Being a Firefighter in the Public and Private Sector (page 4)
Every year in the United States, fires and emergencies kill and injure thousands of Americans and destroy property worth billions of dollars. A firefighter is America's first line of defense dealing with these hazardous situations. Traditionally, the firefighter's main role was to save lives; prevent loss of life and property; control, confine, and extinguish fires; and prevent unwanted fires. The role has expanded, however. Firefighters are now the first responders to major disasters and emergencies, the first to arrive on the scene to save lives, property, and the environment.
Career firefighters work in both the public sector and the private sector. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, firefighter employment is expected, on average, to grow faster than that for other occupations. However, keen competition for jobs is expected because this occupation attracts many qualified candidates.
Approximately 90 percent of all paid firefighters are employed by municipal or county fire departments. They work in the traditional role of firefighter or in specialized roles. This chapter deals mostly with firefighters in the public sector. Those employed in the private sector are also discussed briefly.
Firefighters in the Public Sector
Trainee Programs for Firefighters
Most fire departments require new candidates who have passed the examinations (written, physical, and psychological) to become a firefighter to enter an apprenticeship, trainee, or probationary period. While in the trainee program for a specific period of time, the recruits are taught the firematic functions of their specific department through classroom sessions and a variety of job-related tasks during drills. They are evaluated closely to determine if they meet the required standards. Assignments include responding to alarms and assisting regular fire personnel in firefighting and emergency duties. Trainees typically receive less salary and fewer benefits than established firefighters in the department. After satisfactory completion of the probationary period, they are assigned to a specific unit.
Traditional Roles and Duties of Firefighters
Firefighters commonly perform a wide array of traditional duties at operations. They usually work in coordinated teams. Assigned by a superior officer (company officer or chief officer), firefighters at a fire scene secure a positive water supply (fire hydrant), operate apparatus (engine pump, aerial ladder, tower bucket, etc.), stretch and utilize hose lines, carry and position portable ladders for ventilation, and enter and search buildings. They also use the tools and equipment of their trade to coordinate the effort to save lives, treat the injured, and extinguish the fire safely.
Working Environment for Firefighters
During their tours of duty, firefighters live together for long periods of time in the fire station and work as a team. The fire station will usually have features similar to a residential facility (kitchen, reading room, gymnasium, bunkroom, etc.). Firefighters work long hours at irregular intervals. For example, some firefighters are on duty for 24 hours and then off for a couple of days to recuperate. Firefighters are on duty for both day and night tours. There are no guaranteed weekends and national holidays off. Work hours for firefighters are usually longer than for most. Many work more than 50 hours a week.
Risks Involved in Firefighting
The job of firefighting involves the risk of death and serious physical injury. Each year, approximately 100 firefighters are killed and tens of thousands injured while on duty. Upon the receipt of an alarm, firefighters must stop everything they are doing and respond in an expeditious manner regardless of the time or weather conditions. This may be the reason for the leading cause of death to firefighters: heart attack. The second most common cause of death is from trauma (building collapse, falls, and motor vehicle accidents while responding to alarms). Asphyxia and burns are also high on the list of firefighter fatalities.
Burns, an injury frequently associated with firefighters, are not the major type of fire service injury today. This is true because of improvements over the years in thermal personal protection equipment. Muscle injuries (sprains and strains) caused by overexertion are the number one type of injuries firefighters sustain performing their work on the fireground. Open wounds, cuts, and bruises make up the second largest portion of fire service injuries. Thermal stress, heart attack, stroke, smoke/gas inhalation, dislocations/bone fractures, and fire and chemical burns are other leading types of firefighting injuries.
Organization and Rank (Promotional) System in Public Fire Departments
Generally, the organizational chart has a commissioner (designated by the mayor or city council) or chief of department as the leader of the department. A large municipal fire department can have both and be grouped into bureaus (operations, training, fire prevention, communications, facility maintenance, etc.) that are managed by deputy commissioners or high ranking chief officers. The bureau of operations typically consists of divisions staffed with division/deputy chiefs. A division can consist of five or more battalions, led by battalion chiefs. Each battalion can have five or more fire companies (engines, ladders, special units). Smaller urban areas may just have a designated chief officer as the head of the department with a minimal number of bureaus. Their operational bureau will also be greatly reduced.
Each fire company will have a captain with overall responsibility for the unit and its firefighters. Lieutenants will also be assigned to companies and assist the captain in managing the company. In a municipality, examinations for promotions are structured to include all the uniformed ranks listed above.
Compensation (Pay and Benefits)
Wages and benefits vary considerably from city to city throughout the United States. On the average, firefighters earn approximately $20 an hour. Company officers, with supervisory and management responsibility, earn in the range of $60,000 a year base salary, with the high end reaching more than $90,000. Chief officers make considerably more money than company officers and many reach a salary well over $100,000 a year. Fringe benefits (overtime, holiday pay, night differential, etc.) can increase salaries greatly. Additional benefits include medical and dental coverage for firefighters and their families, sick leave, paid vacation, life insurance, opportunities for promotions, flexible work hours (24-hour shifts, tour swapping), and pension upon retirement or disability in the line of duty. Layoffs for firefighters are not common.
Nontraditional Roles for Firefighters
Many firefighters are trained in nontraditional roles. They are generally assigned to special units (rescue, squad, satellite, foam carrier, marine). Some of these specialized tasks include water rescue, high-angle rescue, trench collapse rescue, structural collapse rescue, confined space rescue, hazardous material identification and mitigation, water supply and foam operations. These firefighters respond to nontypical fires and emergencies that require their skill and expertise.
Two major roles that will be examined separately below are firefighters trained as emergency medical technicians and paramedics and firefighters who battle wildland fires.
Approximately half of all fire departments nationwide provide ambulance service for victims. In most states, firefighters are also cross-trained as certified emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics. In fact, most calls to which firefighters respond involve medical emergencies requiring treatment from basic first aid to advanced life-support intervention.
Firefighters trained as EMTs/paramedics perform the initial evaluation of victims and treat and transport patients with medical problems and/or trauma. They recognize and provide initial care for a multitude of ailments and injuries, such as shock, difficulty breathing, stroke, broken bones, burns, asthma, choking, unconsciousness, epileptic convulsions, and drowning. Response time is critical in treating traumatic injuries and illnesses. As emergency responders, firefighters are usually the first on the scene. Rapid, on-scene medical intervention produces the best patient outcomes. As new-lifesaving equipment and techniques are developed (oxygen delivery systems, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, portable cardiac defibrillators, etc.), fire departments will continue to train and use firefighters in their ever expanding role of medical provider.
When a fire breaks out in our national forests and parks, crews of firefighters are used to suppress the blaze. Wildland firefighting is unique and very different from urban firefighting. The work is performed in steep terrain and thick vegetation. Wildland firefighters are typically exposed to severe smoke and dust conditions throughout their working tours. New recruits are taught fuel management (reduction of naturally growing foliage) and control techniques. They also learn forestry practices dealing with accepted fire suppression procedures for the various kinds of terrain encountered is stressed.
Wildland firefighting includes long periods of walking, climbing, shoveling dirt, chopping brush, lifting heavy objects, stretching and operating small-diameter hose lines, utilizing foam and fire retardant, driving heavy equipment (bulldozers), and safely using hand tools (chainsaws) to clear vegetation and cut down trees to create fire breaks (deprivation of fuel) in the path of the fire. Prescribed burning techniques (the intentional starting of fires to control the spread and direction of a forest fire) are also employed.
Elite firefighting forces called smokejumpers parachute from airplanes to conduct firefighting operations in strategic and inaccessible areas. Hotshots, specially trained wildland firefighters who ride in heavy, all-terrain vehicles to access threatened areas of the forest, are also used for vital and dangerous assignments. Helitacks fly inside helicopters and rappel from rope to help in water-drop operations. They transport and distribute firefighting equipment and logistical supplies from prepared landing sites.
Firefighters in the Private Sector
Fewer than 10 percent of firefighters are employed in the private sector, working in chemical or oil processing plants, large industrial facilities, or airports.
Industrial Fire Brigades
In the private sector, some chemical plants, airports, and large industrial facilities train personnel and establish industrial fire brigades. These firefighters may be responsible for incipient firefighting activities only or for interior structural firefighting, depending on their training. Sophisticated industrial fire brigades may perform exterior firefighting, using apparatus-generated water streams or stationary large-volume manifold nozzles. These firefighters are trained to wear self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and operate hose lines for both interior and exterior operations. The emergency work they perform may include rescue in confined spaces, mitigating the risks presented by hazardous materials, decontamination, trench rescue, and medical care.
Hellfighters are firefighters hired by oil well control companies, based primarily in Texas, to extinguish oil well fires. These firefighters are specially trained to close supply-line valves and use large-volume water streams from the perimeter of a flaming oil well to put out fires. They also detonate explosives to displace oxygen in the atmosphere surrounding the fire, thereby smothering it. Hellfighters work not only in the United States (Texas, Oklahoma) but also in other countries.
Wildland Firefighting Companies
Wildland firefighting companies contract out paid firefighters to public agencies to supplement local fire department manpower and equipment during major wildland fires. These companies are located mainly in the northwestern United States. Company crews perform work similar to that of wildland firefighters.
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