Be a Firefighter?
Firefighters are vital members of their communities and the full scope of what they do goes far beyond what we typically imagine when we think of a firefighter. They do fight fires of course, but they also respond to medical emergencies, help in search and rescue efforts, respond to traffic incidents, and provide public safety. If you are interested in becoming a firefighter, the quickest way to learn about the job is visit your local fire department. While all firefighters must undergo post-secondary training, either in a vocational school, college, or fire academy, each state and fire department determines its own hiring qualifications and training requirements. This guide will help you get started on your path to a firefighting career, but keep in mind that finding out your department’s specific criteria is key to becoming a firefighter in your jurisdiction of choice.
So, if you think becoming a firefighter could be the job for you, the first questions you should ask yourself is, “What kind of firefighter do I want to become?” and “Where do I want to work?” Once you’ve answered these questions, work through these steps.
Be Certain You’re Ready to be a Firefighter
Regardless of the specific area of practice, people working in the firefighting profession must have certain traits and characteristics necessary for success. These questions can help you determine if you do:
Physical Fitness: Am I physically fit enough to handle the job responsibilities? Do I have the strength and stamina needed to carry out my duties? Am I willing and able to put in the time and effort needed to maintain my physical fitness through the years ahead?
Integrity: Am I honest and trustworthy and can be accountable to my peers and to uphold the trust placed in me by my community and its citizens?
Work Skills: Do I have good communication and people skills and am I flexible enough adapt to changing, stressful situations? Do I work well with others? Am I a good problem solver? Do I work well with my hands and with tools?
Courage and Dedication: Am I dedicated to helping others, even if it means placing myself in harm’s way? Am I willing to put my life on the line if necessary?
If you answered “yes” to these questions, you could be an excellent fit for a firefighter career.
How Long Does It Take to Become a Firefighter?
Entering the firefighting field and moving up the career ladder takes times and dedication, but how much time it takes is not a simple answer. As you’ve probably learned, it depends what area of the firefighting field you’re interested in entering and how high up you want to go in your career. The first place to start is by making an of your long-term career goals. Remember that nothing is set in stone, and your goals will change as you move through your career. Assessing your goals first will help you understand the best place to start your career and education you’ll need to get there.
These are three common entry points into a firefighting career, along with the estimated timeframes:
- Starting as a volunteer firefighter: Typically lasts four to six months (fire academy or other similar training).
- Certificate in Fire Science: Typically lasts a few weeks to one year, depending on the specific certificate program.
- Associate Degree in Fire Science: Typically lasts two years full-time. Part-time programs are also available.
Meet the Requirements & Take the Tests
Let’s cover the minimum requirements needed to start working as a firefighter. Remember that these requirements must be met by all potential firefighters, paid or volunteer. Nearly all firefighter entry-level job applicants must be at least 18 years old and have both a high school diploma (GED or equivalent) and valid driver’s license for the jurisdiction in which the applicant will be working. Applicants also need to have an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification, either at the time of application or soon after.
In addition, males under 25 must be currently registered for the Selective Service. Additional potential requirements include U.S. citizenship or legal resident status, and the ability to get a license permitting the holder to drive job-related vehicles, like ambulances and fire trucks.
During the recruitment period, applicants are typically required to take and pass one or more written tests, a medical exam, a psychological evaluation, and an evaluation measuring physical strength and endurance. Applicants will also have a comprehensive background investigation and drug testing.
Education Options to Prepare for a Firefighter Career
Earning a postsecondary degree or certificate in fire science is not required when entering the firefighter profession. However, some employers give preference to new hires with an undergrad degree or certificate in fire science or a related subject. Earning a postsecondary degree or certificate can provide the specialized knowledge and skills needed to grow in their careers into management and administration roles.
Education options for fire fighter education include:
Also known as technical schools, vocational and trade schools are career-focused and provide practical coursework and training programs geared towards teaching students for employment in specific trades and occupations. Many vocational and trade schools offer certificate programs in fire science that give students with the knowledge and skills related to firefighting and fire prevention. These programs can also include EMT certification which prepare students for entry-level work as a firefighter.
Community colleges, Military, Four-year schools, Master’s programs
A fire science certificate or degree can make a huge difference when trying to land a firefighter job or advance your firefighting career. Fully-accredited, high-quality fire science undergraduate professional certificates and degrees, as well as master’s degrees on the graduate level, are offered by colleges and universities around country.
Certificate in Fire Science
An undergraduate-level certificate in fire science is to provide students with the fundamental knowledge skills, and training in a firefighting-related subject. Common subjects include fire science, fire apparatus operator, firefighter (both basic and advanced), fire prevention specialist, and hazardous materials operations.
Become Trained as an EMT
Firefighters don’t just fight fires, there are often the first responders to accident scenes and emergencies. Because of this, nearly all U.S. jurisdictions and fire departments require firefighter candidates to become certified as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) before they are hired or even when volunteering.
Getting your EMT certification before you apply for a job can give you a major edge over your competition. EMT training is available from a variety of sources, including local vocational schools and community colleges, and organizations like the Red Cross. There are online courses available, but the hand-on portion of your training must be completed in-person.
Receive Firefighter Training at a Fire Academy
Regardless of how you start your firefighter career, early in the process you will attend firefighter training typically at a fire academy. The specifics of the training you receive depend on the department you plan to work for.
Fire academy programs vary in length, usually lasting from several weeks to few months and can be offered both full-time and part-time with weekend and evening options also available.
Academy candidates receive training in a range of important firefighter subjects and skills, including:
- Department organization
- Fire services culture, orientation, and department organization
- Equipment use (fire hoses, ladders, extinguishers, personal protection gear and breathing apparatus, etc.)
- Fire control and suppression methods
- Fire chemistry
- Fire investigation
- Firefighter safety
- Physical fitness
Admission requirements and program costs (typically several thousand dollars) vary widely from program to program. Financial aid, scholarships, grants, and loans are available, but not all programs are eligible for federal aid through FAFSA. Be sure to check with the specific academy you’re interested in for information on financial aid eligibility and other payment options.
Apply to Your Firefighting Dream Jobs
Once you’ve completed all your required training and any other specifics required by the fire department you’re interested in, it’s time to apply! We’ve covered things you can do to increase your chances of being hired, like getting your EMT certification, working as a volunteer firefighter, and earning a postsecondary degree or certificate. Here are a few more things consider that can increase your likelihood of being hired:
- Become a paramedic.
- Take classes or training in areas related to firefighting; hazmat training and certification is a great example.
- Maintain excellent physical fitness.
- Stop by local fire stations. You can get to know the people working there, and most importantly, they can get to know you.
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