What Does a Firefighter Do?

Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More

Two firefighters fighting a fire
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In emergency situations, firefighters are often the first responders on the scene. They not only fight fires but respond to all types of emergencies where lives and property are in danger. Firefighters provide a vital public service that people rarely think about until an emergency strikes.

The vast majority—90% according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics information from 2016—of paid firefighters work in local government. Excluding widespread natural disasters, firefighters respond to emergencies in their communities.

Firefighter Duties & Responsibilities

This job requires candidates to be able to perform duties that include the following:

  • Drive a firetruck and other emergency vehicles
  • Use water hoses, water pumps, and fire extinguishers to put out fires
  • Locate and rescue victims in emergency situations, such as burning buildings
  • Provide treatment for sick or injured individuals
  • Clean and maintain fire engines and firefighting equipment
  • Conduct various drills and engage in ongoing fitness training

Firefighters must also be able to act quickly under pressure, to connect hoses to fire hydrants, operate pumps to give poser to water hoses, climb ladders and use special tools to break through any falling debris to rescue victims. Fire fighters may specialize in hazardous materials work or have special training to fight wild fires using heavy equipment and other methods such as digging fire lines.

Firefighter Salary

  • Top 10% Annual Salary: More than $83,570 ($40.18/hour)
  • Bottom 10% Annual Salary: Less than $24,490 ($11.77/hour)

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Selection Process

Like other civil service positions, the for firefighters has several tests built into it. Because of the physicality required at any moment on the job, firefighters must meet certain benchmarks on physical tests in order to be considered for employment. Civil service exams and drug tests are also required.

Physical tests and random drug tests may be necessary for continued employment. Failure on one of these tests may be grounds for suspension or immediate termination.

Interviewing may be part of the process. If it is, it will be one of the last steps before the hiring decision is made. It is easier for the department to disqualify someone using a standardized test than to choose between individuals based on an interview. To add a heightened aura of fairness, departments may employ .

According to , obtaining a firefighter position can take a long time. “On average, it can take 5 years or more to get hired on a full-time permanent basis. For every single position available, there are generally between 1,000 to 3,000 people applying for that one position. Therefore, remember to cast your net far and wide … don’t simply apply to the one department you are hoping to work for.”

Education

For most fire departments, a high school diploma will suffice. An associate’s or bachelor’s degree can give someone an advantage in the hiring process, but a degree is not required usually. A driver’s license is generally required.

Once hired, firefighters will need to obtain the necessary license and endorsements to drive a fire truck and other emergency vehicles. An EMT certification is required, but some departments allow new hires to earn this certification as part of the overall new firefighter training program. These programs are intense physically and mentally.

Experience Needed

Because the new hire training program is so rigorous, firefighters do not need experience to be hired. There would be no practical way for someone to gain experience if it was required. Firefighting is such a unique job that the training has to come only once a position is secured.

Serving as a volunteer firefighter can help someone land a full-time job, but volunteering may be impractical given other demands on someone mid-career trying to change jobs. Many small-town and unincorporated area fire departments have only volunteer firefighters. They simply cannot afford to hire professional firefighters.

In addition to the new hire training, firefighters receive regular training in emergency management and the latest firefighting techniques and technology.

Job Outlook

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the outlook for firefighters over the next decade relative to other occupations and industries is average, driven by improved building materials and codes that have decreased fires, offset by open positions due to people leaving their jobs.

Employment is expected to grow by about 7 percent over the next ten years, which is the same as the average growth projected for all occupations between 2016 and 2026. Growth for other fire-fighting and prevention jobs is projected to grow at the same rate, which is 7 percent over the next ten years.

These growth rates compare to the projected 7 percent growth for all occupations. Job prospects will remain steady, even with volunteer firefighters filling some of the available jobs. Individuals with paramedic training and postsecondary firefighter education will have better job opportunities. 

Job Duties

Firefighters respond to fires and other emergencies such as traffic accidents, medical emergencies, and natural disasters. They drive fire trucks and other emergency vehicles to the incidents. Once there, they use the equipment on the vehicles and on their persons to address the situation.

Firefighters work with paramedics, emergency medical technicians, and emergency management personnel depending on the incident they face. For example, a building collapse will have firefighters pulling people from the fallen structure, paramedics and emergency medical technicians attending to injured people and police officers ensuring citizens do not get too close to the building and diverting traffic away from around the scene.

Depending on the available personnel, firefighters may attend to injuries as well since most firefighters are also certified as emergency medical technicians. Trust and teamwork are essential to managing the response to an emergency. Each professional at the scene must be confident that others will do their jobs safely and effectively.

Saving lives and property is the dangerous and glamorous part of the job, but there are other important aspects. Once an emergency situation is stabilized, firefighters write reports about it. Such reports keep managers within the department informed and help firefighters assess what went well and what could have gone better.

In order to get the trucks rolling as soon as possible after the firehouse alarm sounds, firefighters clean and inspect their equipment on a routine basis. Problems and mechanical failures are prevented to the greatest extent possible so that they do not arise during an emergency.

Firefighters conduct drills and participate in training to keep their minds and bodies in peak condition to fight fires and address other emergencies. They take some of this knowledge and share it with the public through speaking engagements and public demonstrations.

Firefighters work with to develop public service announcements, press releases and other promotional material aimed at educating the public on fire prevention, disaster preparedness and burn bans. Firefighters do not work a normal eight-hour day. They often work 24 hours straight followed by 24, 48 or 72 hours off. They may also divide their time between 10-hour day shifts and 14-hour night shifts.

Comparing Similar Jobs

People interested in optometry also consider the following career paths, listed with their median annual salaries:

  • EMT or Paramedic: $33,380
  • Fire Inspector: $56,670
  • Forest and Conservation Worker: $27,650

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