How to Become a Firefighter
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Those who fight fires are trained to do their job anywhere – from forests to rural areas to urban high-rises. Firefighters work first and foremost to protect lives, and then they turn their attention to protecting property. Some firefighters choose to work their way up the ladder, so to speak, starting with volunteer work at their local firehouse, coupled with their high school diploma. Those who want to advance up the ranks faster can turn to a fire science degree that will prepare them for responsibilities at the state or federal level. Understanding different types of firefighting careers and what each entails is the first step to choosing the right path.
What Does a Firefighter Do?
Firefighters show up at the scene of a fire or emergency and rely on advanced tools and equipment to handle the situation. That’s a very broad overview; now let’s get down to the details.
Firefighters receive expert training that prepares them to handle a variety of emergency situations. Though fighting fires are what they are best known for (as the name implies), firefighters also handle medical emergencies, rescuing and treating the injured, educating the public and more. Their work often requires them to be on call at all hours; some respond to calls from their private homes, while others stay in the firehouse during their shifts in order to respond to calls much faster, especially in urban areas.
Firefighter Salaries & Job Growth
Firefighter Salaries Across the US
Firefighter salaries can vary widely across the United States. Some firefighters work in very small departments with limited budgets while others work in urban areas with much higher financial coffers. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the 2015 median pay for firefighters was $46,870. This map can help aspiring firefighters determine potential earnings by state.
Firefighter Job Growth
The work of firefighters is absolutely integral to community safety and security. As a result, firefighters are always in demand. Employment of firefighters is expected to grow by 5 percent between 2014 and 2024. The following tools can help firefighters identify states in which they are in great demand.
Steps to Becoming a Firefighter
What does it take to work in a firehouse? There is no universal firefighter career path, but these are the steps aspiring heroes tend to follow.
Fire Science Degrees & Concentrations
Advertising is a large field, comprised of creative and business professionals who share one main goal: to motivate customers to buy products or services. Whether looking for an accredited online program or a traditional on-campus degree, students have plenty of options for receiving a quality education. For those unsure of which level of degree to pursue in the quest for an advertising career, the table below explains each option.
|Career Goal or Educational Needs||Certificate||Associate||Bachelor’s||Master’s||Online|
|I am already working as a firefighter but I would love to enhance my knowledge. I don’t have the time to sit in a classroom – I have long shifts!|
|I am ready to move into firefighting but I recognize that I need a lot of knowledge in order to pass all those tests. Besides, I would love to be able to have a ‘fall back plan’ for higher education.|
|I’m determined to make firefighting my lifelong career, and I recognize that in order to do that, I will need a strong educational background. I want to go into management and eventually retire as a fire chief.|
|I am a seasoned firefighter, but I want to do more. I really enjoy homeland security work and I am considering the leap to a federal position--one that would allow me to venture into more exciting professional work.|
|I am pretty sure I want to be a firefighter. I love volunteering at my local firehouse and want to enter the field as soon as possible to see if it’s right for me. I need an educational route that will give me a great deal of knowledge fast.|
Preparing for a Firefighter Career: Fire Science Degrees & Schools
Though many firefighters start their career with on-the-job training or apprenticeships, formal education can give job candidates and edge, especially in a very competitive area. Here are some of the education options available.
Those who are seeking a certificate in fire science, fire protection or a related area, or those who are seeking their emergency medical technician credential can find it at a vocational or trade school. These schools offer certificate programs that combine hands-on work with classroom education; some offer certificates online.
Those who are trained as firefighters in the military will have the distinct advantage of knowing how to handle a huge variety of firefighting materials, chemicals and tools. Potential employers recognize the advanced training that the military can provide and take that into account during the hiring process.
Students who are interested in an associate degree in fire science or fire technology can find it here. Community college is home to numerous two-year programs and are typically more affordable than four-year colleges.
Those who want to earn a bachelor’s degree in fire science can look to colleges or universities for the four-year programs they need. These programs focus on fire science as well as related courses, such as management and business, that might help firefighters rise up the management ladder.
Master’s programs require two and three years of study and are usually--though not always--offered online. This allows students to expand their knowledge while continuing to work the demanding hours required of a full-time firefighter.
Types of Fire Science Degrees
Fire science degrees are available at all levels of higher education. These degrees (and certificates) offer expanded knowledge for those firefighters who are already focused on hands-on training. Depending upon the degree level, students will take courses that focus strictly on a variety of firefighting techniques and required knowledge, or they will take an expanded curriculum that introduces them to management, leadership, and business concepts.
Certificate in Fire Science
Certificate programs for firefighters go by many names, but the most common are fire science or fire technology. The focus is on providing students with the basic knowledge necessary to understand how fire moves and feeds and the tools needed to best combat it in a variety of situations. Most certificate programs take one year or less to complete. Below are several courses that students may expect to find in a typical program.
Principles of Fire and Emergency Services
This course explores the history of fire services, the various career paths available, laws and regulations, basic fire protections and working with the public in emergency situations.
The Legalities of Fire Protection
Focuses on the laws that govern firefighting, statues and regulations that govern potential actions, and best practices for legal protections in the course of performing job duties.
Fire Investigation and Analysis
This course examines how fires act in different environments, how flames spread and react to firefighting actions, and the aftermath of a fire loss.
Fire Code Enforcement
A look at the building codes designed to prevent or help fight fires, including detailed information on inspections, insurance implications, and financial issues.
Associate Fire Science Degree or Related
An associate degree typically takes two years to complete. Students can choose from two separate tracks: an associate degree program, which includes general education courses and can serve as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, or an applied associate program, which focuses on the major and gets students into the workforce upon graduation. Either option will offer students a solid overview of the world of firefighting. Here are a few courses students may expect to see in the catalog.
Focuses on the potential actions of terrorist groups and the expected and appropriate response from emergency services personnel.
Hazardous Materials Awareness
An overview of hazardous materials and how to control or contain them using typical firefighting methods.
This class teaches students how to handle a situation in which a person is trapped in a vehicle. It includes an overview of tools and proper techniques.
Urban Interface Operations
Focuses on decisions that must be made quickly when dealing with wildfires that threaten urban or populated areas.
Bachelor’s Fire Science Degree or Related
There are several fire science degrees at the bachelor’s level. These degrees are often more specialized, allowing students to focus on one particular aspect of firefighting or emergency services. For instance, there are degrees in fire protection administration, arson and explosion investigation, fire protection and safety engineering technology, and fire service management, among others.
Bachelor’s degrees take about four years to complete, and includes general education courses as well as targeted fire science courses. The classes below are commonly found in fire science bachelor’s programs.
Fire and Emergency Administration
This course emphasizes the relationship between government agencies and the fire service, explores ethics and leadership, and touches on the administrative points of running a successful firehouse.
Fire Service Human Resource Management
This class focuses on hiring and firing decisions, understanding unions, deciding the placement of firefighters and emergency workers during active calls, and laws concerning employment.
Students obtain hands-on training working in the field, either at a controlled fire or accident or through a typical day at a firehouse. They also participate in planned drills.
Fitness and Conditioning
This course targets the physical aspects of firefighting, including physical conditioning segments, agility tests, the use of protective clothing and gear, and developing stamina while in the field.
Master’s Fire Science Degree or Related
A master’s degree in fire science is offered by only a handful of schools across the country. It is ideal for those who are already working in the field and want to enhance their hiring or advancement opportunities. Usually taking between two and three years to complete, most master’s fire science degrees are offered online so that students can continue their rigorous work schedule with fire services while they pursue higher education. Below are some of the typical classes found in a master’s program.
Critical Issues in Homeland Security
This course focuses on the current issues facing homeland security, new policies and practices, and how those changes are shaped by various influencers.
Fiscal Financial Management
Students in this course learn what it takes to manage expenses, budget, complete financial statements and understand the financial environment of the fire service.
Advanced Crisis Management
This course looks at setting up a crisis response in the aftermath of a natural disaster, terrorist attack or large-scale accident.
Dispute Resolutions and Negotiations
This focuses on the various ways to solve labor and personnel conflicts, from those that occur between firefighters to larger issues with unions or legislators.
Fire Science & Firefighter Career Specializations
Working as a firefighter isn’t the only game in town: There are numerous other professional specialties within the realm of fire science that can lead to fulfilling careers. Some degree programs may offer academic concentrations relevant to one or more of these jobs. Here are a few of those options, along with salary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
FirefighterMedian salary: $46,870
Firefighters respond to fires, handle emergency situations, and protect life and property. The job is definitely exciting, but it also comes with a high element of risk. Constant training and preparation can help mitigate the risks for firefighters and their local communities.
Forestry Fire Prevention SpecialistMedian salary: $36,650
These highly-trained firefighters work in forested areas inspecting for potential fire hazards, enforcing fire regulations (like appropriate burn permits or ‘burn times’) and instituting control measures when it appears a fire is imminent. They keep tabs on weather conditions and report forest fires to the proper departments.
Building InspectorMedian salary: $57,340
Those with a strong knowledge of building codes and attention to detail might like working as a building inspector. These professionals look at buildings to determine their safety, structural soundness and compliance with a variety of regulations. Their inspections might be general or very specific. Future building inspectors may want to shortlist potential fire safety degree programs with targeted courses in fire and safety codes.
Arson InvestigatorMedian salary: $56,730
In the event of a suspicious fire, an arson investigator collects evidence, eyewitness accounts and other information to determine what might have caused the fire, and, furthermore, who might have been responsible. These investigators work closely with police departments and other authorities.
ParamedicMedian salary: $31,980
Becoming an emergency medical technician, or EMT, is a requirement for most firefighters. Those who truly love the work might invest in additional training to become a paramedic. Paramedics respond to emergencies, assess injuries, treat patients at the scene and transport them for further medical care.
Components of a Successful Firefighter Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools & Technology
Firefighters must have certain skills and traits in order to do well in the job. They must also have a strong knowledge of the tools and technology necessary to keep things running smoothly.
Firefighters are expected to handle heavy equipment, often in dangerous and adverse conditions. They might be on their feet for hours, crawling through small space, climbing ladders and stairs, and otherwise putting their bodies to the test.
Firefighters must be able to communicate events and concerns accurately and succinctly, especially in situations when lives are at stake.
In an emergency situation, firefighters must be able to make good decisions very quickly – even if those choices are very difficult ones. The ability to make the best decisions given the information they have is vitally important.
Firefighters face dangerous situations every day, and each emergency call can bring surprises. They must have the courage and fortitude to tackle each call, keeping the safety of their team in mind.
Tools & Technologies
Most firefighters are required to earn an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification or EMT-Paramedic certification through the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. Those with bachelor’s degrees and higher who want to further their career opportunities can earn the Executive Fire Officer certification. Additional options include Chief Fire Officer, Emergency Response Specialist and Dive Team Member certifications.
Related Careers at a Glance
Median Salary (2015):
Certificate or Training
Median Salary (2015):
Median Salary (2015):
High School Diploma
Median Salary (2015):
High School Diploma
Median Salary (2015):
Median Salary (2015):
High School Diploma
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
What do Related Occupations Make?
Those who become firefighters are interested in serving others. Graduates of fire science programs might also go on to a career as a correctional officer, emergency medical technician, paramedic, police officer, or security guard.Firefighter and Related Job Salaries
Firefighter Degree and Career ResourcesInternational Association of Fire Fighters
This is a labor union representing firefighters throughout the United States and Canada.International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services
Women are often underrepresented in firehouses and emergency services. This organization works to remedy that.National Fire Academy
A service of the U.S. Fire Administration, the Academy is home to several training programs, including online classes, designed to benefit firefighters across the U.S.National Fire Protection Association
This site offers a wealth of information on codes, standards, research, training and more.National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians
This organization certifies emergency medical technicians, a requirement for many firefighters.U.S. Fire Administration
The USFA website highlights training, continuing education, operations, fire prevention and pertinent data resources for current and potential firefighters.
Fire Science Degree Search Tool
Choosing a fire science or EMT program can be tough. This search tool lets students review various credentials and programs available in their state so that they can identify those that fit them best.
Online Firefighting Programs
If your schedule doesn’t allow for in-person classes, you can often find what you’re looking for online, offering you a flexible option.
Related Careers at a Glance
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