At some point in childhood, nearly every little boy, along with a number of little girls, say that they want to become a firefighter when they grow up. Although many of us start with this dream of fighting fires and saving lives, only very few of us maintain that dream into adulthood. For individuals who still want to become a firefighter when they grow up, what does it actually take to become one? In this article, we’ll examine what a firefighter really does, what education the job requires and what the job prospects of firefighters are for the future.
Types of Firefighters and What Firefighters Do
Normally when we think of firefighters, the stereotypical image that springs to mind is a group of burly men sitting around a fire station, playing cards while they wait for an emergency call to come through on their radios. While this stereotype does have some truth to it, the modern firefighter is far more complex than this image.
To begin with, a firefighter’s job often involves far more than fighting fires. For example, firefighters are considered “first responders” in a variety of different emergencies. In some areas, it may be a firefighter rather than an EMT who responds to a 911 call when someone has a heart attack or a stroke. Firefighters also often respond to car accidents, especially serious accidents. The reason why firefighters attend car accidents is twofold: First, firefighters have emergency medical training and can help injured motorists. Second, in certain accidents, there could be a danger of an explosion or vehicle fire. In both of these cases, it’s very helpful to have firefighters on the scene. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of emergencies that firefighters respond to are actually medical in nature and do not involve fires at all.
Not all firefighters are paid. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 70 percent of firefighters are volunteers. In rural areas and many cities, these volunteers are trained to handle all the emergencies that a regular firefighter handles. Time requirements vary, but most volunteers are required to be on-call for at least one 24-hour shift once per month.
Additionally, not all firefighters work in the stereotypical fire station. Don’t forget that the United States also has a need for a large number of forest firefighters, typically employed in Western states. Instead of using fire trucks, these firefighters often use planes to drop water and fire suppressants onto a forest fire. The most elite firefighters in this part of the profession are called “smokejumpers” and literally parachute into dangerous fire zones in the wilderness. Typically employed by the U.S. Forest Service, these incredibly brave men and women are highly trained and protect National Parks and other wilderness areas from otherwise deadly and damaging forest fires.
Still other firefighters specialize in fighting fires caused by hazardous materials. For example, a fire that emerges due to an oil spill has to be fought in a careful and specific way. Some firefighters are trained specifically to work in hazardous materials units against these types of fires.
How to Become a Firefighter
The majority of firefighters enter the profession without a college degree. However, if you want to make firefighting your long-term career, getting a college degree will put you a step ahead of your competition when it comes to advancement within the profession.
Which college degree should future firefighters pursue? The best degree for firefighters is a fire science degree. Several traditional and online universities offer bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees in fire science and/or fire science management. Another degree you may wish to consider is disaster and emergency management. A degree in this major is somewhat more versatile; should you decide to change professions later in life, your degree in disaster and emergency management will enable you to work in alternative but related fields.
However, if you are content to remain a rank-and-file firefighter for the duration of your professional career, you can forego getting a college degree. You will only need a college degree of the sort mentioned above if you wish to be a fire marshal, fire chief or a similar, supervisory position.
Primarily, becoming a firefighter requires not so much classroom education as hard work in the firefighting training program. These firefighting training programs are physically and emotionally challenging, designed intentionally to test a future firefighter’s mettle. These programs often have high dropout rates as some men and women find them to be too strenuous. Physical and mental stamina is very much necessary in order to complete one of these programs. If you intend to enter a firefighting training program, make sure you are in good physical shape first! Quit smoking, limit your drinking and start hitting the gym to prepare yourself.
Job Outlook for Firefighters
The firefighting profession isn’t growing very rapidly, which means gaining a position will involve triumphing in the face of stiff competition. In fact, don’t be surprised if your application is one of hundreds or even one of thousands for a single job opening. You will increase your chances by being in top physical condition, already having paramedic training and having a college degree that shows your commitment to the profession.
You should also know that pay for firefighters isn’t great. A median salary for a firefighter is about $42,500; this salary isn’t bad but it is a little bit below the average American salary of $50,000 per year. Additionally, don’t look for great pensions or benefits. Many firefighters are not eligible for a pension until they have served in a department for 25 years.
All in all, being a firefighter is a challenging but rewarding profession. Consider the tips listed above as you think about pursuing a career as a firefighter.