- Fire fighting involves hazardous conditions and long, irregular hours.
- About 9 out of 10 fire fighters were employed by local governments.
- Applicants generally must pass written, physical, and medical examinations, and candidates with some postsecondary education are increasingly preferred.
- Keen competition for jobs is expected because this occupation attracts many qualified candidates.
Every year, fires and other emergencies take thousands of lives and destroy property worth billions of dollars. Fire fighters help protect the public against these dangers by responding to fires and a variety of other emergencies. Although they put out fires, fire fighters more frequently respond to other emergencies. They are often the first emergency personnel at the scene of a traffic accident or medical emergency and may be called upon to treat injuries or perform other vital functions.
During duty hours, fire fighters must be prepared to respond immediately to a fire or other emergency. Fighting fires is complex and dangerous and requires organization and teamwork. At every emergency scene, fire fighters perform specific duties assigned by a superior officer. At fires, they connect hose lines to hydrants and operate a pump to send water to high-pressure hoses. Some carry hoses, climb ladders, and enter burning buildings—using systematic and careful procedures—to put out fires. At times, they may need to use tools to make their way through doors, walls, and debris, sometimes with the aid of information about a building's floor plan. Some find and rescue occupants who are unable to leave the building safely without assistance. They also provide emergency medical attention, ventilate smoke-filled areas and attempt to salvage the contents of buildings. Fire fighters' duties may change several times while the company is in action. Sometimes they remain at the site of a disaster for days at a time, rescuing trapped survivors, and assisting with medical treatment.
Fire fighters work in a variety of settings, including metropolitan areas, rural areas, airports, chemical plants and other industrial sites. They also have assumed a range of responsibilities, including providing emergency medical services. In fact, most calls to which fire fighters respond involve medical emergencies. In addition, some fire fighters work in hazardous materials units that are specially trained for the control, prevention, and cleanup of hazardous materials, such as oil spills or accidents involving the transport of chemicals.
Workers specializing in forest fires utilize methods and equipment different from those of other fire fighters. When fires break out, crews of fire fighters are brought in to suppress the blaze with heavy equipment and water hoses. Fighting forest fires, like fighting urban fires, is rigorous work. One of the most effective means of fighting a forest fire is creating fire lines—cutting down trees and digging out grass and all other combustible vegetation in the path of the fire in order to deprive it of fuel. Elite fire fighters called smoke jumpers parachute from airplanes to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. This tactic, however, can be extremely hazardous.
When they aren't responding to fires and other emergencies, fire fighters clean and maintain equipment, learn additional skills related to their jobs, conduct practice drills, and participate in physical fitness activities. They also prepare written reports on fire incidents and review fire science literature to stay informed about technological developments and changing administrative practices and policies.
Work environment. Fire fighters spend much of their time at fire stations, which are usually similar to dormitories. When an alarm sounds, fire fighters respond, regardless of the weather or hour. Fire fighting involves a high risk of death or injury. Common causes include floors caving in, walls toppling, traffic accidents, and exposure to flame and smoke. Fire fighters also may come into contact with poisonous, flammable, or explosive gases and chemicals and radioactive materials, all of which may have immediate or long-term effects on their health. For these reasons, they must wear protective gear that can be very heavy and hot.
Work hours of fire fighters are longer and more varied than the hours of most other workers. Many fire fighters work about 50 hours a week, and sometimes they may work longer. In some agencies, fire fighters are on duty for 24 hours, then off for 48 hours, and receive an extra day off at intervals. In others, they work a day shift of 10 hours for 3 or 4 days, work a night shift of 14 hours for 3 or 4 nights, have 3 or 4 days off, and then repeat the cycle. In addition, fire fighters often work extra hours at fires and other emergencies and are regularly assigned to work on holidays. Fire lieutenants and fire captains frequently work the same hours as the fire fighters they supervise.
GS-03 assignments include training intended to develop firefighting skills and knowledge in preparation for the more difficult assignments at higher levels.
Typically, GS-03 firefighter training assignments include primarily formalized classroom study, on-the-job instruction, practice drills and demonstrations. Training includes general theory and methods appropriate for all types of standard firefighting, prevention, and rescue methods and techniques with emphasis on specialized procedures and techniques required at the installation. Examples of areas of training are:
- Structural and shipboard fires,
- Airfield and aircraft firefighting and rescue,
- Fires involving unusual hazards, and
- Fundamental principles of fire protection inspection.
During the initial stages of training the GS-03 firefighter participates in actual firefighting under immediate supervision of a higher grade firefighter. As training progresses, the employee performs most of the routine tasks with less supervision and assists higher grade firefighters with more difficult tasks, such as salvage and overhaul, or rescue operations.
Firefighters at this and higher levels:
1. Perform strenuous physical activities such as lifting heavy firefighting equipment, climbing standard and aerial ladders, and lifting and carrying people and equipment for rescue and salvage;
2. Use and maintain firefighting equipment;
3. Apply the theories necessary for effective firefighting and equipment operation and the techniques of fighting fires;
4. Apply the specialized techniques required for particular hazards involved at the installation; and
5. Apply basic first aid.
GS-04 firefighter positions are typically concerned with performing structural and/or airfield firefighting of low to moderate difficulty. By comparison, GS-03 assignments are of a trainee nature and are performed under close supervision with detailed instructions, particularly as to more difficult duties.
GS-04 firefighters typically provide fire protection for buildings, shops, warehouses, fuel and explosives storage areas, piers, and a variety of other structures and facilities. Some GS-04 firefighters perform airfield crash rescue and firefighting involving small aircraft and helicopters. At this level, aircraft are characterized by standard design features with few modifications that affect the difficulty of rescue or fighting fires. They carry small numbers of passengers; e.g., 10, and relatively small quantities of fuel or other materials that create problems in controlling the spread of fire to other aircraft or facilities.
The following types of firefighting tasks are illustrative of GS-04 assignments:
- Performs pre-fire planning by physically going through structures to become familiar with the layout, nature, and location of particular hazards, and the location of fixed protection systems;
- Controls and extinguishes fires, operates hose lines, makes forced entries, ventilates structures, performs or assists in rescue operations including administering first aid to injured victims, and performs salvage and overhaul (uses a variety of hand tools, hydraulic tools, and portable fire extinguishers);
- Enters crashed and/or burning aircraft to free or rescue personnel and uses hand tools to make forced entry when necessary (disconnects batteries, plugs, ruptured fuel and hydraulic lines to reduce the danger of explosion); and
- Performs standby detail on crash trucks during normal periods of flying activity and for special circumstances such as air movements involving medical patients.
The following types of tasks are typical of GS-05 firefighter assignments:
1. Provides fire protection at a research activity engaged in producing and testing experimental fuels, explosives, gases, or chemicals. The firefighter must use a constantly updated knowledge of the:
a. Nature and location of the various research activities;
b. Fire characteristics of the unique materials being tested; and
c. Proper firefighting, rescue, and decontamination methods and extinguishing agents to use.
The firefighter uses a variety of special protective gear in situations where poisonous gases, radioactive materials, or hazardous biological products are involved.
2. Performs crash/rescue and firefighting duties at airfields handling predominately large or complex aircraft; e.g., fighters, bombers, cargo, and passenger. Such aircraft carry large volumes of fuel, conventional and sometimes nuclear weapons, and/or highly flammable or explosive cargo. In rescuing aircrew members and fighting fires, the firefighter:
a. Directs water through turrets and handlines to cool weapons and ammunition during rescue;
b. Operates or deactivates mechanisms and systems such as hatch or canopy mechanisms, ejection seat mechanisms, or oxygen supply systems (sometimes uses special tools developed for the particular mechanism);
c. Performs standby duty during aircraft fueling and defueling, engine maintenance and testing, welding and burning on fueled and/or armed aircraft, or ammunition handling; and
d. Maintains constant awareness of the frequent changes in cockpit design, ordnance placement, and cabin layouts to determine how they affect the difficulty of rescue and fighting fires.
3. Fights fires in an installation environment presenting complex and hazardous firefighting situations.
4. Engages in specialized fire program missions such as hazardous materials containment and control. The firefighter as a hazardous material first responder:
a. Detects the presence of potentially hazardous materials;
b. Protects self and others by establishing a safe perimeter around the incident;
c. Advises fire chief to notify responsible agencies and to call for assistance from qualified personnel;
d. Controls access to the area until the arrival of law enforcement;
e. Surveys the incident from a safe location to identify the name, UN/NA (United Nations/ North American) identification number, or type placard applied for any hazardous materials involved;
f. Collects hazard and response information from current reference materials; and
g. Uses, maintains, and decontaminates common hazardous material response equipment and supplies including protective clothing, breathing apparatus, dry and extinguishing chemicals, and decontamination agents and equipment; and replaces expended chemicals and agents.
5. Assists the injured by applying knowledge and training for such purposes to:
a. Use direct pressure and tourniquets to stop bleeding,
b. Check the windpipe for obstructions,
c. Perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation,
d. Immobilize for safe transport, or
e. Provide other assistance at the comparable level of difficulty.
Note: At this level, employees do not administer drugs to patients orally or by injection.
Firefighters at this level typically:
1. Combat fires or rescue personnel on board ships where conditions create very difficult and dangerous situations. These include:
a. Small passages that restrict movement while wearing protective clothing and breathing equipment;
b. Small compartments with low ceilings;
c. The proximity of aviation fuel on hangar decks or ammunition in magazines or at gun mounts;
d. Movement through gas-filled tankage areas or past hot metal bulkheads;
e. The proximity of massed electrical cables; and/or
f. The proximity of high pressure steam lines.
The ships may be loading, unloading, or under repair. Such conditions may have additional hazards such as open hatches, cluttered decks, power supply interruptions, unstored paint, and volatile cleaning fluids. These hazards are often encountered below decks in dark, confined, and unventilated areas.
2. Drive and operate firefighting apparatus of significant complexity; e.g., pumpers, aerial ladder trucks, and crash rescue trucks. The firefighter:
a. Drives a vehicle to the scene of the fire following a predetermined route, or selects an alternate route when necessary; positions the vehicle, considering factors such as wind direction, water sources, hazards from falling structures, location of armaments on aircraft, etc.;
b. Operates pumps, foam generators, boom and groundsweep nozzles, and other similar equipment; determines proper pressure for the distances to be pumped and the number of lines being used; and applies principles of hydraulics to water flow friction and friction loss. When operating a crash truck, the firefighter maneuvers the vehicle to keep the fire in optimum range while ensuring that backflash will not occur. The firefighter maintains a constant awareness of water levels in self-contained tanks and warns handline and rescue personnel when tanks are close to running dry; and
c. Assists in training other firefighters in the skills of driving and operating the equipment.
3. Perform other comparable duties and responsibilities of similar scope and complexity to the duties and responsibilities associated with shipboard firefighting and/or driving firefighting apparatus as described in paragraphs 1 and 2 above, in addition to the duties and responsibilities associated with hazardous material awareness and an emergency medical first responder described at the GS-05 firefighter level.
In addition to the firefighting and first responder duties and responsibilities described at the GS-05 and GS-06 firefighter levels, positions at this level follow protocols in providing basic life support. The firefighter performs emergency procedures that are noninvasive. In performing these procedures, the firefighter:
- Performs initial and on-going focused patient assessment and physical examination;
- Determines priority of patient care based on assessment findings;
- Takes, records, and monitors patient’s baseline vital signs including temperature, blood pressure, and pulse;
- Manages respiratory and cardiac emergencies to include performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), bag-valve-mask resuscitation, or automatic external defibrillation (AED);
- Controls external bleeding with direct pressure and treats shock with pneumatic anti-shock garments;
- Splints and immobilizes fractures and dislocations for transport;
- Attempts to ascertain whether the patient has preexisting medical problems and to obtain a comprehensive drug history from the patient that includes the names, strength, and dosage of drugs taken by the patient;
- Assists patients in taking emergency medications for certain complaints; e.g., Nitroglycerin tablets for chest pain, Epinephrine auto-injections for allergic reactions, or Albuterol inhalers for asthma patients, under the direction of standing orders or of a physician;
- Establishes communication with the receiving facility, providing all patient information including estimated time of arrival;
- Employs a variety of established emergency medical techniques, methods, and equipment to stabilize the patient for transport as soon as possible to the receiving facility;
- Assists intermediate life support or paramedic staff;
- Prepares appropriate and relevant patient care documentation and reports to ensure medical requirements are met and accurately reported; and
- Uses and maintains care of emergency equipment such as backboards, suction devices, splints, oxygen delivery systems, and stretchers; properly disposes of biohazard materials; and replaces medical and expendable supplies.
In addition to the firefighter and first responder duties and responsibilities as described at the GS-05 firefighter level and the Firefighter (Basic Life Support) GS-07 level, positions at this level follow protocols in providing intermediate or enhanced levels of life support. In performing emergency procedures, the firefighter:
- Provides advanced or detailed patient assessment by conducting a systematic evaluation of the patient’s condition;
- Conducts and interprets electrocardiograms (EKG) depending on personal certification and local protocols;
- Performs advanced airway techniques including the use of an esophageal or dual lumen airway device and oral intubation using laryngoscopy. Utilizes pulse oximeter, capnometry, capnography, or other secondary confirmation methods to ensure correct placement of emergency advanced airway devices;
- Starts intravenous fluids or administers some medications in accordance with established protocols;
- Assists paramedics in advanced life support situations; and
- Uses and maintains care of emergency equipment such as specialized kits and bags, backboards, suction devices, splints, oxygen delivery systems, and stretchers; properly disposes of biohazard materials; and replaces medical and expendable supplies.
In addition to the firefighter duties and responsibilities described at the GS-05 firefighter level and the Firefighter (Intermediate Life Support) GS-08 level, positions at this level follow protocols in providing advanced life support. In performing emergency procedures, the firefighter:
- Provides advanced or detailed patient assessment by conducting a systematic physical examination of the patient’s condition and determines treatment methods;
- Performs electrocardiology procedures to include:
– Taking and interpreting electrocardiograms (EKG);
– Performing manual defibrillation; and
– Providing Transcutaneous external pacing.
• Performs advanced and invasive airway procedures that may include;
– Needle or surgical cricothyrotomy;
– Pleural decompression;
– Endotracheal intubation;
– Nasal intubation;
– Application of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP); or
– Automatic transport ventilator devices.
- Performs advanced assessment and treatment of the pediatric patient to include infant and neonatal resuscitation;
- Performs emergency childbirth and care for the newborn;
- Completes invasive procedures such as endotracheal intubation and intravenous therapy;
- Administers medications and solutions orally or intravenously under the direction of standing orders (protocols) or of an off-site physician;
– Calculates patient medication doses considering such factors as potential interaction with other medications, concentration of drugs immediately available, patient weight, dose prescribed by the written protocol, and method of delivery;
– Documents drugs administered and provides information to the hospital or medical provider either while in transit or upon arrival;
– Observes and documents the effects of drugs administered.
- Uses and maintains care of emergency equipment such as specialized kits and bags, backboards, suction devices, splints, stretchers, oxygen delivery systems, and monitoring equipment. Ensures proper disposal of biohazard materials. Replaces used intravenous (IV) needles and solutions, linens, blankets, and other expendable supplies. Maintains the currency, inventory, and proper control of authorized on-hand medications as dictated by the appropriate overseeing medical authority.
Applicants for fire fighting jobs usually are required to have at least a high school diploma, but candidates with some postsecondary education are increasingly being preferred. Most municipal jobs require passing written and physical tests. All fire fighters receive extensive training after being hired.
Education and training. Most fire fighters have a high school diploma; however, the completion of community college courses or, in some cases, an associate’s degree, in fire science may improve an applicant's chances for a job. A number of colleges and universities offer courses leading to 2-year or 4-year degrees in fire engineering or fire science. In recent years, an increasing proportion of new fire fighters have had some education after high school.
As a rule, entry-level workers in large fire departments are trained for several weeks at the department's training center or academy. Through classroom instruction and practical training, the recruits study fire fighting techniques, fire prevention, hazardous materials control, local building codes, and emergency medical procedures, including first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). They also learn how to use axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, ladders, and other fire fighting and rescue equipment. After successfully completing training, the recruits are assigned to a fire company, where they undergo a period of probation.
Many fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs lasting up to 4 years, including programs in fighting forest fires. These programs combine formal instruction with on-the-job training under the supervision of experienced fire fighters.
Almost all departments require fire fighters to be certified as emergency medical technicians. Although most fire departments require the lowest level of certification, Emergency Medical Technician-Basic (EMT-Basic), larger departments in major metropolitan areas increasingly are requiring paramedic certification. Some departments include this training in the fire academy, whereas others prefer that recruits earn EMT certification on their own, but will give them up to 1 year to do it.
In addition to participating in training programs conducted by local fire departments, some fire fighters attend training sessions sponsored by the U.S. National Fire Academy. These training sessions cover topics such as executive development, antiarson techniques, disaster preparedness, hazardous materials control, and public fire safety and education. Some States also have mandatory or voluntary fire fighter training and certification programs. Many fire departments offer fire fighters incentives, such as tuition reimbursement or higher pay, for completing advanced training.
Other qualifications. Applicants for municipal fire fighting jobs usually must pass a written exam; tests of strength, physical stamina, coordination, and agility; and a medical examination that includes a drug screening. Workers may be monitored on a random basis for drug use after accepting employment. Examinations are generally open to people who are at least 18 years of age and have a high school education or its equivalent. Those who receive the highest scores in all phases of testing have the best chances of being hired.
Among the personal qualities fire fighters need are mental alertness, self-discipline, courage, mechanical aptitude, endurance, strength, and a sense of public service. Initiative and good judgment also are extremely important, because fire fighters make quick decisions in emergencies. Members of a crew live and work closely together under conditions of stress and danger for extended periods, so they must be dependable and able to get along well with others. Leadership qualities are necessary for officers, who must establish and maintain discipline and efficiency, as well as direct the activities of the fire fighters in their companies.
Advancement. Most experienced fire fighters continue studying to improve their job performance and prepare for promotion examinations. To progress to higher level positions, they acquire expertise in advanced fire fighting equipment and techniques, building construction, emergency medical technology, writing, public speaking, management and budgeting procedures, and public relations.
Opportunities for promotion depend upon the results of written examinations, as well as job performance, interviews, and seniority. Hands-on tests that simulate real-world job situations also are used by some fire departments.
Usually, fire fighters are first promoted to engineer, then lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and, finally, chief. For promotion to positions higher than battalion chief, many fire departments now require a bachelor's degree, preferably in fire science, public administration, or a related field. An associate’s degree is required for executive fire officer certification from the National Fire Academy.
In 2008, total paid employment in fire fighting occupations was about 365,600. Fire fighters held about 310,400 jobs, and first-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers held about 55,200. These employment figures include only paid career fire fighters—they do not cover volunteer fire fighters, who perform the same duties and may constitute the majority of fire fighters in a residential area. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, about 70 percent of fire companies were staffed entirely by volunteer fire fighters in 2007.
About 91 percent of fire fighting workers were employed by local governments. Some local and regional fire departments are being consolidated into countywide establishments to reduce administrative staffs, cut costs, and establish consistent training standards and work procedures. Some large cities have thousands of career fire fighters, while many small towns have only a few. Most of the fire fighters not employed by local governments worked in fire departments on Federal and State installations, including airports. Private fire fighting companies employ a small number of fire fighters.
Although employment is expected to grow faster than the average for all jobs, candidates for these positions are expected to face keen competition because these positions are highly attractive and sought after.
Employment change. Employment of fire fighters is expected to grow by 19 percent over the 2008–18 decade, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Most job growth will stem from volunteer fire fighting positions being converted to paid positions. In recent years, it has become more difficult for volunteer fire departments to recruit and retain volunteers, perhaps because of the considerable amount of training and time commitment required. Furthermore, a trend toward more people living in and around cities has increased the demand for fire fighters. When areas develop and become more densely populated, emergencies and fires affect more buildings and more people and, therefore, require more fire fighters.
Job prospects. Prospective fire fighters are expected to face keen competition for available job openings. Many people are attracted to fire fighting because (1) it is challenging and provides the opportunity to perform an essential public service, (2) a high school education is usually sufficient for entry, and (3) a pension is usually guaranteed after 25 years of service. Consequently, the number of qualified applicants in most areas far exceeds the number of job openings, even though the written examination and physical requirements eliminate many applicants. This situation is expected to persist in coming years. Applicants with the best chances are those who are physically fit and score the highest on physical-conditioning and mechanical aptitude exams. Those who have completed some fire fighter education at a community college and have EMT or paramedic certification will have an additional advantage.
Median annual wages of fire fighters were $44,260 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,180 and $58,440. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,440, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $72,210. Median annual wages were $44,800 in local government, $45,610 in the Federal Government, $25,300 in other support services, and $37,870 in State governments.
Median annual wages of first-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers were $67,440 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $53,820 and $86,330. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $108,930. First-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers employed in local government earned a median of about $69,000 a year.
According to the International City-County Management Association, average salaries in 2008 for sworn full-time positions were as follows:
|Position||Minimum annual base salary||Maximum annual base salary|
|Assistant fire chief||65,691||83,748|
Fire fighters who average more than a certain number of work hours per week are required to be paid overtime. The threshold is determined by the department. Fire fighters often work extra shifts to maintain minimum staffing levels and during special emergencies.
In 2008, 66 percent of all fire fighters were union members or covered by a union contract. Fire fighters receive benefits that usually include medical and liability insurance, vacation and sick leave, and some paid holidays. Almost all fire departments provide protective clothing (helmets, boots, and coats) and breathing apparatus, and many also provide dress uniforms. Fire fighters generally are covered by pension plans, often offering retirement at half pay after 25 years of service or if the individual is disabled in the line of duty.
Information about a career as a fire fighter may be obtained from local fire departments and from either of the following organizations:
- International Association of Fire Fighters, 1750 New York Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.iaff.org
- U.S. Fire Administration, 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727. Internet: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov
Information about professional qualifications and a list of colleges and universities offering 2-year or 4-year degree programs in fire science or fire prevention may be obtained from:
- National Fire Academy, 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727. Internet: http://www.usfa.dhs.gov/nfa
Information on obtaining Fire Protection and Prevention positions with the Federal Government is available from the Office of Personnel Management through USAJOBS, the Federal Government's official employment information system. This resource for locating and applying for job opportunities can be accessed through the Internet at http://www.usajobs.gov or through an interactive voice response telephone system at (703) 724–1850 or (703) 724–1850 or TDD (978) 461–8404 and (978) 461–8404. These numbers are not toll free, and charges may result. For advice on how to find and apply for Federal jobs, download the Insider's Guide to the Federal Hiring Process” online here.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-11 Edition; and
- Office of Personnel Management, Position Classification Standards.