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Every year, fires and other emergencies take thousands of lives and destroy property worth billions of dollars. Firefighters help protect the public against these dangers by rapidly responding to a variety of emergencies. They are frequently the first emergency personnel at the scene of a traffic accident or medical emergency and may be called upon to put out a fire, treat injuries or perform other vital functions.

During duty hours, firefighters must be prepared to respond immediately to a fire or any other emergency that arises. Because fighting fires is dangerous and complex, it requires organization and teamwork. At fires, they connect hose lines to hydrants, operate a pump to send water to high pressure hoses and position ladders to enable them to deliver water to the fire. They also rescue victims and provide emergency medical attention, ventilate smoke-filled areas and attempt to salvage the contents of buildings. Firefighters are trained in emergency medical procedures, and many fire departments require them to be certified as emergency medical technicians.

Workers in urban and suburban areas, airports and industrial sites typically use conventional firefighting equipment and tactics, while forest fires and major hazardous materials spills call for different methods. Elite firefighters, called smoke jumpers, parachute from airplanes to reach otherwise inaccessible areas.

Between alarms, firefighters clean and maintain equipment, conduct practice drills and fire inspections, and participate in physical fitness activities. They write reports on fire incidents and review fire science literature to keep abreast of technological developments and changing administrative practices and policies.

Most fire departments have a fire prevention division, usually headed by a fire marshal and staffed by fire inspectors. Workers in this division inspect structures to prevent fires and ensure fire code compliance. They often speak to schools and groups on fire safety. Some firefighters become fire investigators who determine the origin and causes of fires.

Firefighters spend much of their time at fire stations, which usually have features common to a residential facility like a dormitory. Firefighting involves risk of death or injury, so firefighters must wear protective gear that can be very heavy and hot. Work hours of firefighters are long and vary widely. Many work more than 50 hours a week.

Training and qualifications

Applicants for municipal firefighting jobs generally must pass a written exam; tests of strength, physical stamina, coordination and agility; and a medical examination that includes drug screening. Examinations are generally open to persons who are at least 18 years old and have a high school education or the equivalent. The completion of community college courses in fire science may improve an applicant's chances.

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 firefighting techniques, fire prevention, hazardous materials control, local building codes and emergency medical procedures, including first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They also learn how to use axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, ladders, and other firefighting and rescue equipment.

Fire departments frequently conduct training programs, and some firefighters attend training sessions sponsored by the U.S. National Fire Academy. A number of colleges and universities offer courses leading to two- or four-year degrees in fire engineering or fire science. Opportunities for promotion depend upon written examination results, job performance, interviews and seniority.

Among the personal qualities firefighters need are mental alertness, self-discipline, courage, mechanical aptitude, endurance, strength and a sense of public service. Initiative and good judgment are extremely important because firefighters make quick decisions in emergencies. Because members of a crew live and work closely together under conditions of stress and danger for extended periods, they must be dependable and able to get along well with others. Leadership qualities are necessary for officers.

Job outlook

Employment is expected to increase more slowly than the average for all occupations through 2010 as fire departments continue to compete with other public safety providers for funding. Prospective firefighters are expected to face keen competition. Many people are attracted to firefighting because it is challenging and provides the opportunity to perform an essential public service and because a high school education is usually sufficient and a pension is guaranteed after 20 years. The number of qualified applicants in most areas exceeds the number of job openings, but the written examination and physical requirements eliminate many applicants.


Paid career firefighters held about 258,000 jobs in 2000. Median hourly earnings of firefighters were $16.43 in 2000. Median hourly earnings were $16.71 in local government and $15.00 in federal government. Firefighters who average more than a certain number of hours a week are required to be paid overtime.

Median annual earnings of first-line supervisors/managers of firefighting and prevention workers were $51,990 in 2000. Fire inspectors and investigators employed in local government earned about $44,030 a year in 2000.

Related links

For information about a career as a firefighter:

International Association of Firefighters, 1750 New York Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20006.

U.S. Fire Administration, 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727.

For information about firefighter professional qualifications and a list of colleges and universities offering degree programs in fire science or fire prevention:

National Fire Academy, Degrees at a Distance Program, 16825 South Seton Ave., Emmitsburg, MD 21727.

Adapted from the Labor Department's Occupational Outlook Handbook.