Firefighters control fires and respond to other emergencies, including medical emergencies.

Duties

Firefighters typically do the following:

  • Drive fire trucks and other emergency vehicles
  • Put out fires using water hoses, fire extinguishers, and pumps
  • Find and rescue victims in burning buildings or in other emergency situations
  • Treat sick or injured people
  • Prepare written reports on emergency incidents
  • Clean and maintain equipment
  • Conduct drills and physical fitness training
  • Provide public education on fire safety

When responding to an emergency, firefighters are responsible for connecting hoses to hydrants, operating pumps to power the hoses, climbing ladders, and using other tools to break through debris. Firefighters may also be required to enter burning buildings to extinguish a fire and rescue individuals. Other firefighters are responsible for providing medical attention, particularly as 2 out of 3 calls firefighters respond to are medical emergencies—not fires, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Firefighters’ duties may change several times while they are at the scene of an emergency. In some cases, they remain at disaster scenes for days, rescuing trapped survivors and assisting with medical treatment.

When firefighters are not responding to an emergency, they are on-call at a fire station. During this time, they regularly inspect equipment and perform practice drills. They also eat and sleep and remain on call, as their shifts usually last 24 hours.

The following is an example of a type of firefighter:

Forest firefighters use heavy equipment and water hoses to control forest fires. They also frequently create fire lines—a swathe of cut-down trees and dug-up grass in the path of a fire—to deprive a fire of fuel. Some forest firefighters, known as smoke jumpers, parachute from airplanes to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.

Some firefighters also work in hazardous materials units and are specially trained to control, prevent, and clean up hazardous materials, such as oil spills and chemical accidents. They work with hazardous materials removal workers in these cases.

Work Environment: 

Firefighters held about 307,000 jobs in 2012. The vast majority—about 91 percent— worked for local governments. Most of the remainder worked for federal and state governments. A few worked at airports, chemical plants, and other industrial sites.

These employment numbers exclude volunteer firefighters. There are approximately twice as many volunteer firefighters as there are paid career firefighters.

Volunteer firefighters’ share the same duties as paid firefighters and account for the majority of firefighters in many areas. According to the National Fire Protection Association, about 69 percent of fire departments were staffed entirely by volunteer firefighters in 2012.

When not on the scene of an emergency, firefighters work at fire stations, where they sleep, eat, and remain on call. When an alarm sounds, firefighters respond, regardless of the weather or time of day.

Work Schedules

Firefighters typically work long and varied hours. Most firefighters work 24-hour shifts on duty and are off the following 48 or 72 hours. Some firefighters work 10/14 shifts which means 10 hours working and 14 hours off. When combating forest fires, firefighters may work for extended periods without time off.

Injuries and Illnesses

Firefighters have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. They often encounter dangerous situations, including collapsing floors and walls, traffic accidents, and overexposure to flames and smoke. As a result, workers must wear protective gear to help lower these risks. Often, the protective gear can be very heavy and hot.

Education and Training: 

Firefighters typically need a high school diploma and training in emergency medical services. Most firefighters also must pass a written and physical test, complete a series of interviews, and hold an emergency medical technician (EMT) certification. All firefighters receive extensive training after being hired.

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.

Education

The entry-level education needed to become a firefighter is a high school diploma or equivalent. However, some class work beyond high school usually is needed to obtain the emergency medical technician (EMT) basic certification. EMT requirements vary by city and state.

Training

Entry-level firefighters receive several weeks 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.

Some fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs that last up to 4 years. These programs combine classroom 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 executive development, anti-arson techniques, disaster preparedness, hazardous materials control, and public fire safety and education.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Firefighters must usually 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. All 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. In some departments, it is possible to earn these certifications after being hired. EMTs and paramedics may work with firefighters at the scenes of accidents.

Some states have mandatory or voluntary firefighter training and certification programs.  

Other Experience

Working as a volunteer firefighter may help in getting a job as a career firefighter. 

Advancement

Firefighters can be promoted to engineer, then 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.

The National Fire Academy also offers a certification as Executive Fire Officer. To be eligible for certification, firefighters must have a bachelor's degree.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Firefighters must be able to communicate conditions at an emergency scene to other firefighters and to emergency-response crews.

Courage. Firefighters are confronted with dangerous situations, such as entering a burning building, while doing their jobs. 

Decision-making 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. They must also be ready to respond to emergencies at any hour of the day.

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.

Pay: 

The median annual wage for firefighters was $45,250 in May 2012. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,030, and the top 10 percent earned more than $79,150.

Firefighters typically work long and varied hours. Most firefighters work 24-hour shifts on duty and are off the following 48 or 72 hours. Some firefighters work 10/14 shifts which means 10 hours working and 14 hours off. When combating forest fires, firefighters may work for extended periods without time off.

Union Membership

Most firefighters belonged to a union in 2012. The largest organizer for firefighters is the International Association of Fire Fighters.

Job Outlook: 

Employment of firefighters is projected to grow 7 percent from 2012 to 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

The aging of the population will lead to an increased demand for emergency responders as the elderly tend to use more emergency medical services. Currently, about 2 of out 3 situations that firefighters respond to are medical—rather than fire—emergencies.

In addition, jobs will be created as volunteer firefighters are converted to paid positions in areas where population growth creates the need for a full-time workforce. An increase in urban populations, where full-time firefighters are more common, also is expected to increase the demand for firefighters.

Job Prospects

Prospective firefighters will likely face strong competition for jobs. Many people are attracted to the job’s challenge, opportunity for public service, and relatively low formal education requirements. As a result, a department may receive hundreds of applicants for a single position.

Physically-fit applicants with high test scores, some post-secondary firefighter education, and paramedic training should have the best job prospects.

For More Information: 

For information about a career as a firefighter, contact your local fire department or visit

International Association of Fire Fighters

International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Services

U.S. Fire Administration

National Fire Protection Association

For information about professional qualifications and a list of colleges and universities offering 2- or 4-year degree programs in fire science and fire prevention, visit

National Fire Academy, U.S. Fire Administration

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, 2014–2015 Occupational Outlook Handbook, http://www.bls.gov/ooh.