How to Become a Firefighter (US)

How to Become a Firefighter (US)

Children all over the US dream of being a firefighter when they grow up. They dream of rescuing cats from trees and saving people and houses from fire.

If, as an adult, you still dream of being a firefighter, you need to know the steps to make this a reality.

What Does a Firefighter Do?

There are more than 350,000 professional firefighters currently employed in the US.

As you would expect, a firefighter predominantly works to fight fires in a variety of locations, from residential properties to high-rise office fires and industrial situations.

But working as a firefighter is about so much more than just fires. Some of the other responsibilities of firefighters include:

  • Working with other services in emergency situations
  • Providing search and rescue assistance
  • Helping with traffic incidents
  • Educating the public about household safety to reduce the risk of house fires and emergency situations
  • Investigating arson attacks after the fires have been put out

The majority of firefighters work shifts with other members of their firehouse to ensure that their jurisdiction is always protected. Sometimes, this will involve staying at the firehouse overnight. Others will be available on call.

How Much Does a Firefighter Earn?

Most people don’t choose to become a firefighter because of the money. For the majority of individuals, a career as a firefighter is about wanting to serve their communities and save people’s homes and lives.

The average salary for a firefighter in the United States is **53,000,butthiscanvarydependingonyourexperienceandthestateyouareworkingin.FirefightersinCalifornia,forexample,earnanaverageof53,000**, but this can vary depending on your experience and the state you are working in. Firefighters in California, for example, earn an average of 84,000 per year.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Firefighter?

The exact length of time that it takes to become a firefighter will vary depending on the route you choose.

For most people, it will take between three and five years to complete the educational requirements.

You will then be able to apply for a paid firefighter's position.

Steps to Becoming a Firefighter

The specific path to become a firefighter can vary slightly from person to person, but there are some key aspects.

Meet Your State Requirements

While the exact requirements may vary slightly from state to state, some applicant requirements are generally considered essential across all fire departments:

  • Over 18 years of age
  • High school diploma
  • Full driver's license

EMT Training

This isn’t always a requirement for joining the fire brigade, but it is often a good idea for individuals who plan on being firefighters to gain Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) certification.

Gaining EMT certification can improve your chance of being hired by your preferred fire department.

Volunteer Experience

Data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) states that around 70% of firefighters in the US are volunteers. They provide essential assistance to professional fire stations.

Many fire departments regularly have openings for volunteers. These people help with community events, learn how to use machinery and are trained in medical practices.

Volunteers often fill out incident reports and complete tasks that would prevent paid firefighters from being on the scene.

Gaining a paid firefighting position is easier if you have prior voluntary experience, and some places require it.

Fire Science Degree

Not every organization will expect individuals to hold a degree, but it is often a requirement alongside on-the-job volunteering experience.

Taking a fire science degree gives theoretical knowledge of the behavior of fires as well as practical skills.

A fire science degree will cover topics such as:

  • How to evacuate a building
  • How to treat victims
  • The use of extinguishers, pumps and additional apparatus
  • Use and maintenance of equipment

Firefighter Training Academy

No matter which educational route you choose, at some point you will need to join a firefighter training academy.

When this happens will largely depend on the fire department you are hoping to work with. Some include fire academy training as part of their new recruit program. Others expect candidates to complete the training at their own expense and in their own time.

Training academies will vary from location to location and the type of training you receive will largely depend on the department you are hoping to work for.

If you intend to work for a large, inner-city fire department, you are likely to find that your training is formal. It will probably involve a combination of structured classes and practical learning.

If you plan to work with a rural fire department, your training will likely take place in the evenings or at weekends. You will usually be taught by professional firefighters.

Apply for Firefighter Jobs

Once you have completed all of the educational requirements, the final step is to apply for paid positions within your chosen fire department.

The application process is likely to vary slightly from state to state but it will probably look similar, no matter where you choose to work.

Your application process is likely to include:

Written and Oral Exams

The written exam is designed to ensure you fulfill the minimum aptitude and knowledge requirements for being a member of the fire department.

You will be asked questions relating to math problems, problem-solving and human relations alongside assessments of your judgment, memory and reasoning skills.

The oral exam is designed more like an interview than an assessment. You are likely to be asked about your goals, dreams and what you hope for your career as a firefighter.

Physical and Psychological Tests

Part of the screening for firefighters includes physical and psychological assessments.

These tests are designed to ensure that individuals are both physically and mentally capable of managing the pressures and strains of their job.

As part of your physical screening, you are likely to be asked to undertake an eye test and hearing test alongside a standard physical.

Background Checks

As a firefighter, you will be working on behalf of the local government. For this reason, background checks will often be an essential part of your application process.

You will likely be asked to submit to a criminal records check and drug testing.

How to Become a Firefighter
How to Become a Firefighter

What Skills Do Firefighters Need?

While most of the practical skills that a firefighter needs will be taught through fire science degrees and experience, several core skills are useful.

Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is a vital quality for a firefighter.

A firefighter will usually carry between 45 and 75 pounds of equipment during an emergency. This will include tools, helmets and oxygen tanks. They may additionally have to carry people they are rescuing.

Firefighters need to be able to work long hours while carrying their equipment and maintaining a consistently high level of service.

Mechanical Aptitude

Firefighters will be required to service and maintain a lot of their own equipment.

For this reason, they need to have a level of mechanical aptitude. They need to understand how different pieces of equipment work and how to look after them properly.

The ability to maintain equipment is vital as it helps to ensure safety in dangerous situations. If a piece of equipment fails during a fire or emergency, this could be potentially life-threatening.

Work Ethic

Firefighters are well known for their work ethic.

Individuals who work in busy cities will often find that they have multiple calls in a shift, with very little time in between. It also isn’t unusual for firefighters to work multiple shifts in a row, sleeping at the firehouse in between calls.

This level of dedication requires a work ethic and passion that isn’t found in many careers.


Courage is an essential skill for any emergency worker.

A firefighter puts their life on the line every time they enter a burning building or respond to an emergency.

Even with preparation and experience, no two situations will ever be the same and it is impossible to guarantee that there won’t be injuries or potentially disastrous outcomes.

It takes enormous amounts of courage to be able to continually put other citizens ahead of your own safety to protect and serve those around you.

Decision-Making Skills

In a dangerous situation, the ability to make a decision can be the difference between life or death.

Firefighters should be able to make a decision based on all of the information available to them, while also considering potential issues or situations that may occur.


Firefighters don’t work alone.

Their job is carried out as part of a dedicated team, each with their own role and responsibilities. For many firefighters, their colleagues become like a family; they rely on one another to stay safe in dangerous situations.

This is why teamwork is such a valuable skill for a firefighter. Being able to work well as a team can make a significant difference in life or death situations.


Communication is another vital skill for a firefighter.

There will be times when essential information needs to be passed from one individual to another. This must be done clearly and accurately to avoid potentially dangerous outcomes.

Firefighters will need to not only communicate with their colleagues. There will also be times when they have to speak with other agencies and concerned citizens.

It is, therefore, important to be able to communicate in a way that is suitable for the particular situation.

Final Thoughts

Becoming a firefighter is hard work. It is physically demanding and can be mentally challenging. But putting in the hard work can be worth the effort when you can make a difference to the lives of others.

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