How to Become a Firefighter
Firefighters begin their careers by attending fire academy training.
Firefighters typically need a high school diploma and training in emergency medical services. Prospective firefighters must pass written and physical tests, complete a series of interviews, go through training at a fire academy, and hold an emergency medical technician (EMT) certification.
Applicants for firefighter jobs typically must be at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license. They must also pass a medical exam and drug screening to be hired. After being hired, firefighters may be subject to random drug tests and will also need to complete routine physical fitness assessments.
The entry-level education needed to become a firefighter is a high school diploma or equivalent. However, some class work beyond high school, such as airway management and trauma care, is usually needed to obtain the emergency medical technician (EMT) basic certification. EMT requirements vary by city and state.
Entry-level firefighters receive a few months of training at fire academies run by the fire department or by the state. Through classroom instruction and practical training, recruits study fire-fighting and fire-prevention techniques, local building codes, and emergency medical procedures. They also learn how to fight fires with standard equipment, including axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, and ladders. After attending a fire academy, firefighters must usually complete a probationary period.
Some fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs that last up to 4 years. These programs combine technical instruction with on-the-job-training under the supervision of experienced firefighters.
In addition to participating in training programs conducted by local or state fire departments and agencies, some firefighters attend federal training sessions sponsored by the National Fire Academy. These training sessions cover topics including anti-arson techniques, disaster preparedness, hazardous materials control, and public fire safety and education.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Usually, firefighters must be certified as emergency medical technicians at the EMT-Basic level. In addition, some fire departments require firefighters to be certified as an EMT-Paramedic. The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) certifies EMTs and paramedics. Both levels of NREMT certification require completing a training or education program and passing the national exam. The national exam has both a written part and a practical part. EMTs and paramedics may work with firefighters at the scenes of accidents.
Some states have mandatory or voluntary firefighter training and certification programs.
The National Fire Academy also offers an Executive Fire Officer certification. To be eligible, firefighters must have a bachelor's degree.
Working as a volunteer firefighter may help in getting a job as a career firefighter.
Firefighters can be promoted to engineer, then to lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and, finally, chief. For promotion to positions beyond battalion chief, many fire departments now require applicants to have a bachelor's degree, preferably in fire science, public administration, or a related field. Some firefighters eventually become fire inspectors or investigators after gaining enough experience.
Communication skills. Firefighters must be able to communicate conditions at an emergency scene to other firefighters and to emergency-response crews.
Courage. Firefighters’ daily job duties involve dangerous situations, such as entering a burning building.
Decisionmaking skills. Firefighters must be able to make quick and smart decisions in an emergency. The ability to make good decisions under pressure could potentially save someone’s life.
Physical stamina. Firefighters may have to stay at disaster scenes for long periods of time to rescue and treat victims. Fighting fires requires prolonged use of strength and endurance.
Physical strength. Firefighters must be strong enough to carry heavy equipment and move debris at an emergency site. They must also be able to carry victims who are injured or cannot walk.