How To Become A Firefighter

A lot goes into becoming a firefighter and here is a relatively comprehensive list of how to approach the task:

1. Why Become a firefighter?

Money… It’s ok, but you’ll never be rich.  If you want to be rich, there are tons of better options.  Girls… being a firefighter might get you an “Oooohh, sexy…” at the bar, but frankly, just being employed is enough to keep a girls interest these days.  And I can’t think of many jobs that are tougher to actually get into than firefighting.

Aside from those two motivators, there are the right ones: A desire to help people, complete and utter fascination with firefighting, the desire to be in an ever-changing and thrilling career, a family legacy that has shown first hand the brotherhood and family that develops in a firehouse…. these are the most common reasons, but no doubt there are endless more.  Consider yours, and decide carefully.

1a. Clean Living & Background Checks – If you truly plan on becoming a firefighter, start thinking immediately about how your behavior will affect your future career.  Begin taking an extra moment of consideration before posting those Facebook and Google+ posts.  What is in your past, which in the future are the things you’re doing today, do not disappear.  They will return to haunt you if you make the wrong choices.  Begin thinking about what the Chief would think if he knew you did such and such.  Treat people well, do not burn bridges (even the ones that you’re certain won’t matter and behave as though you just got hired yesterday.  When you behave like a firefighter, people treat you like a firefighter.  …and that includes hiring departments.

2. Station Visits/Ride Alongs

Ok, so you’re pretty sure fire fighting is for you.  If that’s the case you should get along just fine around the firehouse, and that being said, you need to schedule some station visits and ride alongs.  Scheduling station visits is generally easy to do, but it will require you to call the city or county station and find out who manages this process.  Make sure to ask the person in charge about appropriate clothing for your ride along, and if there are any specific tips he/she can give you to prepare for your visit.

One thing you can count on, is the firefighters will be hungry.  Firefighters are always hungry.  Don’t show up empty-handed.  Arriving with a container of ice cream or a box of fresh doughnuts is an easy way to show respect and appreciation for the time and energy they’re putting forth, having you as a guest.  Also, plan on working.  Odds are you’ll be following the newest guy around.  Ask him/her how you can help and what you can do.  Be assertive and active, and do not just hang around as a watchful observer.  Station visits are not a spectator sport.

3.  Volunteer Fire Departments and Volunteering

Giving your time to projects or causes you are passionate about is easy for interviewers to respect, even when they disagree with the cause.  Letting a department know that you are proactive and tenacious in following through with your passions illustrates the kind of firefighter you’re likely to be.  85% of fire departments in America are volunteer fire departments, and the men and women working at them aren’t doing it for the paychecks.  Whether you’re passionate about something specific, or just want to give your time for the mere fact that you’re able to do so, counts for big points within the fire service.   Get involved with a local charity, hospital or cause and participate and volunteer.  Then highlight in on your resume and describe it in your interview.  It’ll go farther than you ever expected or hoped for.

 4. CPR & EMT Training

One of the most critical aspects of becoming a firefighter is earning your medical credentials.  The first step is to sign up for a CPR class which you can do most local adult schools and many other local agencies including fire departments.  The easiest way to find out who’s teaching your local class would be to call your local fire station and ask, or go to the American Heart Association and find a classroom course.  Don’t do the online version in place of the hands-on class, but it wouldn’t hurt to watch a basic CPR video or two before taking the course.

Eventually, you may find you want to or need to earn your paramedic license.  This is a very challenging and rewarding endeavor, but it’s also the one that will pay off the most in making you attractive to fire departments.  Plan this well, both financially and time-wise.  It is both expensive and time consuming, and for those with a family it can pose challenges.  But again, becoming a paramedic is the closest you’ll come to a magic ticket, short of your dad being a Captain or Chief.

5. Fire Classes

Do you already have a degree?  If so you’re way ahead of the game, but I wouldn’t be too quick to skip taking the basic fire training classes available at your local college.  Depending on your instructors, these classes may be dry or exciting,  but if you take a genuine interest in what’s being taught there is a lot of great information to be had and you’ll be surprised at how it helps as you move further along in your fire career.   If you can get a degree, go for it!

6. Fire Testing

Keep an open eye and ear out for local agencies that are doing tests.  FireCareers.com and firerecruit.com are great sites for keeping up on who’s hiring all across the country.  Apply to anything you can.  Becoming familiar with fire tests early on will help you become a more efficient and effective test taker by the time you actually have the credentials to be seriously considered by a hiring department.

To apply you will often need your EMT or a Paramedic license, and in some cases, you’ll be required to have been through an academy, have some experience, or have passed your CPAT.  Obviously, it is essential to keep in shape, but you don’t have to be a physical superhero.  Firefighting is all about skills and technique which allow you to work smarter without breaking your back.  Regarding the CPAT test, despite having no formal expiration date, fire agencies don’t consider it valid past a year.  It generally costs about $150 to take, so put this item off as long as possible.  Yes, I’m telling you to wait until almost the last minute on this item, but not quite the last minute… in case you fail and have to take it again!

One advantage many of the younger candidates have is that they are frequently fresh out of school which means that they’re not as rusty on their math and other skills as some of the older applicants.  Older applicants may have the advantage in other areas such as mechanical ability and reasoning, maps and maybe reading comprehension.  If you’re not a math guy, it will be a smart idea to keep yourself fresh on your basic math skills such as fraction, decimals, percentages, etc.  Many local libraries will have firefighter study guides – consider checking those out.

7.  Fire Academy

Here is where you are going to build the true foundation for your basic skills as a firefighter.  You’ll be better off if you’ve taken your fire classes first and do the academy afterward, though many will do them at the same time.  Some schools offer the EMT certification as part of the academy and others don’t.  My personal suggestion would be to work as an EMT while attending the academy so that when you’re finished you’ll have some considerable hands-on experience as an EMT by the time you graduate.  Now your new firefighter skills will be fresh and your EMS confidence will be high making you an excellent candidate for a volunteer or reserve program.

8. Volunteer/Reserve Firefighter Programs

When it comes to volunteer departments and reserve programs there is a lot of variety out there, but not always many options.  These are not positions that people will generally relocate for, so while there are endless different ways departments run their programs, there may only be a couple choices to choose from.  I highly suggest doing station visits and ride alongs with all the options within reasonable driving distance from you and deciding which is right for you.  And if you just can’t decide, do both!

Regardless of where you go, it is this experience where you gain on the job training and the real-life experience to prepare you for a full-time paid department. According to the NFPA, 71% of firefighters are volunteer so don’t let the fact that you’re doing it for free trouble you.  As I’ve said before, nobody goes into firefighting for the money.

9. Continued Education/Training

At this point, a lot of the training and advanced education you’ll be gaining will come your way via the agency you’re working for, but there are items you’ll want to be wary of.  Particularly you’re EMS skills.  Make sure to do your continuing education units and to renew your National Registry license if you ever plan on working out of your current licensed state.  Generally, you have to renew your EMT license every two years.  There are plenty of classes you can take as well as online services through which you can earn your credits at your convenience.  Do Not let these certifications expire!!

10.  Become a Firefighter and repeat steps 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 & 9

If you do everything on this list, there will be nothing to stop you from becoming a firefighter.  Staying a firefighter, and a good one at that, is another story.  Don’t ever let yourself become too comfortable and start thinking you know all you need to and that you’re skills are as good as they need to be.  This will never be the case.  There is always more to learn and room for improvement on what you already know.  Commit yourself to excellence and continue being as involved in your community as possible.

Good luck!!