What Firefighters Really Do (page 2)
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.
On the Job
The foremost duty of a firefighter is exactly what the job title says—to fight fires. Whether a fire breaks out at a two-story home, a 700-room hotel, or a 10,000-acre farm, the next sound you will hear is the familiar wail of those massive red trucks barreling their way to the scene, loaded with firefighters in protective equipment, helmets, and self-contained breathing apparatus.
But firefighters today do a lot more than put out fires. Natural disasters, bombing incidents, gas pipe explosions, and hazardous waste spills are just a few of the situations in which firefighters are called on to provide emergency services. Sometimes, these circumstances pose the threat of fire. Other times, a rescue operation may be the main order of business. Whatever the crisis at hand, firefighters are also trained to administer and coordinate basic medical care to any injured persons.
Increasingly, fire departments are finding themselves called on as the lead responders to and planners for natural and manmade disasters. In the post-9/11 world, the fire service frequently finds itself on the front line in homeland defense. What this means is that each firefighter has to be trained and cross-trained to work with agencies in adjacent communities and with federal and state agencies to fulfill these new tasks.
Fire departments are also playing an increased role in providing emergency medical services in many areas. Budget constraints have led to many municipalities combining or supplementing their emergency medical services with their fire departments. Fire departments provide a wide range of medical response, from immediate first response that provides basic first aid or cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), to full advanced life support response with paramedics who will accompany the ambulance crew to the hospital. Fire departments are often able to arrive at medical calls more quickly than the ambulance, and can make the difference between life and death in many emergencies.
Fire departments also provide many non-emergency services. One highly important task is to inspect buildings and facilities for compliance with fire codes and safety regulations. Another is to educate the public about fire prevention and safety procedures. This could include giving presentations to local schools and community groups or sponsoring campaigns aimed at making people more aware of fire hazards—sort of a local version of Smokey the Bear's "Only you can prevent forest fires" campaign! Firefighters often participate in public education efforts, but building inspection more often is handled by higher-ranked fire service personnel who have had special training.
What the average person may not be aware of is simply how much knowledge and training goes into firefighting. We see them driving the red truck, attaching a hose to a hydrant, dousing flames, breaking through windows with a pickax, and climbing tall ladders. These activities alone require a high level of technical skill and a great deal of physical stamina and strength. Firefighters also face serious physical risks from being exposed to flames, smoke, fumes, and explosive or toxic materials, as well as from walls and buildings caving in or collapsing.
To reduce those risks, it is critical that firefighters stay in top physical condition and master the use of various equipment and tools. But it is equally critical that they have a knowledge bank filled with scientific and technical information about combustible materials, building construction, ventilation systems, sprinkler systems, electrical circuitry, chemical reactions, and a host of other subjects. Firefighters are educated, trained, and drilled again and again in each of these critical areas.
Computers and other forms of advanced technology are becoming more common in firefighting. Computers are typically used for documenting call reports, staff activities, and other administrative functions. Most fire training is conducted using presentation software such as PowerPoint. There is a wide variety of training available over the Internet, including courses on incident command and many other subjects. There are database programs available for hazardous materials responses that provide information on how to deal with fires or leaks of harmful substances. Many chief 's vehicles, and an increasing number of other fire trucks, now carry laptop computers. Other forms of advanced technology such as thermal imaging devices are common in the modern fire service. To be successful as a firefighter, you will need a good, basic understanding of computers and technology.
Much of this preparation and learning goes on back at the station house. In departments with fulltime personnel, on-duty firefighters usually eat, sleep, and make a home away from home at the station. Although most rotate between day and night shifts, the length of their tour of duty and their shifts varies from department to department. For example, they may work four days on, then four days off, putting in anywhere from 10- to 16-hour shifts. Or they may work a 24-hour shift, followed by 48 hours off, then the cycle repeats. Whatever the work schedule, it's not the corporate nine-to-five routine.
Clearly it's not every day that a firefighter rescues a child from a burning building, and nobody hopes for disaster to strike. But since there is no predicting when it might, a firefighting force must be on alert 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Between sirens, their on-duty time is devoted to practice drills, training and education programs, equipment maintenance, and other routine activities.
Because of the many demands on a firefighter's abilities, many departments now emphasize some secondary education beyond the simple basics requried for the job. For example, many departments require training in such areas as driver/engineer courses, Fire Officer 1 and Fire Officer 2, and even Fire Science degrees for promotion through the ranks. Most advanced positions in the fire service require a college education, up to and including advanced degrees such as a Master's of Art or Science degree. Degrees in public policy, business management, or other areas are often required. There are also Bachelor of Science degrees available in Fire Science and Fire Protection Engineering, which deals with the design of fire safety systems in buildings.
Just the Facts
In the days of steamers and horses, dogs were a welcome occupant of the fire house. They not only kept the horses company, but also rid the fire house of rats and mice that were attracted by the horse feed. Dalmatians were long associated with horse-drawn coaches. They were trained to run alongside or ahead of the team and drive off animals that would otherwise scare the horses. They came to be used by the fire service for the same purpose and thus entered firefighting lore.
The Payback: Salary and Benefits
As with nearly every job, firefighters earn different salaries depending on where they work and who they work for. The size and location of the department or agency makes a difference, and so does a firefighter's level of experience and time on the job. Salary data for several municipal departments in your state are provided in later chapters. The statistics that follow will give you a sense of the "big picture" nationwide.
The U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistic (BLS), in its 2006 edition of Occupational Employment and Wages, cites the median annual wage for firefighters as $41,190, with the middle 50% earning between $29,550 and $54,120. These are average figures based on national and regional reports and are calculated on a 40-hour week. These figures do not consider that most firefighters work a longer week, nor do they account for significant benefits such as health insurance, sick days, vacations, and retirement benefits.
The current trend is to offer certain incentives, thus increasing the pay range for firefighters who choose to expand their professional horizons. This includes incentives for paramedic pay, advanced education, and increases for technical certifications such as CPR Instructor or Fire Service Instructor.
If you work in a small city, you can expect a smaller annual salary than is paid in large cities. Geographically speaking, salaries tend to be lowest in the southern region of the United States and highest out west.
Typical working hours for full-time firefighters range from 40 to 56 hours a week. They are entitled by law to overtime pay, which kicks in at an average of 53 or more hours a week during a work period. Many departments also offer longevity pay to career fire- fighters, usually around $1,000 a year. This extra pay is generally separate from any salary increase that comes with a promotion.
Scheduling varies from one department to another. Many departments operate on variations of 24-hour schedules, either 24 hours on and 48 off or 24 on and 72 off. Some departments operate on more traditional 40-hour work weeks with shifts from 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m., and so on. These scheduling differences can also affect how overtime is paid.
Employee benefit packages for firefighters also vary from department to department, but they tend to be substantial. Common benefits include medical, disability, and life insurance; sick leave, vacation, and holiday pay; educational incentives; and a generous pension plan. Departments also supply the uniforms and personal equipment that firefighters use on the job.
Unions play a large role in negotiating and protecting the salaries and benefits that firefighters earn. The BLS notes that most firefighters in medium to large departments are members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which maintains a national office and local chapters. The IAFF and other professional organizations also work to resolve labor disputes and sponsor governmental legislation on behalf of their members.
Employment of firefighters is expected to increase about 12% between 2006 and 2016. Some new jobs will be created in suburban communities where populations are on the rise. New positions will open up with suburban departments as they add career positions to their volunteer departments to form combination departments. These new positions will provide more rapid response to emergencies and supplement the volunteer response. Employment in large urban departments will be stable—not producing many new jobs, but holding steady on the large numbers they already employ. Overall, the majority of job openings will come about simply to replace firefighters who retire or leave the job for other reasons.
For the most part, firefighting certainly can be called "a steady job." Although budget cuts have reduced some departments, community pressure has been supportive of better fire and rescue services. Even when local governments call for budget cuts, communities generally rally to keep or increase the number of firefighters their tax dollars support. For the most part, too, the job market is not subject to seasonal fluctuations. One exception is forestry firefighting, which offers mostly seasonal employment and is available almost exclusively through state and federal agencies.
Along with job security, you have the other advantages described earlier: relatively high wages, good benefits, a generous pension, and the chance to do challenging, exciting, and important work. All these benefits add up to steep competition for these jobs. Most fire departments—especially large urban departments—have many more applicants than they do job openings.
Just the Facts
Firefighters used to slide down a brass pole to respond to alarms. The first of these fire poles was installed on April 21, 1878, by Captain David B. Kenyon in New York's Engine 21. Fire poles are one of the dying traditions in the fire service, because while they allowed a rapid response, they caused injuries. Some are kept in place or even installed in new construction for tradition's sake, but for the most part, they are no longer used.
Applying for the Job
Because municipal and county fire departments operate independently, no one set of qualifications and hiring procedures is used by each and every department nationwide. However, though the particulars may vary, certain standards are likely wherever you plan to apply. For example, most departments:
- have a minimum age requirement between 18 and 21
- require a high school education or a General Equivalency Diploma (GED); some departments have a higher education requirement
- run a background check on your employment and education and a criminal record check
- require that you pass a series of tests, including a written examination, a physical ability test, a medical exam (often with drug screening), an oral interview, and possibly psychological testing.
Departments often have residency requirements stating that you must live in the city or county in which you apply. Experience as a volunteer firefighter or an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or paramedic is always a plus and is sometimes a requirement for employment, either at the time you apply and test for the job or to be satisfied before you begin active duty. Affirmative Action or other hiring requirements may also factor into the selection process.
Many types of previous work experience look good on the application form. Jobs in construction, mechanics, landscaping, masonry, and plumbing are some that demonstrate the physical strength and dexterity needed to be a firefighter. But the basic idea is to show that you have held a responsible job, have followed a boss's orders, and are a team player. Also, whether it is required or not, departments tend to look favorably on applicants who have attended college. Even better is having taken courses in fire science. Keep in mind how much competition you are apt to have for a firefighting job. Any advantage you have or can give yourself—which includes preparing yourself for the written exam—can really make the difference in getting hired.
Military service is also beneficial to an applicant. The fire service is basically a paramilitary organization, with ranks and a structure similar to the military. Although service in any area of the military would be a benefit to the applicant, training as a military fire-fighter may be even better. All of the major services have firefighting opportunities. The U.S. Navy typically provides some amount of firefighting training to all of its personnel because firefighting is a critical function for damage control aboard ship. Military service is an excellent way to serve your country in addition to preparing you for a career in the fire service.
The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has established standards that have been adopted by many jurisdictions, and the two certifying agencies, the National Board on Fire Service Professional Qualifications and the International Fire Service Accreditation Congress, use these as a basis for their national certifications. Many jurisdictions have based their hiring, physical, and training requirements on the standards developed by the NFPA. Also, some states require applicants to pass state certification tests, in addition to meeting requirements and passing tests at the local (city or county) level. Normally this certification testing is also available to volunteer firefighters, so if you are a volunteer or are considering becoming a volunteer to gain experience for your career, you should investigate becoming certified. A word of caution, however: Some states have training requirements that do not necessarily follow NFPA or other national guidelines. Certification from one state may not transfer to another. You should carefully investigate this if you plan to relocate to another state.
As for federal and state firefighter jobs, you can expect similar requirements and testing procedures. Application procedures for these jobs are handled by the individual hiring agencies, state civil service commissions, local branches of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), or other government organizations. In the private sector, you will find more variation in the employment procedures. Basically, it's like looking for a job in any private business: Companies make their choices based on an applicant's education, experience, and ability to handle the responsibilities and physical demands of the job.
Just the Facts
Benjamin Franklin founded this country's first volunteer fire department in 1736 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He also became its first volunteer fire chief.
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