Firefighter How to become, career path, income potential

What is a firefighter?

Firefighters respond to fires, rescue sick and injured people, promote fire prevention, and investigate the sources of fires, especially in the case of potential arson. Their main duty is to fight fires, whether in a home, a forest, a commercial building, or anywhere else. They wear protective gear to help prevent injury when responding to a fire emergency. They use fire trucks that are equipped with hoses, ladders, hatchets, and other tools to help fight fires. They may use a fire truck to transport fire victims to hospitals. 

Firefighters have specific tasks they perform at the site of a fire and work as a well-trained, efficient team. Hose operators connect hoses to fire hydrants and direct the flow of water toward the fire. Pump operators control the water flow. Tillers operate aerial ladders. Others enter burning buildings and rescue victims. Some act as EMTs and must have an EMT certification, to stabilize victims or provide limited medical care until paramedics can arrive. 

Firefighters also respond to emergencies that don’t involve fires, such as vehicle accidents. They use their EMT training to administer care to the injured at the scene of the accident. These professionals are also called into action during natural disasters, such as tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes, where they rescue and treat victims as well as search for missing persons. 

Some firefighters educate the public on fire safety, while others inspect buildings to ensure they meet fire codes, such as having clearly marked fire escapes and fire drill maps, fire alarms, and sprinkler systems in place and in good working order. They also maintain their equipment and ensure it’s in working order. Firefighting is a strenuous, physically demanding job, and these individuals must be in excellent health and physically fit to do the job properly.

Qualifications and eligibility

The eligibility requirements for firefighters may vary by state, but the general requirements to become certified include:

  • Must be at least 18 years old
  • Must possess a valid state driver’s license
  • Must be CPR/ACLS certified
  • Must pass a rigorous physical examination
  • Must have a high school diploma or GED
  • Must pass a criminal background check
  • Must pass a written exam 

Other requirements may include an EMT and/or paramedic certification from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians

Most entry-level firefighters must attend several months of training at a fire academy run by their department or state. Some professionals train at the National Fire Academy

A firefighter can also complete an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in fire science or a similar subject from vocational or 4-year schools. Certificate programs are also available. The top certifications include:

Firefighters must be in excellent physical condition. They wear heavy protective gear when fighting fires and must be able to carry hoses and other gear. They often climb stairs, carry victims,  and work in cramped or uncomfortable quarters, exposed to intense heat, where they need to stoop, kneel, jump, twist, or bend.

Professionals in this role must be mentally tough as they face a wide range of unpleasant and dangerous situations where they encounter victims from minor to severe injuries. They often respond to emergency calls that involve fatalities and may endure the loss of one or more team members during an emergency call.

The stress of dealing with life-and-death situations every day can be enormous, and a firefighter should be able to handle it. They also need to have compassion for victims and their families, often during extremely stressful moments.

Work environment

Full-time firefighters typically live, eat, and sleep in fire stations while at work. They must always be ready for action because they never know when an emergency call will come in. No two days are ever the same, and they often find themselves in life-threatening situations during the performance of their duties.

They may have to run into a burning building that could collapse on them to rescue victims or face out-of-control wildfires. These professionals work in cities and towns of all sizes, from very large to very small. They may also work in remote and dangerous environments when fighting wildfires or other natural disasters. They work in all kinds of weather, including rain, snow, and excessive heat. 

Part-time firefighters live at home and are only at the station when working. Volunteer firefighters are called to the station when needed.

Typical work hours

Full-time firefighters typically work long hours. Typically, it’s a 24-hour shift followed by 46 to 72 hours off. Some may work day or night shifts. They also often work overtime, especially during emergencies, and many average 50 hours per week. When fighting a natural disaster, such as a wildfire, they may work extended hours up to days or weeks at a time. 

Types of firefighters

Firefighters have different roles and functions at the fire station. Some of the most common roles include:

Probationary Firefighter

A probationary firefighter is an entry-level individual who is undergoing training and evaluation. The probationary period is typically 3 to 6 months of training and 6 months to 1 year of evaluation.

Firefighter Paramedic

The firefighter paramedic is trained and certified to perform medical procedures for victims of fires or other emergencies. 

Firefighter Engineer

The engineer drives the fire truck to the sites of the fire or other emergencies. They are responsible for the maintenance and repair of fire rescue vehicles, including ensuring the vehicles have enough gas and all the tools are cleaned daily.

Forest and Wildland Firefighter

Forest firefighters control fires in the forest. They also educate people on fire prevention and assess fire damage. They clear areas of dead leaves and debris to help prevent fires from starting or spreading. These individuals may work as forest fire wardens, forest rangers, technicians, wildland firefighters, inspectors, or prevention specialists. They often work in adverse conditions and are exposed to flames and other hazards. 

Public Information Officer

The public information officer communicates to the public and keeps them informed on fires and other emergency incidents, such as natural disasters. 

Airport Rescue Firefighter

An airport rescue firefighter is trained to handle emergencies involving an airplane or those that take place at an airport. Larger airports have fire stations with them on site. 

HazMat

Hazardous materials technicians are specially trained to respond in cases where dangerous chemicals or other substances are involved. HazMat technicians wear special suits that protect them from the effects of any chemicals and use special equipment to identify specific chemicals.

Firefighter EMT

In some fire departments, all firefighters are certified as EMTs. In others, certain personnel is designated for the job. They have an EMT certification and are qualified to respond to medical emergencies, provide basic care in non-critical cases, or assist injured persons until a paramedic arrives. 

Heavy Rescue Firefighters

Heavy rescue firefighters are trained to rescue people in special situations, such as trapped high in buildings or deep gorges. They use techniques including rappelling down the side of buildings to rescue victims and often have to work in tight or confined spaces. 

Inspectors

Inspectors evaluate buildings to ensure they meet fire and safety codes. They address issues and follow up when the issues are fixed. 

Investigators

Fire investigators investigate and determine the cause of fires. 

Lieutenant

The lieutenant is in charge of the training, daily operations, and emergency management response at the fire station when the captain is not around. 

Fire Captain

Captains are experienced firefighters, typically with 10 or more years of service. They are in charge of the other firefighters at the station and provide leadership and direction during emergencies. 

Assistant Chief

The assistant chief takes care of the administrative functions at the fire station. They are typically responsible for budgets and development plans.

Chief

Fire chiefs may be responsible for multiple fire stations and are typically promoted from captain. 

Battalion Chief

The battalion chief is similar to the CEO of a corporation. They ensure that every specialized role is covered for each shift by managing work schedules. They typically sign off on all official documentation for incident reports and investigations.

Deputy Fire Marshal

The deputy fire marshal assists the fire marshal in preventing fires before they can occur. They typically oversee a team of inspectors who evaluate buildings to meet fire and safety codes. They also manage investigators who examine the cause of fires. 

Fire Marshal

The fire marshal is in charge of the Fire Prevention Bureau. They flag buildings and other structures that might be dangerous or not up to fire and safety codes and manage the effort to fix the issues.

Income potential

The earning potential for a firefighter can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, and acquired skills.  

  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual pay for firefighters was $50,700 in May 2021. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,030, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $81,640. The top employers in May 2021 were:
    • Federal government – $55,330
    • State government – $53,800
    • Local government – $51,220
  • The average firefighter salary in the United States was $78,572 as of August 2022. The range was between $36,039 and $121,105. 
  • The 5 states with the highest annual pay for firefighters are:
    • New York – $57,325
    • New Hampshire – $54,350
    • New Jersey – $50,116
    • Wyoming – $49,897
    • Arizona – $49,831
  • The bottom 3 states are:
    • Texas – $38,209
    • Louisiana – $37,730
    • North Carolina – $35,109
  • The best-paying cities for firefighters were:
    • Charleston, SC – $112,518
    • Columbus, OH – $76,845
    • San Diego, CA – $60,267
    • Los Angeles, CA – $56,522
    • Houston, TX – $51,855 

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that the overall employment of firefighters will grow about 4% from 2021 to 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. About 28,000 openings are projected each year over the decade.

Improved building materials and building codes have decreased fires and fire fatalities, but firefighters will still be needed to respond to fires and other emergencies. Those fighting wildfires and responding to natural disasters will continue to be needed.   

Career path

Those who have undergone training at fire academies run by the fire department or by the state move into a Firefighter I position. With more experience and more training, they can advance to become a Firefighter II. This involves classroom instruction and practical training. With more experience and specialized training, a Firefighter II can advance up the hierarchy within the fire station: 

  • Engineer
  • Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Battalion chief
  • Assistant chief
  • Deputy chief
  • Chief 

Many fire departments require applicants for positions beyond battalion chief to have a bachelor’s degree, preferably in fire science, public administration, or a related field. 

With more training and experience, firefighters can move into positions as fire inspectors, investigators, or fire marshalls. 

Steps to becoming a firefighter

1. Meet the basic requirements

You must have a high school diploma or equivalent, a clean criminal record, a valid driver’s license, pass a background check, and be at least 18 years old.

2. Volunteer

Many firefighters start as volunteers. Find a fire station near you and see if there are any volunteer services openings. You can help out at the station or community events and fairs. Becoming a volunteer lets, you get into the world of firefighters and see firsthand what they do daily. You have the opportunity to network and build relationships that can help you land a job. 

3. Get in shape

Being a firefighter is stressful. The work is hard, and the hours are long. You’ll need to be in good physical condition to handle this role. Get in shape before you apply to become a firefighter. You’ll have to pass a strenuous physical examination as part of the application process.

4. Get your CPR certification

You can take a CPR class at the American Red Cross or another agency that offers training. You will need to be CPR certified as a firefighter. There are even online CPR certifications available.

5. Become EMT certified

Completing EMT training will put you ahead of your competition when applying for a job as a firefighter.    

6. Consider getting a fire science degree

Having a degree isn’t a requirement to become a firefighter, but it can help boost your chances of getting the job you want. You have the option of training at a fire academy, a vocational school, a community college, or a 4-year school. Check your area’s educational opportunities and see which is best for you. You can train to become a firefighter, fire investigator, fire arson investigator, or fire inspector. Some of the most popular schools include:

7. Take the exams

The examination process can vary by state, but at minimum, you will have to pass a written examination, oral interview, background investigation, drug screening, and physical exam.

The written exam includes math, human relations, problem-solving, written and oral communications, judgment, memory, and reasoning. The physical exam tests your hearing, eyesight (you typically need to have corrected 20/20 vision), blood pressure, blood, and urine. You will also have to take a psychological exam that covers personality traits specific to performing as a firefighter.

During the oral interview, you will typically be asked about your career goals, why you want to be a firefighter, and why you want to work in the specific agency or department you are applying to. 

8. Complete your training

In most states, entry-level firefighters must be certified, and before they can become certified, they must complete a fire science training academy program. The instruction can vary by state and can last from 3 to 6 months. Students learn building codes, emergency medical procedures, and prevention techniques as well as how to fight fires with various fire fighting equipment.  

9. Become certified

After finishing medical and fire-academy training, firefighters must earn state certification. The standards vary by state. In Florida, they must complete the 398-hour Firefighter Minimum Standards Course and pass written and practical exams.

Those in Washington, must get at least 70% of the answers correct on the state’s written exam and pass a practical-skills test. The standards for certification in most states align with the criteria established by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Some of the certification courses available through the NFPA include:

10. Advance your career

After you’ve completed your probationary period as a firefighter, you can start thinking about advancing your career by continuing your training and earning advanced certifications in fire inspection, fire investigation, and more. Earning a college degree can also open opportunities for you to become an assistant chief, deputy chief, and fire chief.  

11. Join associations

Joining an organization can open up a wealth of resources and networking opportunities for you. Here are some of the top organizations:

Tips for becoming a firefighter

If you are planning to become a firefighter, there are a few things that can give you the edge you need.

  • To become a firefighter, there are certain traits you’ll need. First, you’ll need to be physically fit. Being a firefighter takes strength and stamina. You’ll also need the passion required to always perform at your best. You’ll have to be able to work under dangerous, hazardous, and stressful situations without hesitation. Make sure you have the dedication to help others, even if it means placing yourself in harm’s way.
  • Find opportunities to volunteer, gain insight, build relationships, and learn what they do.
  • Get your EMT Basic certification. Some fire departments require that you have this, but even if they don’t, it will help put you ahead of your competition.
  • Consider getting a firefighter certificate or degree. You can earn one from an accredited university or community college program. 
  • Have a clean background. It’s hard to become a firefighter if you’ve had numerous traffic accidents, traffic tickets, anger management issues, or other related problems that might show up on a background check. 
  • Research what specific qualifications, education, certifications, etc, are needed in the state or department you are applying to so you can ensure you will meet the requirements.
  • Practice taking the firefighters’ exam to prepare yourself for the actual test. You can find online resources for practice tests.
  • Visit local fire stations and talk to firefighters about the job. Get advice on career paths, different departments, programs, and more from those who’ve been through it.

Firefighter interview questions to expect

  • You get called out to a residential fire, but the structure is already beginning to collapse. There are people trapped inside. How do you proceed?
  • If animals are stuck in the burning building, what is your protocol?
  • When on the site of a possible gas leak, how will you help evacuate the building?
  • A baby is left at the station. Who is the first agency you call?
  • What’s the highest grade fire that you’ve worked with?
  • How do you remain in shape so you can quickly get out of the station and to your job?

Firefighter FAQs