Although firefighting can be both dangerous and stressful, it is still regarded as one of the most coveted professions around. Along with being honorable and rewarding, the job earns above average salary and benefits, putting firefighter job satisfaction at the very top of nearly every survey. Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, said, “The most satisfying jobs tend to involve caring for, teaching, and protecting others.” Additionally, studies have shown that people’s job satisfaction rises with how well their jobs are respected by society. Based on these two factors, it makes sense that firefighters would experience such high levels of happiness with their positions. In this post, we’ll discuss some of the best ways you can prepare yourself for a career in firefighting, as well as increase your chances of getting the job.
Decide if this is something you would like to pursue.
You’re thinking that firefighting might be the right career choice for you, but how do you know? There really isn’t one way to know for sure, but a good starting point would be to do some online research and look for job descriptions of firefighters in your area. Start developing a good idea of the work that’s performed to see if you can imagine yourself doing this as a career. If you feel like you would enjoy the work, or if you have experience doing something similar and enjoyed it, your next step would be to reach out to fire departments in your area to see if they offer information sessions for perspective firefighters. Many organizations host orientation nights where they will outline job duties and describe what is expected of firefighters. They may even have hands-on time with tools or training demonstrations with current firefighters. If this goes well, and it seems like something you would be interested in, it’s time to get some hands-on experience. Many departments offer ride-along programs where you can visit the department during normal operating hours and accompany firefighters on calls. Being at the station and performing the duties of a firefighter is the best way to determine if this is the right career choice for you.
You’ve decided this is what you want to do. What’s next?
1. Meet Basic Requirements
Although your chances of landing a job are greatly increased by obtaining a fire science degree or having an EMT certification, you will first need to meet the department’s minimum qualifications. This includes meeting the minimum age requirement and having a high school diploma or GED. You will also need to meet their other basic department standards, which generally include having a reasonable driving record with minimal tickets and no felony convictions. Every department has their own minimum qualifications and automatic disqualifiers, so make sure to check for these in the job description before submitting each application.
2. Become a Volunteer
Becoming a volunteer or part-time firefighter is one of the best things you can do to increase your chances of landing a full-time position. Fire departments generally show preference to candidates that have real-world experience performing the duties of a firefighter/EMT. Volunteering also shows that you are the type of person who is willing to put in extra time and effort to make sure your community is safe.
The majority of volunteer and combination departments are extremely grateful to have community members who want to volunteer their time. These departments generally offer different types of programs for varying commitment levels. Some offer volunteer programs where community members receive training and respond from home while others have their volunteers pull shifts at the fire station like a career department. If your local department offers it, and you are interested in the most comprehensive experience possible, then a resident program might be the best option for you.
As a resident, you live at the fire station rent-free, absorbing all the operational aspects of the fire service while responding to the majority of calls in your area. This option is especially good for younger prospects who are motivated and ready to immerse themselves in the job. If you are going to be working another job while volunteering, it is a good idea to get a job that has similar duties to that of a firefighter. That way, during the recruitment process you can outline how you have been successful at your current position and discuss how these skills directly relate to duties of a firefighter. Working at your local ambulance company or in a construction trade are good examples of jobs where the skills and duties overlap with those in the fire service.
3. Get a Degree
Most departments only require a high school diploma to apply but this is the bare minimum. If you want to set yourself apart from the rest of candidates, it is never a bad idea to go to school and earn a degree. Any college level degree will show prospective employers that you are a capable learner and ready to take on the mentally challenging aspects of the job, but a fire science degree will do an even better job at setting you apart. While gaining a fire science degree, students learn about the history, theories, and practices of fire prevention, suppression, and investigation. Most fire science degrees also feature coursework in emergency service response, human and group management, and leadership and resource allocation. These degrees can be especially useful to candidates who are interested in pursuing careers in fire inspections and investigations or those who aspire to someday work their way up to a chief level position.
4. Get Your EMT/Paramedic Certification
EMT certification is not a basic requirement for all departments but if you get a job as a firefighter, this will be the first certification you’ll be expected to get. On top of that, if you fail to pass the class, your future employment with the department will be in jeopardy. If you get your EMT certification before getting hired, that will be one less thing your employer has to account for. That being said, volunteer departments understand that the majority of their applicants will not have any firefighting or EMT experience, so they will generally send their recruits to EMT school as part of their hiring process.
If you want to take your medical skills to the next level, you may choose to get your paramedic certification. Some departments require this, but for many, it’s a very sought-after certification that can really set you apart from other candidates.
5. Work on Your Physical Fitness
Fire departments show extreme preference to applicants who are physically fit and live a healthy lifestyle. This career is very physically demanding and requires a certain level of physical fitness to perform many of the basic job duties. However, before you worry about what it’s like on the job, you need to focus on passing the Candidate Physical Ability Test, commonly referred to as the CPAT. According to National Testing network “The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) consists of various firefighter-related physical events. This test was developed to allow fire departments to obtain pools of trainable candidates who are physically able to perform essential job tasks at fire scenes.”
These tests can vary significantly between departments so it’s a good idea to get in touch with someone at the specific agency you want to work for to get an idea of what will be included in their CPAT.
If you’re not already, start living a healthy lifestyle. Try to clean up your diet and implement a workout routine that’s manageable and sustainable for you. It takes a lot of dedication and time to get into good physical condition. Start working at it now so that you’ll be ready when everything lines up and you land your dream job.
For more information on how to prepare for your CPAT, National Testing Network has put together some very helpful information here. They have also developed some useful workout videos for people at various levels who are training to pass the CPAT.
6. Develop Technology Skills You Can Use on the Job
One area in which the fire service is evolving is the use of technology in the workplace. Most major departments are now using tablets to complete and submit their Patient Care Reports (PCR’s) directly to the hospital. Even smaller volunteer departments are beginning to see the benefits of going paperless, and are switching to a digital records management and reporting software (RMS). To view our blog post about why you should switch from paper to a digital RMS click here. This software not only helps with submitting PCR’s, it is also a platform that is used in all aspects of department operation, from inventory management and truck checks, to scheduling and employee management. In order to keep up with this recent trend, it is now important for the aspiring firefighter to also be “tech savvy.” If you want to be competitive in this evolving workplace, at a minimum, make sure you are comfortable with all the basic Microsoft programs like Word, PowerPoint and Excel. If you want to take this next level, and have access to Records Management Software like Emergency Reporting through a school program or your volunteer department, take advantage of the opportunity and try to become an expert in this area You can also get training on Emergency Reporting and Fire Department Data Management for free, by visiting our YouTube or Webinar pages.
7. Start Applying Now
If you are serious about landing a job, apply to every fire department that you can. In the fire service, it is not uncommon for applicants to fly across the country or drive to different states just to have the opportunity to apply for a job. The application and hiring process for fire departments is unique and extremely competitive. You would be a part of a very small group if you end up landing a job at the first department you apply to.
It’s important to use each application process as learning experience so that you can be that much more prepared when the next opportunity comes around. If you end up landing a full-time job at any fire department, consider yourself lucky, and use the opportunity to gain experience and better yourself as a firefighter and person. Then, when a job opens up at your favored department, you will be that much more likely to be considered for the position.
8. Pass the Background Check
As part of the testing process, fire departments will run a detailed background investigation on prospective candidates. This generally includes a criminal background check, examining driving records, and reference checks. This is also the part of the process where they will be able to consider anything else you have done in the past, including pulling your credit score to investigate your financial history, and investigating your activity on your social media accounts. The best advice here is to never lie about anything on your application, or in person. Getting caught in a lie is the quickest possible way to disqualify yourself from the process. If you did something questionable in your past, be honest about it. Describe what you learned from the mistake and use it as an example of how you’ve changed and grown as a person.
9. Prepare for the Interview
This is the single most important part of the hiring process and often the one that is overlooked by many candidates. The interview is most often weighted between 70 and 80 percent of your total score. Some departments value the oral board so much that the other phases of the hiring process are pass/fail and the interview is weighted as 100% of your overall score. This is generally the part of the process that doesn’t come easy for candidates, so it is imperative that extra effort is put in at this phase in order to be successful. You can find lists of common interview questions online but be ready for anything they might ask. Doing mock interviews and recording yourself answering questions can be the quickest and most effective way to improve your interview skills.
In the fire service, each job posting attracts hundreds, and often, thousands of applicants. Landing one of these coveted jobs is a competitive and challenging process that requires patience and hard work if you want to be successful. It will not happen for you overnight, but if you follow the steps above and show dedication and perseverance, you have a shot at landing your dream job as a firefighter.
Resources for the Aspiring Firefighter:
Below are some of the most useful resources we have found for beginning your pursuit of one of the most rewarding careers there is.
Daily Dispatch – Daily Dispatch is a website dedicated to firefighter-related content. They have one of the best classified areas we have found for searching for open firefighter positions in your area.
National Testing Network – One of the primary organizations fire departments use to administer firefighter testing in the United States. Search for jobs in your area, apply, and sign up for testing in one location.
Public Safety Testing – Another one of the main organizations fire departments use to administer firefighter testing in the United States. Search for jobs in your area, apply, and sign up for testing in one location.
The Aspiring Firefighter’s 2 Year Plan – This book clearly explains the path an aspiring firefighter should follow to wisely utilize his or her time while testing for the fire department. Chief Lepore uses his nearly 30 years of fire service experience and provides a thorough checklist that the reader can use to gauge him or herself against the competition.
Smoke Your Firefighter interview – In this book, Chief Lepore covers 85 of the most commonly asked fire department interview questions. The format is simple: question, answer, and reasoning behind the answer. After answering each question, Chief Lepore carefully and thoroughly explains why he has answered the question the way he did.
Firefighter Interview Rule Book – A straightforward guide to pass the firefighter interview with a better score than your competition. This book gives you the tools you need to use your unique experiences to come up with an answer to any question during the interview.
Essentials of Fire Fighting and Fire Department Operations – If you’re just starting the pursuit toward a fire career, this book is, as the title says, essential. This textbook covers all the required material for Fire Fighter I and II levels of NFPA 1001, NFPA 472, and OSHA 1910.120.