How to Become a Firefighter

Learn about firefighter careers and choose a fire science degree program. Find schools and see salaries, job growth and steps required to be 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.

Firefighter Careers Basics

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.

Step 1
Get the basic requirements
Firefighters must have a high school diploma and hold a valid driver's license. Though firefighters must be 18 years old in order to work, limited on-the-job training can begin at a younger age. There may be a limit on age as well, usually between 28 and 30 years old. Applicants must be physically fit and may be required to pass a criminal background check and drug screening as well.
Step 2
Take the tests
Typically, fire departments participate in recruitment fairs when they are looking to hire new recruits. They host screening events where prospective firefighters take written and physical tests. You'll need patience, since the hiring process is usually lengthy. Qualified applicants who pass the first round of tests are interviewed and often go through an additional series of evaluations and testing. To enter a training program, applicants take at least two exams: a written test and a Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) test. The written exam typically consists of around 100 multiple choice questions and covers spatial awareness, reading comprehension, mechanical reasoning, logic, observation and memory. Applicants must also pass a rigorous physical fitness test. They should be able to perform a distance run in an allotted period of time, climb flights of stairs at a rapid pace and lift and carry up to 200 pounds.
Step 3
Become an EMT
In some jurisdictions, having an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) license is a requirement for firefighters, who are often called out for emergency medical situations. EMT is often a multi-level process, but requirements vary by state.
Step 4
Attend the fire academy
Though a great deal of training is done at the firehouse to which a firefighter is hired or assigned to work, attending a fire academy offers the opportunity to focus on classroom and hands-on work. Courses tackle topics that might not be covered by firehouse training, such as hazardous materials control or anti-arson techniques.
Step 5
Consider formal education
For those who want to go on to careers in fire science, paramedics, or advance to leadership roles within firefighting agencies, there are associate and bachelor's degree programs at colleges, universities and trade schools. If your prospective fire organization requires it, you may need to complete your EMT-Paramedic training and pass those certification exams before applying for work. Some fire organizations host accredited apprenticeship programs that combine classroom training with field internships that can take up to four years to complete. Degrees in forestry with a firefighting/environmental focus are available at the bachelor and master's degree levels.
Step 6
Continue learning
How much initial and ongoing education firefighters need is often determined by their leaders and job paths. For example, some firehouses have weekly required training for all firefighters while others have a full-time probationary period, while still others require a four-year apprenticeship. Keeping up with training is a vitally important part of the job. Note that one must usually complete regular continuing education courses to maintain their EMT licenses.

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.

Vocational/Trade School

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.

Community College

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.

4-year Schools

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

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.

Skills Gained

  • An understanding of the firefighting culture
  • Comparing emergency responses Understanding best practices for response
  • Grasp of regulations and laws that govern the work of firefighters

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.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding of the regulations that dictate what firefighters can and cannot do
  • Knowledge of legal statutes
  • A sense for how the public views certain firefighting actions
  • The legality of ‘tough calls' in emergency response

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.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding how flames move in a given structure
  • Knowing how certain fuels affect the fire's spread
  • Knowing which methods are best for containment
  • Financial considerations in fighting fires

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.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding building codes
  • Proper building inspection
  • Bringing buildings up to code
  • Knowing how codes affect insurance rates

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.

Terrorism Management

Focuses on the potential actions of terrorist groups and the expected and appropriate response from emergency services personnel.

Skills Gained

  • An understanding of the various threats
  • Knowing how to handle the public in an emergency
  • Steps to take when formulating an emergency response on a large scale

Hazardous Materials Awareness

An overview of hazardous materials and how to control or contain them using typical firefighting methods.

Skills Gained

  • Knowing how to respond to an incident
  • Understanding public safety measures and techniques
  • Proper scene surveying
  • Knowing the standard operating procedures for responder safety

Vehicle Extraction

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.

Skills Gained

  • Knowing how to work in small, confined spaces
  • Proper tool utilization
  • Ability to maintain the physical stability of a victim

Urban Interface Operations

Focuses on decisions that must be made quickly when dealing with wildfires that threaten urban or populated areas.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding fire behavior in a natural environment
  • Pinpointing and removing fuels
  • How to employ firebreak procedures

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.

Skills Gained

  • Preparing budgets and news releases
  • Understanding the process for policy changes
  • Knowledge of job performance requirements
  • Knowing administrative tactics when working with a wide variety of leadership-minded individuals

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.

Skills Gained

  • The ability to delegate appropriately
  • Knowing how to work closely with unions
  • Personnel performance evaluation

Cooperative Education

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.

Skills Gained

  • Relating coursework to real-life scenarios
  • How to work in a team
  • How to lead effectively
  • Knowing the proper use of tools in the field

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.

Skills Gained

  • Physical strength
  • An appreciation of fire protection clothing and gear
  • The agility required to handle gear while in low-light and high-smoke situations

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.

Skills Gained

  • Knowing the role of media in homeland security
  • Understanding policies at the local, state and federal levels
  • Knowing the legalities of homeland security practices

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.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding the fundamentals of financial management
  • Ability to analyze financial statements
  • Knowing how to weigh expenses against payments, grants and contributions

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.

Skills Gained

  • How to set up a chain of command
  • Local, state and federal delegation
  • Gaining specialized decision-making practices that are consistent, yet flexible

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.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding collective bargaining
  • Knowing alternative dispute resolution techniques
  • The ability to settle disputes between employees

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).


Median 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 Specialist

Median 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 Inspector

Median 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 Investigator

Median 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.


Median 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.


  • Physical strength and stamina

    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.

  • Excellent communication skills

    Firefighters must be able to communicate events and concerns accurately and succinctly, especially in situations when lives are at stake.

  • The ability to make decisions

    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.

  • Courage

    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

  • Fire extinguishers

  • Fire and rescue vehicles

  • Pry bars

  • “Jaws of Life”

  • Ladders

  • Fire axes

  • Automated external defibrillators (AED)

  • Air samplers

  • Fire shelters

  • Ventilators

  • Air chisels

  • GIS Software

  • Plume Modeling Software

  • Incident command system software


  • Fire incident reporting systems


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

Emergency Medical Technician


Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

Certificate or Training

Fire Inspector


Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

Some College

Police Officer


Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

High School Diploma

Security Guard


Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

High School Diploma



Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required

Bachelor's Degree

Private Detectives & Investigators


Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required

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 Resources

International 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

Become Team
Become Team
Contributing Writer

Latest Posts is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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