What Firefighters Really Do
If you are looking for a vital and challenging career, you are on the right track. Firefighters are true champions of the public good—with hefty doses of bravery and skill mixed in. This chapter describes the duties and demands of the job. You will learn about getting hired, trained, paid, and promoted. You will also find information on how this profession is changing—and how you can prepare yourself to become a part of it.
You see flames. You smell smoke. An alarm goes off. Someone yells "fire." For most people, this would be the time to evacuate the premises. But if you happen to be a firefighter, it's time to go to work.
Describing firefighters without using the word "hero" would be tough. After all, their ultimate goal is to prevent or relieve human suffering and loss. They regularly put their own lives on the line to save other lives and protect property. Much of their work is physically exhausting, mentally demanding, and highly dangerous. When a fire or other emergency strikes, they are on the scene battling flames, smoke, collapsing walls, chemical explosions, and numerous other threats. Unlike civilians, they can't evacuate the premises. They are working hard until the crisis has passed.
Behind every heroic moment, of course, are countless hours of preparation. Career firefighters are highly trained professionals. Their services are essential to every community and every stretch of land across this country. If you make this your career choice, rest assured that the need for firefighters is constant and the job prospects are promising. But this is a competitive field. Wherever you apply, you will need to show that you have what it takes to meet the demands of the job—and succeed in every stage of the hiring process.
Where the Jobs Are
There were approximately 361,000 individuals employed in the fire service in the United States in 2006.About 293,000 were line firefighters, whereas the rest were supervisors or other support staff. The majority of these individuals, about nine out of ten according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), are employed by municipal or county fire departments serving communities of 25,000 people or more. Large cities are the largest employers, but many intermediate-sized municipalities also employ career firefighters.
Just the Facts
There are four building blocks—fuel, heat, air, and chemical reaction—that must be present for a fire to occur. This can be pictured as a four-sided figure (referred to as a tetrahedron)—if one side is removed, the figure collapses. This is used to illustrate the point that if any one of these building blocks is removed, the fire is extinguished, which is the basis of fire attack.
Full-time firefighters are also hired by federal and state government agencies to protect government-owned property and special facilities. For example, the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and Park Service offer both year-round and seasonal fire service jobs to protect the country's national parks, forests, and other lands.
In the private sector, many large industrial companies have their own firefighting forces, especially companies in the oil, chemical, aircraft, and aerospace industries. Other employers include airports, shipyards, and military bases. A growing number of companies are in the business of providing fire protection services—including on-call or on-site firefighting teams—to other businesses and institutions.
In addition to career firefighters, there are thousands of volunteer firefighters nationwide. In fact, of the almost 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, about 71% of them are volunteers. Volunteers protect the majority of the nation's territory, but career fire- fighters protect the majority of the nation's population. Volunteer service is a good way to get training and experience for a career in the fire service. Many suburban communities have a cadre of career firefighters who are supplemented by volunteers at an alarm. These departments, called combination departments, are becoming more common and frequently give preference in hiring to those who have served in their volunteer ranks.
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