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Fire safety technicians work to prevent fires. Typical services they perform include conducting safety inspections and planning fire protection systems. In the course of their job, fire safety technicians recognize fire hazards, apply technical knowledge, and perform services to control and prevent fires. In 1996 there were more than 293,000 fire department workers. However, only a small percentage of these were technically prepared inspectors, supervisors, or technical workers.
Fires in homes and at workplaces are the greatest destroyers of human life and property Every year thousands of people in the United States die due to fires. Property destroyed by fire costs billions of dollars each year. In some states, grass or brush fires periodically rage uncontrolled and advance at the speed of the wind; buildings are destroyed and livestock is lost. Forest fires consume millions of feet of lumber every year. Some fires increase the problems of wildlife conservation and flood control, requiring that considerable sums be spent on re-forestation programs.
In the early days of the United States, fire protection was usually left to a few volunteers in a community. This group formed a fire brigade and had simple fire-fighting devices. Later, fire departments were established and fire- fighting equipment became more sophisticated. Even so, fire protection was still mostly left to a small group. As cities grew and large industrial plants were built, it became apparent that fire prevention was possibly even more important than fire-fighting skills and techniques.
Today, business and industrial firms realize that fire protection is one of the most important considerations in the construction and operation of their plants. Fire insurance rates are determined by fire probability factors, such as the type of construction, ease of transporting personnel, and the quality and quantity of fire protection equipment available. Managers realize that payments from fire insurance claims will not cover the total loss caused by fire— lost production or sales. Employees expect their employers to have warning systems and fire extinguishing devices. The public expects fire departments to be well staffed with competent specialists and firefighters who can minimize property damage and save lives. Their jobs involve rescuing people from fire, giving safety education courses, and conducting inspections, which may include a thorough examination of exits, corridors, and stairways designed to carry traffic in an emergency
The need for carefully planned, well-organized fire protection has created a demand for highly trained personnel. Specialists are needed who are skilled in the newest methods of fire prevention and fire fighting. Such specialists are also familiar with new synthetic materials used in building construction, decorative drapes, floor coverings, furnishings, and even clothing. These materials have made fire protection more complicated because of the toxic fumes they produce when burned.
Because of all of these factors, an increasing number of well-trained fire safety technicians are being hired by business, industry and other employers to prevent loss of life and property from fires while people are on the job, in school, in recreational or entertainment places, or traveling.
Fire safety technicians are employed by local fire departments, fire insurance companies, industrial organizations, government agencies, and businesses dealing with fire protection equipment and consulting services.
Fire science specialists employed by insurance companies make recommendations For fire protection and safety measures in specific buildings. As part of their duties they help set insurance rates, examine water supply and sprinkler facilities, and make suggestions to correct hazardous conditions. They may be part of an arson investigation squad or work with adjusters to determine the amount of personal injury or property loss caused by fire.
In industry; fire safety technicians are often part of an industrial safety team. They inspect areas for possible fire hazards and formulate company procedures in case of fire. They make periodic inspections of fire-fighting equipment such as extinguishers, hoses and hydrants, fire doors, automatic alarms, and sprinkler systems. An important part of their duties is to hold fire prevention seminars to keep department heads and key workers aware and alert to potential fire hazards in their particular areas. Technicians also teach these employees what to do in case of fire or other emergencies.
Because of the large number of people occupying their facilities, many restaurants, large hotels, and entertainment or recreational centers employ fire safety technicians. There is a great hazard of fire from food cooking in kitchens, lint in laundries, and sparks that fall on draperies and bedding. The possible loss of life from fire makes it necessary to have the best possible fire- protection program.
Many government agencies employ fire safety technicians. They are largely responsible for inspecting government buildings, property and storage, or handling systems for reducing fire hazards. They arrange for installation of adequate alarm systems and fire protection devices. They may be required to organize a fire-fighting unit in a government agency or assist with designing sprinkler systems in buildings.
Companies that manufacture fire-protection devices and alarm systems employ many technicians. Their training enables them to explain technical functions to customers and to give advice on installation and use. They also help to place smoke detectors and other fire prevention or extinguishing devices in the correct locations to give the greatest protection from fire, and they service fire protection devices after they are installed. Fire extinguishers, for example, must be regularly inspected to be certain that they function properly Fire extinguisher servicers are technicians trained to perform inspections, tests, and maintenance of fire extinguishers and may also instruct people on their use. Private companies specializing in fire safety equipment often employ them.
Public education is also an important area of activity for fire control and safety technicians. By working with the public through schools, businesses, and service clubs and organizations, they can expand the level of under standing about the dangers of fire and teach people about methods of fire protection and fire prevention.
Newly hired technicians generally receive on-the-job orientation before they are given full responsibility in an entry-level position. Examples of entry-level positions are described in the following paragraphs.
Fire insurance inspectors inspect buildings and offices and make recommendations for lire protection and general safety conditions.
Fire insurance underwriters help set rates to conform with company policies and building codes.
Fire insurance adjusters determine losses due to fire and compute rates for adjustment and settling claims.
Fire protection engineering technicians draft plans for the installation of fire protection systems for buildings and structures. Using their knowledge of drafting and fire protection codes, they analyze architectural blueprints and specifications to determine which type and size of fire protection system is required to meet fire protection codes and then estimate its cost. During building construction, they work with the superintendent to ensure proper installation of the system. They may specialize in one kind of fire protection system, such as foam, water, dry chemicals, or gas. After a fire they may inspect fire-damaged buildings to check for malfunctioning systems.
Fire inspectors check fire-fighting equipment and report any potential fire hazards. They recommend changes in equipment, practice, materials, or methods to reduce fire hazards.
Plant protection inspectors inspect industrial plants for fire hazards, report findings, and recommend action. Fire alarm superintendents inspect alarm systems in government buildings and institutions.
Fire service field instructors hold training sessions throughout a state to keep firefighters up-to-date on fire-fighting methods and techniques. They may also inspect small fire departments and report on personnel and equipment.
While a high school diploma is often sufficient to obtain employment as a firefighter, aspiring fire safety technicians should plan to attend a two-year, postsecondary program in fire technology or a four-year program in fire protection engineering.
While in high school, students should study the physical sciences. They should take either physics or chemistry courses that include laboratory work. Fire science demands some knowledge of hydraulics, physics, and chemistry For example, laying out sprinkler systems requires skills that are introduced in high school mechanical drawing courses. Algebra and geometry are also recommended, as well as English and writing courses.
Two-year, postsecondary fire technology programs are now available at more than 100 technical institutes and community colleges. These programs pro vide in-depth education in the fire science specialization for people seeking to work for industries, institutions, or government as fire safety technicians. These programs are also available to members of fire departments or related fire specialists.
Courses in these programs include physics and hydraulics as they apply to pump and nozzle pressures. Fundamentals of chemistry are taught to help students understand chemical methods of extinguishing fires and the chemistry of materials and combustion. Communications skills are also emphasized.
Typical courses in the first year of a two-year program include fire-fighting tactics and strategy fire protection equipment and alarm systems, fundamentals of fire suppression, introductory fire technology chemistry (especially combustion and chemistry of materials), mathematics, and communications skills.
Second-year courses may include building construction for fire protection, hazardous materials, fire administration, industrial fire protection, applied physics, introduction to fire prevention, and applied economics.
Like most professional workers in high-technology careers, fire safety technicians must continue to study during their careers to keep up with new developments in their field. Improved fire detection and prevention instruments, equipment, and methods for making materials fireproof are being developed all the time.
Those who wish to work in fire science technology in fire departments may train as technicians and apply for specialist jobs in large fire departments. Others may choose to enter the fire department as untrained firefighters. For the latter group, very rigid physical examinations are usually required.
Firefighters must keep themselves physically fit and conditioned since they may he required to do hard work in all types of weather and sometimes for long hours.
Firefighters must be able to follow orders and to accept the discipline that is necessary for effective teamwork. While on active call, firefighters usually work under the close supervision of commanding officers such as battalion chiefs or assistant fire chiefs. Their work requires highly organized team efforts to be effective, since there is usually a great deal of excitement and confusion at fires.
Because of the physical demands of the profession, physical performance tests are required and may include running, climbing, and jumping. These examinations are clearly defined by local civil service regulations but may vary from one community to another.
In most cases, prospective firefighters must be at least 18 years of age. They must also meet height and weight requirements. Applicants must have good vision (20/20 vision is required in some departments), no hindering physical impairments, and strong stamina. Some fire departments require that applicants be nonsmokers.
“The most important requirements are dedication and the ability to communicate well,” says Assistant Chief Daniel J. Voiland of the Naperville Fire Department, Naperville, Illinois.
Fire science technicians, who do not work as firefighters but as industrial or government inspectors and consultants, do not need unusual physical strength. These technicians must be able to read and write with ease and to communicate well to study technical information and give good written or oral reports.
For fire safety technicians in industry or government, no licenses are usually required. Favorable academic records and an appropriate two-year degree or certificate are given special consideration by most employers. Becoming a member of the Society of Fire Protection Engineers is a valuable mark of achievement of which employers take note.
For those who want to enter fire departments as firefighters and work toward technician-level tasks, civil service examinations are required in most cases.
Firefighters are a highly organized occupational group; many firefighters belong to the International Association of Firefighters.
If you are still in high school, your guidance department and science teachers should be able to provide you with some introductory information about the various careers in fire protection, safety, and prevention. You can visit your local fire department, look at the equipment, and talk with the fire fighters and their commanding officers. In some departments, you may be able to gain experience by working as a volunteer firefighter.
“Many departments have Fire Explorer Posts,” notes Voiland. “Local or community colleges also have courses in fire science and prevention that high school students can take.”
Courses in lifesaving and first aid also offer helpful experience. Summer jobs as aides with the government park and forest service are available as well. In these jobs, you may learn about fire prevention, control, and detection in forest and grassland conservation work.
It is usually possible to arrange a visit with an insurance company to learn about the huge economic losses caused by fire. Large insurance offices often have agents or officers who can describe fire technician jobs or services in inspection, fire insurance, rate setting or claim settlement, and fire prevention services. You can also obtain part-time or summer jobs with fire equipment manufacturing, supply, and service companies.
Challenging job opportunities are available for fire safety technicians. Most are employed by public or private fire departments. The rest work for large corporations overseeing the design and operation of fire prevention systems. Insurance companies hire fire safety technicians to survey the facilities they insure and to perform research, testing, and analysis. Fire safety technicians and fire protection engineers work in various levels of government, in branches of the armed services, and in local governments, where they help develop and enforce building and fire prevention codes. Fire safety technicians also are employed by fire equipment and systems manufacturing companies, hospitals and health-care facilities, industrial and chemical companies, testing and certifying laboratories, transportation companies, and universities and colleges.
Graduates of two-year programs in technical colleges, community colleges, or technical institutes usually secure jobs before they graduate. They are hired by company recruiters sent to the school placement offices, which arrange interviews for graduating students. The placement officers or fire science instructors usually keep contacts open to help place their current graduates.
Some schools have cooperative work-study programs where students study part-time and work part-time for pay Employers who participate in cooperative programs provide experience in different tasks so the student learns about various aspects of the job. Often students in such programs are hired permanently by the cooperating employer.
Some students may find jobs in fire departments that are large enough to need special technicians outside the ranks of regular firefighters. Others may choose to become firefighters and advance to technical positions.
Some fire departments place new employees on probation, a period during which they are intensively trained. After training is completed, they may be assigned to specific duties.
Students with a high school diploma or its equivalent can enter a fire department apprenticeship program. These programs run from three to four years, combining intensive on-the-job training with active fire-fighting ser vice, and include related study in the science and theory of fire-fighting. These apprenticeship programs may or may not be union-sponsored.
Even after completing an apprenticeship program, fire safety technicians seeking to advance to the level of supervisor or inspector must continue to study Part-time courses are available in community colleges or technical institutes.
In some small communities, applicants may enter through on-the-job training as volunteer firefighters or by direct application for such an appointment.
Examples of advanced positions are described in the following paragraphs.
Fire prevention analysts analyze overall fire prevention systems in an organization and confer with fire inspectors to obtain detailed information and recommend policies and programs for fire prevention. Safety directors are responsible for general safety throughout a plant as well as fire safety
Fire protection engineers combine their engineering and management skills to perform a broad range of jobs. Some work fire protection designers, creating systems that automatically detect and suppress fires. Some design fire alarm, smoke control, emergency lighting, communication, and exit systems. These engineers also perform tire-safety evaluations of buildings and industrial complexes. Some research the behavior and control of fire. Others analyze risk management and assessment for industrial applications. Fire-protection engineers also investigate fires or explosions, preparing technical reports or providing expert courtroom testimony on the facts of the incident.
“The difference between fire safety technicians and fire protection engineers is that the engineers usually look at the big picture,” according to Morgan Hurley; technical director at the Society of Fire Protection Engineers. “Technicians specialize in one specific system, such as sprinklers or smoke alarms. Engineers expand on that knowledge.”
Deputy fire marshals inspect possible fire hazards and analyze the amount of loss resulting from a fire. If necessary; they have the authority to condemn buildings. They report cases of arson and work with district attorneys to prosecute arsonists. This is an appointed position, although those holding the position usually have considerable fire experience.
Fire captains work under the supervision of a fire chief on a military base or in a municipal area. They are responsible for fire protection in a specific location. Fire chiefs are responsible for all fire-fighting units in a municipal area. Several fire captains may report to and support the activities of this administrator.
“Other advancements include an officer position in the fire prevention bureau or branching out into the building department,” says Overland.
Owners of fire equipment or consulting businesses employ fire prevention technicians who contract for, deliver, and install equipment and provide training and other services in fire prevention.
Beginning salaries for fire safety technicians tend to be higher than those of other technicians. This is partly due to the shortage of qualified personnel in the field. Starting salaries are approximately $20,500 to $22,000. Experienced technicians earn salaries that average between $33,000 to $44,000 per year. Those who advance to positions of great responsibility may earn $60,000 per year or more.
Benefits for these employees usually include compensatory time off or overtime pay for hours worked beyond the regular work schedule. Other benefits include liberal pension plans, disability benefits, and early retirement options. Also included are paid vacations, paid sick leave, and in some cases, paid holidays or compensatory time off for holidays worked.
Fire safety technicians may experience danger when assisting or observing fire fighting or when inspecting and analyzing structures damaged or destroyed by fire. Floors, walls, or entire buildings can collapse on firefighters as they work to save lives and property Exposure to smoke, fumes, chemicals, and gases can injure or kill. Most of the duties, however, are performed in offices where the surroundings are clean and comfortable.
When performing routine inspections, these workers must follow safety regulations and wear protective clothing when appropriate. They must be familiar with the environments they inspect and analyze.
Fire safety technicians must have a natural curiosity about everything that relates to fire. They must be patient and willing to study the physics and chemistry of fire, as well as fire prevention and control. They must also be able to think systematically and objectively as they analyze fire hazards, dam ages, and prevention.
Technicians must be observant and understand how human factors of carelessness, thoughtlessness, fatigue, or haste may cause fires. One of the great challenges of this career is to learn how to teach people to avoid the mistakes that cause fires and to establish safety procedures and controls that prevent fires.
Fire is one of the most feared and destructive hazards. Fire science technicians can find continuing satisfaction and challenge in saving lives and property by preventing fires. “The hardest part is finding out why systems did not pass inspection,” Overland notes, “but the best part is ensuring the buildings in the community are safe.”
Technical careers in fire prevention and control are predicted to grow more rapidly than the average for all other occupations. In the future, these technicians will probably be needed in more places than ever before. The greatest increase in employment will be in industry. More industries are finding that the cost of replacing buildings and property destroyed by fire is greater than the yearly cost of fire protection and the expertise and equipment of these specialists.
New fire prevention and control techniques must be developed as technology continues to change. Skilled and ambitious fire safety technicians will be needed to address and monitor this changing technology
For More Information
The following organizations offer general information on careers in fire safety:
American Society of Safety Engineers
1800 East Oakton Street
Des Plaines, IL 60018-2 187
For information on fire prevention careers, contact:
National Fire Protection Association
One Batterymarch Park
Quincy MA 02269-9101
For information on student chapters, a list of universities that offer programs in fire protection engineering, and to obtain a copy of Careers in Fire Protection Engineering, contact:
Society of Fire Protection Engineers
7315 Wisconsin Avenue, Suite 1225W
Bethesda, MD 20814
For information on training programs, contact:
National Fire Sprinkler Association
PO Box 1000
40 Jon Barrett Road
Patterson, NY 12563