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Firefighter Career Guide

What is a firefighter?

A firefighter is an emergency responder dedicated to protecting people, buildings, and the environment from damage caused by fires. They also respond to various other emergencies like car accidents and hazardous material spills. They are the ones we greatly depend on during life-threatening situations.

The importance of this profession cannot be overstated due to the saving and preservation of lives and property that these brave individuals undertake. They work proactively to minimize future dangers by educating communities, schools, and businesses about fire safety measures. Thus, these responders are vital to the improvement and safety of our communities.

Duties and responsibilities

Firefighters are involved in many tasks connected to maintaining safety and responding to emergencies. Their primary responsibility is to respond to fires and other critical situations swiftly and effectively. This involves the operation of firefighting equipment, such as extinguishers and hoses, to suppress fires and use specialized tools to enter buildings.

They are also responsible for responding to various non-fire emergencies, including medical crises and natural disasters. These individuals often are the first to provide emergency medical attention, which includes performing first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). They execute preventative measures such as performing fire code inspections, testing fire hydrants and fire suppression systems, and providing fire safety education to the public. Additional duties include maintaining firefighting equipment and preparing written reports on fire incidents.

Work environment

Firefighters often work in challenging and unpredictable conditions. Their workplace is not limited to a traditional office or indoor environment – it exists wherever an emergency occurs, such as a burning building, a crashed vehicle, or a forest fire. They are often exposed to smoke, high temperatures, and potentially hazardous materials. At times, these individuals may need to work in adverse weather conditions or high-pressure and stressful situations.

When firefighters are not responding to an emergency, they are on call at a fire station. During this time, they regularly inspect equipment and perform practice drills. They also eat, sleep, and remain on call, as their shifts usually last 24 hours. Some may provide public education about fire safety, like presenting about fire safety at a school. Some responders work in hazardous materials units and are specially trained to control and clean up hazardous materials, like oil spills and chemicals. They work with hazardous materials removal workers in these cases.

Typical work hours

Firefighters typically work long and irregular hours. They usually work 24-hour shifts and then off duty for 48 or 72 hours. Some may work on call, meaning they must be ready to report in case of an emergency. After all, emergencies can happen at any hour, requiring these individuals to be ready to respond day or night. Holiday and weekend work is often a requirement for this job.

Overtime is common in this profession, particularly when emergencies occur or if they are short-staffed. More hours may also come in the form of additional duties or projects. Responders in large departments may have opportunities to work a more typical 40-hour week, although this is less common.

How to become a firefighter

This career guide section outlines how to become a firefighter. The steps include acquiring the necessary education, passing involved physical and written tests, and completing comprehensive training and certification programs.

Step 1: Obtain a high school diploma or GED

A necessary first step is to complete formal education up to a high school level or get a GED, as this is a basic requirement for entry into firefighter training programs. Additionally, excelling in subjects such as mathematics, physics, chemistry, and health can provide a good foundation for the technical aspects of firefighting.

Step 2: Keep a clean record

Firefighting is a public trust job that requires people of integrity and good character. Therefore, maintaining a clean criminal record is a vital requirement. Many fire departments also require a clean driving record.

Step 3: Obtain an EMT certification

Most departments require firefighters to be certified as an emergency medical technician (EMT) or even a paramedic. This certification can take anywhere from six months to two years to complete, depending on the specific program and whether you’re pursuing basic or advanced EMT training.

Step 4: Apply for jobs

Once you’ve obtained your high school diploma or GED and EMT certification, you can begin applying to open firefighter positions. Openings can be found here on zengig, posted on online job boards, networking, or directly through fire departments’ websites. Some cities or counties might have specific application windows, so it’s helpful to check for job openings regularly.

Step 5: Pass written and physical tests

Applicants are typically required to pass written and physical tests. The written test often includes mathematics, reasoning, mechanics, and emergency medical procedures. The physical test assesses your strength, endurance, and agility – all necessary traits for firefighting duties.

Step 6: Complete the firefighter training academy

Once you have successfully passed the written and physical tests, you will be enrolled in a training academy. This rigorous program typically lasts several weeks to months and covers an extensive curriculum, including fire prevention, firefighting techniques, hazardous materials control, and local building codes.

Step 7: Complete a probationary period

After graduating from the training academy, new firefighters often have to complete a probationary period of up to a year. During this period, they work alongside experienced firefighters and continue to learn and develop their skills on the job.

How much do firefighters make?

Compensation for firefighters is influenced by a variety of factors. One significant variable is the level of experience, as seasoned firefighters generally have higher salaries compared to those new to the field. Geographical location also matters, with salaries varying considerably by state and city, sometimes even within the same metropolitan area.

Working conditions, such as the level of hazard or the size of the community served, can also affect compensation. Other factors include educational qualifications and specialized training, which can lead to higher paying roles within the fire department. Union membership and the size of the employing organization can further impact salary figures.

Highest paying states

  • New Jersey – $89,350
  • California – $81,580
  • Washington – $78,180
  • New York – $76,470
  • Nevada – $73,860

Browse firefighter salary data by market

Types of firefighters

Below, we explore common career types and areas of specialization for firefighters.

Urban firefighter

These professionals cope with fire and other emergencies in city settings. Appropriate training, physical fitness, and the willingness to face dangers are paramount in this role.

Wildland firefighter

Unlike their urban counterparts, wildland firefighters are specialists in combating wildfires in forested, grassland, and other remote areas. They use distinct tools and strategies to control wildfires, often spending extended periods in rough and remote terrains. Being in shape and deeply appreciating and understanding nature is vital in this role.

Airport firefighter

Working at the crossroads of aviation and fire prevention, airport firefighters perform rescues and fire suppression specifically for aircraft and airport-related emergencies. They have specialized knowledge of aircraft and aviation fuels and often use foam-based fire suppression agents. Advanced fire and emergency training, combined with close attention to safety protocols, are requisites for this role.

Fire investigator

Fire investigators play a crucial role in determining the cause and origin of fires. They work closely with law enforcement agencies and are often involved in gathering evidence for potential arson cases. A background in both firefighting and investigative methodology can be highly valuable for this specialized role.

Fire science educator

Knowledge and training are vital in combating fires effectively and safely. Fire science educators are pivotal in equipping future firefighters with this essential knowledge. They teach courses on various topics, including firefighting techniques, fire dynamics, hazardous materials handling, and safety practices. A background in both fire prevention and education is desirable for this job.

Top skills for firefighters

This career guide section outlines the skills and abilities that will help you find success as a firefighter. Firefighting is a profession that requires physical strength, quick problem-solving abilities, and a tenacious desire to help others, often in high-pressure and dangerous situations.

Physical fitness

Being in excellent shape is a must, as they often perform their duties in extreme conditions, such as high heat or confined spaces.

Crisis management

Working well under pressure is a fundamental requirement. These individuals regularly find themselves in life-threatening emergencies. They must stay calm, make quick decisions, and execute action plans to extinguish fires, rescue individuals, and manage crises.


This job calls for individuals who can work effectively as a team. Firefighters rely on each other for assistance and safety, which makes cooperation and clear communication vital.

Problem-solving skills

A knack for swiftly assessing situations and developing solutions is important, which includes deciding on the appropriate strategy for fighting fires and executing successful rescues.

Communication skills

Clear, concise, and effective communication is vital in this profession – it’s necessary when interacting with your team, understanding instructions, and providing information to victims and other emergency personnel.


A level of empathy and interpersonal skills can be invaluable. They often encounter individuals in distress and need to comfort or reassure them while providing assistance.

Firefighter career path options

As a firefighter, there’s a lot of room for advancement. Growth within the firefighting ranks is typically based on experience, continuous training, education, and performance appraisals.

With years of experience and training, they could be promoted to the position of an engineer or driver/operator. This role usually involves managing the truck’s operation and equipment and driving the firetruck to the site of emergencies.

The next possible step is promotion to fire lieutenant. Lieutenants are in charge of a team of firefighters. They ensure that their team is properly trained and follows safety protocols.

Further promotions to fire captain and then battalion chief could follow. Captains manage multiple teams and take on a greater role in planning and directing emergency responses. Battalion chiefs coordinate and supervise the operations of several fire companies at fire scenes and are responsible for the logistical needs of the battalion.

Career firefighters can aspire to roles such as assistant chief, deputy chief, and the top role of fire chief. These chief roles involve strategic planning, personnel management, budgetary responsibilities, and liaising with elected officials and community leaders.

Alternatively, there are specialized paths, like fire investigators who determine the causes of fires and fire service instructors who train other team members. Those with paramedic training provide a higher level of emergency medical care and are in high demand in many departments.

Lastly, after a successful career in firefighting, some choose to use their wide range of experiences to move into related fields like emergency management, fire safety consulting, or higher education roles teaching firefighting and emergency management.

Increased wildfires, especially in areas vulnerable to climate change, demand more robust and adaptable firefighting systems. Technology has also played a major role in these changes, with breakthroughs like sophisticated firefighting equipment, drones, and advanced personal protection gear elevating how firefighters operate.

There’s also a growing emphasis on firefighter health and well-being. Understanding the impact of the job on physical and mental health has led to initiatives aimed at protecting and supporting these pivotal community servants. All these factors interact to shape the future of this career, influencing the skills, training, and approach necessary for future professionals in the sector.

Employment projections

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment opportunities for firefighters are expected to grow 4 percent through 2031 – about as fast as the average for all occupations. The expected increase is primarily due to continued residential growth in wildfire-prone areas, propelling the need for more firefighters.

Firefighter career tips

Understand the nature of the job

Firefighting is not just about extinguishing fires – it’s a job that requires a strong commitment to the community’s safety and well-being. These individuals undergo strenuous training to respond to emergencies, including search and rescue operations, hazardous material incidents, and medical crises beyond just fire-related incidents. This profession involves working in shifts, so flexibility and adaptability are essential.

Focus on physical fitness

Maintaining peak physical condition is imperative, given the demanding nature of the job. Regular workouts, strength training, agility drills, and cardiovascular fitness should be part of your routine lifestyle. Incorporating job-specific workouts, like staircase drills with weighted packs, is also beneficial to build stamina and strength.

Continuous learning and development

To keep up with the dynamic demands of firefighting, it’s important to continuously learn and upgrade your skills, which can help you become an effective and efficient firefighter. Some areas you can explore include:

  • Medical training such as EMT or paramedic courses
  • Fire science or fire engineering programs from accredited institutions
  • Advanced firefighting certifications like the NFPA’s Certified Fire Officer (CFO) or Certified Fire Inspector (CFI)

Expose yourself to real-world experiences

Try to volunteer in fire services or find apprenticeships to gain practical experience. This exposure will help you understand the challenges faced on the job and how different situations are handled – improving your skill set and boosting your confidence in handling emergencies.

Build a professional network

Networking is crucial in the firefighting field. It allows you to share experiences, learn from others, and even provide career advancement opportunities. You may choose to be part of:

  • National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)
  • International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF)
  • International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service
  • National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC)

Develop coping strategies

The job can be stressful and emotionally taxing. Dealing with traumatic situations regularly can lead to emotional distress or burnout, so cultivating healthy coping mechanisms, such as mindfulness, regular exercise, counseling, or support groups, is necessary. Remember, taking care of your mental health is just as important as maintaining physical fitness.

Where the firefighter jobs are

Top employers

  • Los Angeles Fire Department
  • New York City Fire Department
  • Chicago Fire Department
  • Houston Fire Department
  • Philadelphia Fire Department

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • LinkedIn
  • FirefighterJobs
  • FirstResponderCareers


What is the physical fitness level required for becoming a firefighter?

Firefighting is a physically demanding job, requiring a high level of physical fitness. You need to maintain bodily functions under stressful conditions, endure prolonged physical exertion, lift heavy objects, and handle the physical constraints of wearing heavy gear. Running, weightlifting, and general cardio activities should be part of your regular training routine.

What core skills are necessary for a firefighter?

Quick decision-making, problem-solving, physical fitness, teamwork, and good communication. Emergency medical skills are also vital since firefighters often provide medical aid. Technical skills in handling firefighting equipment and navigating challenging environments under stress are also essential.

What type of training does a firefighter undergo?

Firefighters typically undergo rigorous training, including classroom instruction and practical exercises. They learn firefighting techniques, building codes, fire chemistry, hazardous materials control, rescue procedures, and the use of firefighting equipment. They also receive emergency medical training, often leading to certification as an EMT or paramedic.

What are the different roles in firefighting?

Firefighters can specialize in different roles depending on their skills, interests, and department needs. These may include driver operators, who are responsible for driving the fire trucks to the scene and operating the water pumps; search and rescue specialists; hazardous materials experts; fire investigators; structural firefighters; and wildland firefighters. With experience and additional training, they can be promoted to leadership roles such as fire lieutenant, captain, marshal, and chief.

What are the work schedules like for firefighters?

They typically work long shifts at a time and may spend days at the fire station. A common schedule is 24 hours on duty followed by 48 hours off, which varies by location and department. Even when not responding to an emergency, their time on duty is spent on training, equipment maintenance, inspections, and other station duties.

Can I be a volunteer firefighter?

Absolutely. Many fire departments utilize volunteer firefighters and depend on them for a significant portion of their force, particularly in smaller or rural communities. Volunteering as a firefighter can be a rewarding way to serve your community, and it also provides valuable experience and training if you’re considering full-time firefighting as a career.

What is the impact of firefighting on mental health?

Firefighting is a stressful and demanding job, with exposure to traumatic incidents that can impact mental health. The risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression is higher among firefighters than in most professions. Many fire departments have programs to help manage these risks, and ongoing efforts are being made to break the stigma associated with seeking help for mental health issues.

How can firefighters better handle the physical risks of their job?

They can mitigate physical risks by maintaining an excellent level of fitness, both cardio and strength, wearing appropriate protective gear, and undergoing regular health checks, as prolonged exposure to smoke and fire can affect lungs and heart. Training in safe firefighting practices and procedures also plays a crucial role in weight control, and staying updated with the latest technologies and approaches can better equip firefighters to handle emergencies.

How can I prepare for a career as a firefighter while still in school?

Preparing for a career in firefighting can start as early as high school. Take anatomy, biology, and chemistry classes for a better understanding of fire behaviors and the human body’s response in emergencies. Engaging in physical activities and team sports can also be beneficial. Some fire departments offer cadet or explorer programs for teens interested in the field. Learning about the profession via informational interviews, job shadowing, and internships can provide great insights.

What steps should I take if I want to become a firefighter?

The first step is getting your high school diploma or GED. Next, consider pursuing an EMT certification, as many fire departments require it. Develop and maintain physical fitness, and look into participating in a fire science degree program or receiving training at a firefighting academy, depending on local job requirements. You will need to pass written and physical exams and may need to pass a background check and a psychological exam. Lastly, gaining experience as a volunteer firefighter can be beneficial.