Min. Education Level:
Certification or Licensing:
Firefighters are responsible for protecting people’s lives and property from the hazards of fire and other emergencies. They provide this protection by fighting fires to prevent property damage and by rescuing people trapped or injured by fires or other accidents. Through inspections and safety education, firefighters also work to prevent fires and unsafe conditions that could result in dangerous, life-threatening situations. They assist in many types of emergencies and disasters in everyday life. Although in many rural areas fire fighters serve on a volunteer basis, this article is mainly concerned with describing full-time career firefighters.
Civilization would not exist without fire, but this essential tool can often turn destructive and deadly. For centuries, people have fought to protect their lives and property from fire. In biblical times, people would group themselves into brigades to f fire-fighting lines. American colonists used the bucket brigade to pass water from person to person in combating fires. The first permanent fire-fighting company was formed by Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) in Philadelphia in 1736. New York established its own fire company in 1737, and the practice spread through the other colonies. At the same time, volunteer fire brigades supplemented these professional firefighters.
The growth of U.S. cities during the 19th century led to an increased need for professional firefighters and better equipment. Many cities suffered devastating fires. Crowded conditions, poor building techniques and materials, the lack of a sufficient water supply, and the absence of coordinated, city wide fire services meant that even a small fire could have terrible consequences. In 1871, for example, fire swept through Chicago, virtually destroying the entire city The poor equipment available to them also hampered fire fighters. Many museums house some of the old fire-fighting equipment that was invented during this time, such as hand-pulled vehicles with water tanks that were pumped to direct a stream of water through a hose onto a fire. In those days, the tanks were still filled by bucket brigades. This equipment was an improvement, but still grossly inadequate for fighting larger fires. Many of these vehicles were themselves destroyed by fire. Since the hand-pumped force of the water was weak, the hoses were short and stiff, and the vehicles had to be positioned close to the fires. Another difficulty in fighting fires was that many firefighters, especially the volunteers, were poorly trained, if at all.
As automobiles, trucks, and industrial machinery were invented and improved, new and better fire-fighting equipment was also created. By the turn of the century almost every large city in the United States had organized professional, paid fire departments, with steam-powered fire engines and a system of fire hydrants to provide an adequate supply of water wherever a fire occurred. The development of the telegraph enabled cities to establish telegraph alarm systems, allowing fire departments to respond more quickly in the early stages of a fire. Other scientific advancements have also made contributions, such as the invention of the fire extinguisher. Firefighters began to receive training in many fire-fighting techniques. A system of building codes was established, which governed the construction of buildings to prevent fires and to prevent a fire in one building from spreading to other buildings nearby. Eventually these codes included requirements for smoke alarms, sprinkler systems, fire drills, and other measures to reduce the incidence of fires and the loss of life associated with them.
Today there are more than 30,000 organized fire departments across the United States, with approximately 314,000 professional, salaried firefighters. Nevertheless, nearly 31,000 people are killed or injured every year as a result of fire. Many of these people are the firefighters themselves, who risk their own lives to protect the lives of others.
The duties of career firefighters vary with the size of the fire department and the population of the city in which they are employed. However, each fire fighter’s individual responsibilities are well-defined and clear-cut. In every fire department there are divisions of labor among firefighters. For example, when their department goes into action, firefighters know whether they are to rescue people caught in fires, raise ladders, connect hoses to water hydrants, or attempt to break down doors, windows, or walls with fire axes so that other firefighters can enter the area with water hoses.
Firefighters may fight a fire in a massive building giving off intense heat, or they may be called to extinguish nothing more than a small brush fire or a blazing garbage can. Firefighters on duty at fire stations must be prepared to go on an alarm call at any moment. Time wasted may result in more dam age or even loss of life. Firefighters wear protective suits to prevent their hands and bodies from injury including protective gloves, helmets, boots, coats, and self-contained breathing apparatuses. Because of the mass confusion that occurs at the scene of a fire and the dangerous nature of the work, the firefighters are organized into details and units. They work under the supervision of commanding officers, such as fire captains, battalion chiefs, or the fire chief. These officers may reassign the firefighters’ duties at any time, depending on the needs of a particular situation.
Once firefighters have extinguished a fire, they often remain at the site for a certain length of time to make sure that the fire is completely out. Fire investigators or fire marshals may examine the scene to determine the causes of the fire, especially if it resulted in injury or death or may have been set intentionally. They seek clues to the type of fuel or the place where the fire may have started. They may also determine that the fire was the result of arson—that is, it was set deliberately—and they will examine the scene for evidence that will lead them to suspects. These officials may arrest suspected arsonists and testify in court against them.
Firefighters often answer calls requesting emergency medical care, such as help in giving artificial respiration to drowning victims or emergency aid for heart attack victims on public streets. They may also administer emergency medical care. Many fire departments operate emergency medical ser vices. Most firefighters are cross-trained to participate in both fire and emergency activities.
Some firefighters are assigned as fire inspectors. Their work is to prevent fires. They inspect buildings for trash, chemicals, and other materials that could easily ignite; for poor, worn-out, or exposed wiring; for inadequate alarm systems, blocked hallways, or impassable exits; and for other conditions that pose fire hazards. These conditions are usually reported to the owners of the property f correction; II not corrected, the owners could he fined and held criminally liable if any fires occur. Fire Inspectors also check to see that public buildings are operated in accordance with fire codes and city ordinances and that the building management complies with safety regulations and fire precautions. Often firefighters are called on to give speeches on fire prevention before school and civic groups.
While firefighters are on station duty and between alarm calls, they per form various duties on a regular basis. They must keep all fire-fighting equipment in first-class condition for immediate use. This includes polishing and lubricating mechanical equipment, keeping water hoses dry and stretched into shape, and keeping their own personal protective gear in good repair. They hold practice drills for improving response times and fire-fighting techniques to become as efficient and proficient as possible.
Many firefighters study while on duty to improve their skills and knowledge of fire fighting and emergency medical techniques. They also prepare themselves for examinations, which are given regularly and which determine to some extent their opportunities for promotion. They are often required to participate in training programs to hone their skills and learn new techniques.
Since many firefighters must live at the fire station for periods of 24 hours at a time, housekeeping duties and cleaning chores are performed by the on-duty firefighters on a rotation basis. In some small towns, firefighters are only employed on a part-time basis. They are on alarm call from their homes, except perhaps for practice drills. Usually in such situations, only a fire chief and assistant live at the station and are employed full time.
Firefighters work in other settings as well. Many industrial plants employ fire marshals who are in charge of fire-prevention and fire-fighting efforts and personnel. At airports, potential or actual airplane crashes bring out crash, fire, and rescue workers who prevent or put out fires and save passengers and crew members.
The job of firefighters has become more complicated in recent years due to the use of increasingly sophisticated equipment. In addition, many fire fighters have assumed additional responsibilities. For example, firefighters work with emergency medical services providing emergency medical treatment, assisting in the rescue and recovery from natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes, as well as manmade disasters, such as the control and cleanup of oil spills and other hazardous chemical incidents, or res cuing victims of bombings. The work of firefighters is very dangerous. The nature of the work demands training, practice, courage, and teamwork. However, fire fighting is more than a physical activity that requires strength and alertness. It is also a science that demands continual study and learning.
Most job opportunities open to firefighters today require applicants to have a high school education. “Today’s firefighter needs to have a good under standing of the sciences, as much of what line firefighters do revolves around emergency medical services and the extinguishment of fire,” says Chief Randy Bremen, Clackamas County Fire District, Milwaukie, Oregon. “Therefore, classes in related sciences such as anatomy physics, and biology are very helpful.”
Once high school is completed, there are a variety of options available in both two- and four-year degree programs that specifically focus on fire science and emergency medical certificates. Both are extremely helpful when competing for a position.
In most cases, applicants are required to pass written intelligence tests. Some municipalities may require a civil service examination. Formal education is an asset to potential firefighters because part of their training involves a continuous education program, and a person educational progress may affect future opportunities for advancement.
Many junior and community colleges offer two-year fire technology pro grams. Courses involve the study of physics and hydraulics as they apply to pump and nozzle pressures. Fundamentals of chemistry are taught to pro vide an understanding of chemical methods of extinguishing fires. Skill in communications—both written and spoken—is also emphasized.
Beginning firefighters may receive six to twelve or more weeks of intensive training, either as on-the-job training or through formal fire department training schools. Training is given both in the classroom and in the field, where new firefighters are taught the fundamentals of fire fighting, fire prevention, ventilation, emergency medical procedures, the use and care of equipment, and general job duties and skills, including search and rescue techniques. Trainees may also be given instruction in local building codes and fire ordinances. After this period, new firefighters generally serve a six- month to one-year probationary apprenticeship. Apprentice firefighters usually start out on the job as ladder handlers or hose handlers and are given additional responsibilities with training and experience.
Very strict physical examinations are usually required for the job of firefighter. Applicants must also pass rigorous physical performance tests, which may include running, climbing, and jumping. These examinations are clearly defined by local civil service regulations.
In most cases, firefighters must be at least 18 years of age. Generally, the age range for becoming a professional firefighter is between 18 and 35. Candidates must also meet height and weight requirements. Applicants are required to have good vision (20/20 vision is required in some departments), no physical impairments that could keep them from doing their jobs, and great physical stamina. Many cities have residency requirements for their fire department personnel. Most firefighters join the International Association of Firefighters (AFL-CIO) when they are hired.
Usually the individuals who score the highest on their tests have the best chances of getting jobs as firefighters. Those who gained fire-fighting experience in the military or who have served as volunteer community firefighters may receive preferential consideration on their job applications. Applicants with emergency medical service and training are often in demand as firefighters.
A mechanical aptitude is an asset to a person in this career. Also important are a congenial temperament and the ability to adapt to uncertain situations that call for teamwork. Firefighters must be willing to follow the orders of their superiors. Firefighters need sound judgment, mental alertness, and the ability to reason and think logically in situations demanding courage and bravery. The ability to remain calm and compassionate is a valued asset, as firefighters must cope with the emotions of those they are helping, emotions that range from those of distraught homeowners to burn victims.
“Firefighters must have the willingness to provide service over one’s self,” says Chief Bremen. “The qualities that we look for include someone who is willing to work hard, has a commitment to serve others, and is a team player. The shifts that firefighters work are 24 hours on and 48 hours off, and with a variety of schedules in between, it is crucial that they have personalities that can interact well in that type of environment. We also look for people who can speak well in public, articulate and teach, and can react well in a variety of situations, whether it is in a public-education forum or on an emergency scene.”
You can explore this occupation by talking with local people who are employed as firefighters. You may also be able to get permission to sit in on some of the formal training classes for firefighters offered by city fire departments. In some cases, depending on the size and regulations of the town or city department, you may be able to gain experience by working as a volunteer firefighter.
“Many departments offer explorer and cadet programs for high-school age students to become involved in if they are interested in the fire service,” notes Chief Bremen. “There are classes that can be taken at local community college even by high school students to begin preparing them for a career in the fire service. Many departments offer programs that allow civilians to ride along. This is a good way for students to spend several hours in a fire station and actually respond to calls to get a feel for if this is the career that is right for them. Also, any volunteer work, especially in service-related fields such as hospitals and hospices that provide services to people in need, would help prepare students for the jobs that firefighters do every day”
Courses in lifesaving and first aid will offer you experience in these aspects of the firefighter’s job. You can explore these areas through community training courses and the training offered by the Boy Scouts of America or the American Red Cross. Individuals serving in the military may request training and assignment to fire-fighting units to gain experience.
More than 9 out of every 10 career firefighters work in municipal or county fire departments that protect 25,000 or more people. Some very large cities have several thousand firefighters, while small towns might only have a few. The remainder work in fire departments on federal and state installations, such as military bases, airports, and the U.S. Forestry Department. Private fire brigades employ a very small number of firefighters. Most volunteers work for departments that protect fewer than 25,000 people. More than half of all volunteer firefighters are located in small, rural departments that protect fewer than 2,500 people, according to the National Volunteer Fire Council. Many industries have their own fire-protection staffs and private fire brigades.
You can enter this occupation by applying to take the local civil service examinations. This usually requires passing the physical health, physical performance, and written general intelligence examinations.
If you successfully pass all of the required tests and receive a job appointment you may serve a probationary period during which you receive intensive training. After the completion of this training, you may be assigned to a fire department or engine company for specific duties.
In some small towns and communities, applicants may enter this occupation through on-the-job training as volunteer firefighters or by applying directly to the local government for the position.
Firefighters are generally promoted from within the department, first to the position of firefighter, first grade. After they demonstrate successful job performance and gain experience, firefighters may be promoted to positions as lieutenants, captains, deputies, battalion chiefs, assistant chiefs, deputy chiefs, and finally fire chief. Firefighters may sometimes work three to five years or more to receive a promotion to lieutenant. Promotions usually depend upon the firefighter’s position rating, which is determined by seniority, job performance, and scores made on the periodic written examinations.
The average starting salary for a full-time firefighter was $26,900 in 1997, according to the International City/County Management Association. Experienced firefighters earned an average of $38,000 a year, but their earnings vary considerably depending on city size and region of the country. Many firefighters receive longevity pay for each year they remain in service, which may add as much as $1,000 per year to their salaries. Average annual earnings (with longevity pay) range from about $35,310 in the smaller cities to $48,538 in the largest cities and from $30,563 in the South to $48,611 in the West. Firefighters also earn overtime pay and are usually given shift, weekend, and holiday pay differentials. In addition, firefighters generally receive a uniform allowance and are eligible to retire at the age of 50 or after 20 years of service. Benefits, including health, life, and disability insurance, vary widely according to the community.
Fire lieutenants, captains, and fire chiefs average between $47,000 and $55,000, although fire chiefs in larger cities may earn as much as $80,000 per year or more. Inspectors and fire protection engineers earn an average of $34,000 per year.
The work of firefighters can often be exciting; the job, however, is one of grave responsibilities. Someone’s life or death often hangs in the balance. The working conditions are frequently dangerous and involve risking one’s life in many situations. Floors, walls, or even entire buildings can cave in on fire fighters as they work to save lives and property in raging fires. Exposure to smoke, fumes, chemicals, and gases can end a firefighter life or cause permanent injury
“A typical day for a firefighter revolves around training, fire inspections, and house duties, including maintaining living quarters and equipment,” says Chief Bremen. “Coupled with the typical day are untypical interruptions. This is what makes the life of a firefighter so interesting. When you place your turnout equipment on the apparatus you are assigned to, you never know what the day will bring. It can be a day filled with minor responses, typical medical assists, cardiac arrests, or multiple-alarm fires. I think that is what makes the job so challenging, as well as enjoyable. You never really know from one minute to the next what you might be doing.”
New equipment that can make the firefighter’s job much safer is constantly being developed and tested. For example, a company recently introduced special masks that allow firefighters to see in the dense and smoky environments they enter. These masks display heat sources close in temperature to the human body, allowing firefighters to locate victims in rooms otherwise impenetrable. With developments like these, firefighters will be able to save many more victims and drastically reduce the danger to them.
In many fire departments, firefighters may be on duty and live at fire stations for long periods of time. They may work 24-hour shifts followed by either 48 or 72 hours off. Firefighters can also work in split shifts, which require that they work 9-hour days and 15-hour night tours or 10-hour days and 14-hour night tours. After each set of day tours, firefighters receive 72 hours off, and after each set of night tours, they receive 48 hours off. Work weeks can range from 40 to almost 56 hours; across the United States and Canada, firefighters worked an average week of 50 hours.
This occupation requires a great deal of physical strength and stamina, so firefighters must work to keep themselves physically fit and in condition. They must be mentally alert at all times. Firefighters may be called into action at any time of the day or night and be required to work in all types of weather conditions, sometimes for long hours. Firefighters must do their work in a highly organized team effort to be effective, since a great deal of excitement and public confusion is usually present at the site of a fire.
Firefighters know that their work is essential for the public welfare, and they receive a great deal of personal satisfaction, as well as admiration and respect from society “Fire fighting is probably one of the few careers that taxes people both mentally and physically to their maximum potential on a daily basis,” Chief Bremen adds. “When responding to emergencies, fire fighters are charged with taking a chaotic and stressful situation, gaining control of it, and trying to affect a positive outcome. That often happens within just a few minutes and requires an extreme amount of physical exertion and mental readiness.”
Approximately 314,000 professional firefighters are currently employed in the United States, mostly by municipal fire departments. Fire fighting is fore casted to remain a very competitive field, and the number of people interested in becoming firefighters will outweigh the number of available positions in most areas. Employment of firefighters is expected to grow more slowly than the average through 2008.
Most new jobs will be created as small communities grow and augment their volunteer staffs with career firefighters. There are also growing numbers of “call” firefighters, who are paid only when responding to fires. Little growth is expected in large, urban fire departments. Some local governments are expected to contract for fire-fighting services with private companies. In some fire departments, the hours of each work shift have been shortened, and two people may be employed to cover a shift normally worked by one person.
For More Information
The following organizations have information on careers in the fire service:
International Association of Firefighters
1750 New York Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20006
International Association of Fire Chiefs
4025 Fair Ridge Drive
Fairfax, VA 22033-2868
National Fire Protection Association
1 Batterymarch Park
Quincy MA 02269-9 101
Prev.: Fire Safety Technicians