Fire Fighting Occupations

Significant Points

  • Fire fighting involves hazardous conditions and long, irregular hours.
  • Keen competition for jobs is expected; many people are attracted to the occupation because it provides considerable job security and the opportunity to perform an essential public service.

Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

Every year, fires and other emergencies take thousands of lives and destroy property worth billions of dollars. Firefighters help protect the public against these dangers by rapidly responding to a variety of emergency situations. They are frequently the first emergency personnel at the scene of an accident or medical emergency and may be called upon to put out a fire, treat injuries, or perform other vital functions.

During duty hours, firefighters must be prepared to respond immediately to a fire or any other emergency that arises. Because fighting fires is dangerous and complex, it requires organization and teamwork. At every emergency scene, firefighters perform specific duties assigned by a superior officer. At fires, they connect hose lines to hydrants, operate a pump to high pressure hoses, and position ladders to deliver water to the fire. They also rescue victims and administer emergency medical aid as needed, ventilate smoke-filled areas, and attempt to salvage the contents of buildings. Their duties may change several times while the company is in action. Sometimes they remain at the site of a disaster for days at a time, rescuing trapped survivors and assisting with medical treatment.

Firefighters have assumed a range of responsibilities, including emergency medical services. In fact, most calls to which firefighters respond involve medical emergencies, and about half of all fire departments provide ambulance service for victims. Firefighters receive training in emergency medical procedures, and many fire departments require them to be certified as emergency medical technicians. (For more information, see the Handbook statement on emergency medical technicians and paramedics.)

Firefighters work in a variety of settings, including urban and suburban areas, airports, chemical plants, other industrial sites, and rural areas like grasslands and forests. In addition, some firefighters work in hazardous materials units that are trained for the control, prevention, and cleanup of oil spills and other hazardous materials incidents. Workers in urban and suburban areas, airports and industrial sites typically use conventional fire fighting equipment and tactics, while forest fires and major spills call for different methods.

In national forests and parks, rangers spot fires from watchtowers and report their findings to headquarters by telephone or radio. Forest rangers patrol to ensure travelers and campers comply with fire regulations. When fires break out, crews of firefighters are brought in to suppress the blaze using heavy equipment, handtools, and water hoses. One of the most effective means of battling the blaze is by creating fire lines through cutting down trees and digging out grass and other vegetation, creating bare land in the path of the fire that deprives it of fuel. Elite firefighters, called smoke jumpers, parachute from airplanes to reach inaccessible areas. This can be extremely hazardous because the crews have no way to escape if the wind shifts and causes the fire to burn toward them.

Between alarms, firefighters clean and maintain equipment, conduct practice drills and fire inspections, and participate in physical fitness activities. They also prepare written reports on fire incidents and review fire science literature to keep abreast of technological developments and changing administrative practices and policies.

Most fire departments have a fire prevention division, usually headed by a fire marshall and staffed by fire inspectors. Workers in this division conduct inspections of structures to prevent fires and ensure fire code compliance. These firefighters also work with developers and planners to check and approve plans for new buildings. Fire prevention personnel often speak on these subjects before public assemblies and civic organizations.

Some firefighters become fire investigators, who determine the origin and causes of fires. They collect evidence, interview witnesses, and prepare reports on fires in cases where the cause may be arson or criminal negligence. They are often called upon to testify in court.

Working Conditions [About this section]  Index

Firefighters spend much of their time at fire stations, which usually have features common to a residential facility like a dorm. When an alarm sounds, firefighters respond rapidly, regardless of the weather or hour. Fire fighting involves risk of death or injury from sudden cave-ins of floors, toppling walls, traffic accidents when responding to calls, and exposure to flames and smoke. Firefighters may also come in contact with poisonous, flammable, or explosive gases and chemicals, as well as radioactive or other hazardous materials that may have immediate or long-term effects on their health. For these reasons, they must wear protective gear that can be very heavy and hot.

Work hours of firefighters are longer and vary more widely than hours of most other workers. Many work more than 50 hours a week, and sometimes they may work even longer. In some agencies, they are on duty for 24 hours, then off for 48 hours, and receive an extra day off at intervals. In others, they work a day shift of 10 hours for 3 or 4 days, a night shift of 14 hours for 3 or 4 nights, have 3 or 4 days off, and then repeat the cycle. In addition, firefighters often work extra hours at fires and other emergencies and are regularly assigned to work on holidays. Fire lieutenants and fire captains often work the same hours as the firefighters they supervise. Duty hours include time when firefighters study, train, and perform fire prevention duties.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Employment figures in this Handbook statement include only paid career firefighters—they do not cover volunteer firefighters, who perform the same duties and may comprise the majority of firefighters in a residential area. Paid career firefighters held about 314,000 jobs in 1998. More than 9 of every 10 worked in municipal or county fire departments. Some large cities have thousands of career firefighters, while many small towns have only a few. Most of the remainder worked in fire departments on Federal and State installations, including airports. Private fire fighting companies employ a small number of firefighters and usually operate on a subscription basis.

In response to the expanding role of firefighters, some municipalities have combined fire prevention, public fire education, safety, and emergency medical services into a single organization commonly referred to as a public safety organization. Some local and regional fire departments are being consolidated into county-wide establishments in order to reduce administrative staffs and cut costs, and to establish consistent training standards and work procedures.

Training, Other Qualifications, & Advancement [About this section]  Index

Applicants for municipal fire fighting jobs generally must pass a written exam; tests of strength, physical stamina, coordination, and agility; and a medical examination that includes drug screening. Workers may be monitored on a random basis for drug use after accepting employment. Examinations are generally open to persons who are at least 18 years of age and have a high school education or the equivalent. Those who receive the highest scores in all phases of testing have the best chances for appointment. The completion of community college courses in fire science may improve an applicant’s chances for appointment. In recent years, an increasing proportion of entrants to this occupation has had some postsecondary education.

As a rule, entry-level workers in large fire departments are trained for several weeks at the department’s training center or academy. Through classroom instruction and practical training, the recruits study fire fighting techniques, fire prevention, hazardous materials control, local building codes, and emergency medical procedures, including first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They also learn how to use axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, ladders, and other fire fighting and rescue equipment. After successfully completing this training, they are assigned to a fire company, where they undergo a period of probation.

A number of fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs lasting up to 5 years. These programs combine formal, technical instruction with on-the-job training under the supervision of experienced firefighters. Technical instruction covers subjects such as fire fighting techniques and equipment, chemical hazards associated with various combustible building materials, emergency medical procedures, and fire prevention and safety. Fire departments frequently conduct training programs, and some firefighters attend training sessions sponsored by the National Fire Academy. These training sessions cover topics including executive development, anti-arson techniques, disaster preparedness, hazardous materials control, and public fire safety and education. Some States also have extensive firefighter training and certification programs. In addition, a number of colleges and universities offer courses leading to 2- or 4-year degrees in fire engineering or fire science. Many fire departments offer firefighters incentives such as tuition reimbursement or higher pay for completing advanced training.

Among the personal qualities firefighters need are mental alertness, self-discipline, courage, mechanical aptitude, endurance, strength, and a sense of public service. Initiative and good judgment are also extremely important because firefighters make quick decisions in emergencies. Because members of a crew live and work closely together under conditions of stress and danger for extended periods, they must be dependable and able to get along well with others. Leadership qualities are necessary for officers, who must establish and maintain discipline and efficiency, as well as direct the activities of firefighters in their companies.

Most experienced firefighters continue studying to improve their job performance and prepare for promotion examinations. To progress to higher-level positions, they acquire expertise in advanced fire fighting equipment and techniques, building construction, emergency medical technology, writing, public speaking, management and budgeting procedures, and public relations.

Opportunities for promotion depend upon written examination results, job performance, interviews, and seniority. Increasingly, fire departments use assessment centers, which simulate a variety of actual job performance tasks, to screen for the best candidates for promotion. The line of promotion is usually to engineer, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and finally to chief. Many fire departments now require a bachelor’s degree, preferably in fire science, public administration, or a related field, for promotion to positions higher than battalion chief. There are requirements for a master’s degree for executive fire officer certification from the National Fire Academy and for State chief officer certification.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Prospective firefighters are expected to face keen competition for available job openings. Many people are attracted to fire fighting because it is challenging and provides the opportunity to perform an essential public service, a high school education is usually sufficient, and a pension is guaranteed upon retirement after 20 years. Consequently, the number of qualified applicants in most areas exceeds the number of job openings, even though the written examination and physical requirements eliminate many applicants. This situation is expected to persist in coming years.

Employment of firefighters is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2008 as fire departments continue to compete with other public safety providers for funding. Most job growth will occur as volunteer fire fighting positions are converted to paid positions.

Turnover of firefighter jobs is unusually low, particularly for a hazardous occupation that requires a relatively limited investment in formal education. In addition to job growth, openings are expected to result from the need to replace those who retire, stop working for other reasons, or transfer to other occupations.

Layoffs of firefighters are uncommon. Fire protection is an essential service, and citizens are likely to exert considerable pressure on local officials to expand or at least preserve the level of fire protection. Even when budget cuts do occur, local fire departments usually cut expenses by postponing equipment purchases or not hiring new firefighters, rather than by laying off staff.

Earnings [About this section]  Index

Median annual earnings of firefighters were $31,170 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $22,370 and $40,840. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $14,310, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $50,930. Firefighters employed in local government, except education and hospitals, had median earnings of $31,400 in 1997; those employed by State government, except education and hospitals, had median earnings of $29,400; and firefighters in the Federal government had median earnings of $26,900.

Median annual earnings of fire fighting and prevention supervisors were $44,830 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $34,020 and $59,610. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,050, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $81,570. Fire fighting and prevention supervisors employed in local government, except education and hospitals, earned about $45,200 in 1997.

Median annual earnings of fire inspection occupations were $40,040 in 1998. The middle 50 percent earned between $30,500 and $50,610. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,150, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $73,570.

The International City-County Management Association’s annual Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries, and Expenditures Survey revealed that 89 percent of the municipalities surveyed provided fire protection services in 1997. The following 1997 salaries pertain to sworn full-time positions.

Minimum annual
base salary
Maximum annual
base salary
Firefighters $26,900 $35,200
Engineer  32,200 39,800
Fire Lieutenant 35,100 41,100
Fire Captain 37,500 44,700
Assistant Fire Chief 43,900 53,200
Battalion Chief 45,300 56,000
Deputy Chief 45,900 56,900
Fire Chief 52,700 66,000

Firefighters who average more than a certain number of hours a week are required to be paid overtime. The hours threshold is determined by the department during the firefighter’s work period, which ranges from 7 to 28 days. Firefighters often earn overtime for working extra shifts to maintain minimum staffing levels or for special emergencies.

Firefighters receive benefits usually including medical and liability insurance, vacation and sick leave, and some paid holidays. Almost all fire departments provide protective clothing (helmets, boots, and coats) and breathing apparatus, and many also provide dress uniforms. Firefighters are generally covered by pension plans, often providing retirement at half pay after 25 years of service or if disabled in the line of duty.

Many career firefighters are represented by the International Association of Firefighters, while many chief officers belong to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Fire-protection engineers identify fire hazards in homes and workplaces and design prevention programs and automatic fire detection and extinguishing systems. Like firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians respond to emergencies and save lives.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

Information about a career as a firefighter may be obtained from local fire departments and from:

  • International Association of Firefighters, 1750 New York Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.iaff.org/iaff/index.html
  • U.S. Fire Administration, 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727.

Information about firefighter professional qualifications and a list of colleges and universities offering 2- or 4-year degree programs in fire science or fire prevention may be obtained from:

An industry employing fire fighting occupations that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: State and local government, except education and health services

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