing and certifications, not where you live. 

For the sake of this story, we will work with the most popular combination of firefighter certification.  That would be a beginner to the fire service who wants to be a traditional structural firefighter that is certified at the state level. 

How Physically Challenging is the Exam 

Before taking the final exam, you will have spent weeks, potentially months, learning about all the physical demands of firefighting, as well as how to navigate the use of strategies and tactics to successfully do the job.   

You will gain knowledge on how to use the equipment at your disposal to mitigate emergencies.  This includes your turnout gear, also known as bunker gear, Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), tools and ladders, fire apparatus, and many other specialized pieces of equipment. 

Most certification programs also require a certain amount of physical fitness training or calisthenics to maintain flexibility and build core strength during the education process.  If you enroll in a program that does not incorporate physical fitness into the daily routine, you would be wise to pursue exercising and strength building on your own as you move toward the final exam. 

The physical skills portion of the final exam will combine all these above aspects of your education up until now.  The skills portion of the exam is a pass/fail section.  Again, research your own state to be sure exactly how they score your test.  In most cases, you must pass all aspects of the physical skills test to pass that portion of the final.  Some may allow you to fail a certain percentage of the skills. 

The skills are sometimes timed events and are sometimes passed simply by accomplishing the required minimum, such as dragging a rescue dummy a certain distance.  States also differ in exactly what skills they require the recruit to pass before attaining certification. 

The day of the physical skills test will usually be spent in your turnout gear and SCBA.  The turnout gear must be worn completely and correctly.  The turnout gear and SCBA can add over 50 pounds to your weight, limits mobility, and gets hot very quickly.   

Skills may be technical, such as engaging a fire pump or tying knots, but most require endurance, strength, and strategy.  Skills such as climbing multiple flights of stairs carrying a load, dragging a charged hose line, throwing (unloading, positioning, and raising) ladders, cutting holes in roofs, and using tools. 

Some jurisdictions will let you retake a skill if you fail, and some will let you try a se  cond time, but it must be scheduled for a later date.  There is also a chance your skills test will be on a different day and/or location than your written test.  Plan on setting aside several hours to do the skills test, and possibly longer depending on how many people are testing at the same time. 

What is the Passing Score in the Firefighter Exam? 

When it is time to take the written, there are several things to keep in mind.  If you are truly a beginner in the fire service, you should be studying regularly in the lead up to your written exam.  There is a lot of fire service-specific terms and materials you will need to know to pass. 

How Hard is the Firefighter Exam?  The Beginner’s Introduction 

The test has a passing score of 70 percent in most cases.  However, there may be some differences from state to state.  The test may also be divided up into multiple sections, or it may be one long test that covers all aspects of firefighter knowledge. 

The test is usually given in a group setting with multiple people taking it at a common testing center.  Dress comfortably.  You will want your appearance to be professional, but it is important to be comfortable for the test.  You will need a state or federal issued identification card and will probably not be able to bring your cell phone into the testing center. 

The test format varies as well, but most are a combination of true and false, multiple-choice, and essay questions.  If you fail the test, you usually have a second opportunity to take it, but most jurisdictions limit how many times you can attempt to take the test before you have to retake the entire class. 

Can I Just Take the Test? 

In most cases, the answer is: “No.”  Most states have their own agencies for certifying firefighters.  However, most education and training are done through the states’ university systems.  Many third-party vendors now offer state-specific education, many with a combination of on-line classes and on-site skills instruction. 

Before you can sit for a states firefighter exam, most require completion of an academy or basic firefighter level 1 instruction course.  This ensures the state is not wasting time and resources offering tests to candidates who are not prepared.  It also guarantees that all candidates have been exposed to the same information and knowledge. 

As a beginner to the fire service, formal classes or training is really your only option.  However, if you have prior education or training, or have a past, but expired, certification, or have moved from one state to another, there are options for you in terms of reciprocity-were a certification may be granted to you based on equitable certification standards, and being able to simply challenge the local test and receiving certification if you pass. 

Is math involved? Find out here:

Do the Exams End After Passing the Firefighter Exam? 

No, it feels as though the exams never end.  If you choose to make a career out of the fire service, as soon as you pass your state exams successfully, you will begin taking more tests and exams as you look to be hired on at a fire department.  Many of the same skills and knowledge will be tested repeatedly as you test for hire with fire departments. 

The fire service loves certifications.  Basically, every certification you acquire throughout your time in the fire service comes with specific education and an exam.  Some exams simply follow a few hours of classroom-based instruction and result in a certification.   

More complex certifications may require 100s of hours and months of learning to achieve and require similar skills and written testing to receive state-issued certifications.  Becoming a paramedic is a great example of this.  Other examples include hazardous material handling certifications and technical rescue classes. 

How Hard is the Firefighter Exam?  The Beginner’s Introduction 

In addition to the state-issued certifications, some fire departments require departmental certifications to keep the job or advance up the career ladder.  Examples include departmental driver/operator training and jurisdiction-specific requirements such as boating safety for a department that has a fireboat. 

What if I Only Want to Volunteer as a Firefighter? 

This is another area where research needs to be done about your specific state or jurisdiction.  This an area where states vary greatly.  Some states treat volunteers and career firefighters as equals when it comes to training and certifications. 

Some states focus on career firefighting certifications and leave volunteer fire departments to regulate themselves, which leads to great differences in knowledge and ability.  These cases may see active volunteer firefighters with little or no formal education or training. 

Still, other states set a bare minimum for volunteers.  As long as a short basic class is taken, an individual can serve as a volunteer in that state.  This varied approach to volunteer firefighters makes it difficult to establish basic skills and leaves most firefighter standards to the volunteer department itself.   

For example, a local volunteer fire department may require a level 1 firefighting certification to join, but the neighboring department may not have any restrictions at all for an individual to join.   

Still others, like Texas, for example, work with both volunteers and career firefighters simultaneously where volunteers can become a state “Certified Firefighters” and state licensed firefighters are considered “Professional Firefighters.” 


Related Questions

Who can teach certifiable firefighter classes? 

Just as most fire service related varies by state, the instruction portion of it is no different.  States will accredit organizations and fire departments to teach classes that meet the standards for state certifications and licensure.  Approved organizations need to meet a combination of certified instructors, facilities, and curriculum established by the state. 

Many larger fire departments offer their own fire academies to prospective employees that result not only in state certifications but also in everything relevant to that department.  Third-party vendors can also be approved to offer classes that meet state standards and guidelines. 

Most public universities in the state also offer firefighter certifications or a combination of classes that result in the ability to sit for the state exam.  In fact, some states rely on their university systems for outreach and training, especially for rural and volunteer fire departments. 


Where are the tests offered? 

Many times, the skills tests and the written tests are taken at different times and locations.  Skills tests require specific facilities that move test takers through skill stations and enough facilitators to properly grade them.   

Some states utilize central skills testing locations that, as a test taker, may require travel or making overnight accommodations to utilize.  Academies may serve as skill testing sites, but the states will usually send facilitators to the sites to ensure impartial grading on the test takers. 

Written tests, in most cases, will be offered at in-state facilities that serve as testing centers.  Usually, they are offered on a reoccurring schedule where candidates sign up for dates that are convenient for them. 

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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.