Fire fighting involves hazardous conditions and long, irregular
About 9 out of 10 fire fighting workers were employed by municipal
or county fire departments.
Applicants for municipal fire fighting jobs generally must
pass written, physical, and medical examinations.
Although employment is expected to grow faster than the average,
keen competition for jobs is expected because this occupation
attracts many qualified candidates.
Nature of the Work
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 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, fire fighters 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 every emergency scene, fire fighters perform
specific duties assigned by a superior officer. 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, provide emergency
medical attention as needed, ventilate smoke-filled areas, and
attempt to salvage the contents of buildings. Their 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 urban
and suburban areas, airports, chemical plants, other industrial
sites, and rural areas like grasslands and forests. They have
also assumed a range of responsibilities, including emergency
medical services. In fact, most calls to which fire fighters respond
involve medical emergencies, and 65 percent of all fire departments
provide emergency medical service. In addition, some fire fighters
work in hazardous materials units that are trained for the control,
prevention, and cleanup of materials; for example, these fire
fighters respond to oil spills. (For more information, see the
Handbook statement on hazardous material removal workers.)
Workers in urban and suburban areas, airports, and industrial
sites typically use conventional fire fighting equipment and tactics,
while forest fires and major hazardous materials spills call for
In national forests and parks, forest fire inspectors and
prevention specialists spot fires from watchtowers and report
their findings to headquarters by telephone or radio. Forest rangers
patrol to ensure that travelers and campers comply with fire regulations.
When fires break out, crews of fire fighters are brought in to
suppress the blaze with heavy equipment, hand tools, and water
hoses. Fighting forest fires, like fighting urban fires, is rigorous
work. One of the most effective means of battling a blaze is creating
fire lines—cutting down trees and digging out grass and all other
combustible vegetation in the path of the fire— 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 because the crews have no
way to escape if the wind shifts and causes the fire to burn toward
Between alarms, fire fighters clean and maintain equipment, conduct
practice drills and fire inspections, and participate in physical
fitness activities. They also prepare written reports on fire
incidents and review fire science literature to keep abreast of
technological developments and changing administrative practices
Most fire departments have a fire prevention division, usually
headed by a fire marshal and staffed by fire inspectors.
Workers in this division conduct inspections of structures to
prevent fires and ensure compliance with fire codes. These fire
fighters also work with developers and planners to check and approve
plans for new buildings. Fire prevention personnel often speak
on these subjects in schools and before public assemblies and
Some fire fighters become fire investigators, who determine
the origin and causes of fires. They collect evidence, interview
witnesses, and prepare reports on fires in cases where the cause
may be arson or criminal negligence. They often are called upon
to testify in court.
Fire fighters spend much of their time at fire stations, which
usually have features in common with a residential facility like
a dormitory. When an alarm sounds, fire fighters respond rapidly,
regardless of the weather or hour. Fire fighting involves the
risk of death or injury from sudden cave-ins of floors, toppling
walls, traffic accidents when responding to calls, and exposure
to flames and smoke. Fire fighters also may come in contact with
poisonous, flammable, or explosive gases and chemicals, as well
as radioactive or other hazardous materials that 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 vary more widely than
hours of most other workers. Many work more than 50 hours a week,
and sometimes they may work even 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, 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 often work the same hours as
the fire fighters they supervise. Duty hours include time when
fire fighters study, train, and perform fire prevention duties.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Applicants for municipal fire fighting jobs generally must pass
a written exam; tests of strength, physical stamina, coordination,
and agility; and a medical examination that includes drug screening.
Workers may be monitored on a random basis for drug use after
accepting employment. Examinations are generally open to persons
who are at least 18 years of age and have a high school education
or the equivalent. Those who receive the highest scores in all
phases of testing have the best chances for appointment. The completion
of community college courses in fire science may improve an applicant’s
chances for appointment. In recent years, an increasing proportion
of entrants to this occupation have had some postsecondary education.
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.
They also learn how to use axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers,
ladders, and other fire fighting and rescue equipment. After successfully
completing this training, the recruits are assigned to a fire
company, where they undergo a period of probation.
Almost all departments require fire fighters to be certified
as emergency medical technicians. (For more information, see the
Handbook statement on emergency medical technicians and
paramedics.) While most fire departments require the lowest level
of certification, EMT-Basic, larger departments in major metropolitan
areas are increasingly requiring paramedic certification. Some
departments include this training in the fire academy, while others
prefer that recruits have EMT certification beforehand, but will
give them up to 1 year to become certified on their own.
A number of fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs
lasting up to 4 years. These programs combine formal, technical
instruction with on-the-job training under the supervision of
experienced fire fighters. Technical instruction covers subjects
such as fire fighting techniques and equipment, chemical hazards
associated with various combustible building materials, emergency
medical procedures, and fire prevention and safety.
In addition to participating in advanced 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, anti-arson
techniques, disaster preparedness, hazardous materials control,
and public fire safety and education. Some States also have either
voluntary or mandatory fire fighter training and certification
programs. In addition, a number of colleges and universities offer
courses leading to 2- or 4-year degrees in fire engineering or
fire science. Many fire departments offer fire fighters incentives
such as tuition reimbursement or higher pay for completing advanced
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 fire fighters in their companies.
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.
Increasingly, fire departments are using assessment centers, which
simulate a variety of actual job performance tasks, to screen
for the best candidates for promotion. The line of promotion usually
is to engineer, 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.
Employment figures in this Handbook statement 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, 70 percent of fire companies are staffed
by volunteer fire fighters. In 2004, total employment in firefighting
occupations was about 353,000. Fire fighters held about 282,000
jobs, first-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention
workers held about 56,000, and fire inspectors held about 15,000.
About 9 out of 10 fire fighting workers were employed by municipal
or county fire departments. Some large cities have thousands of
career fire fighters, while many small towns have only a few.
Most of the remainder worked in fire departments on Federal and
State installations, including airports. Private fire fighting
companies employ a small number of fire fighters and usually operate
on a subscription basis.
In response to the expanding role of fire fighters, some municipalities
have combined fire prevention, public fire education, safety,
and emergency medical services into a single organization commonly
referred to as a public safety organization. Some local and regional
fire departments are being consolidated into countywide establishments
in order to reduce administrative staffs, cut costs, and establish
consistent training standards and work procedures.
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 guaranteed
upon retirement after 25 years. Consequently, the number of qualified
applicants in most areas 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 opportunities 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 certification
will have an additional advantage.
Employment of fire fighters is expected to grow faster than the
average for all occupations through 2014. Most job growth will
occur as volunteer fire fighting positions are converted to paid
positions in growing suburban areas. In addition to job growth,
openings are expected to result from the need to replace fire
fighters who retire, stop working for other reasons, or transfer
to other occupations.
Layoffs of fire fighters are uncommon. Fire protection is an
essential service, and citizens are likely to exert considerable
pressure on local officials to expand or at least preserve the
level of fire protection. Even when budget cuts do occur, local
fire departments usually trim expenses by postponing purchases
of equipment or by not hiring new fire fighters, rather than through
Median hourly earnings of fire fighters were $18.43 in May 2004.
The middle 50 percent earned between $13.65 and $24.14. The lowest
10 percent earned less than $9.71, and the highest 10 percent
earned more than $29.21. Median hourly earnings were $18.78 in
local government, $17.34 in the Federal Government, and $14.94
in State government.
Median annual earnings of first-line supervisors/managers of
fire fighting and prevention workers were $58,920 in May 2004.
The middle 50 percent earned between $46,880 and $72,600. The
lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,800, and the highest 10
percent earned more than $90,860. First-line supervisors/managers
of fire fighting and prevention workers employed in local government
earned about $60,800 a year.
Median annual earnings of fire inspectors and investigators were
$46,340 in May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $36,030
and $58,260 a year. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,420,
and the highest 10 percent earned more than $71,490. Fire inspectors
and investigators employed in local government earned about $48,020
According to the International City-County Management Association,
average salaries in 2004 for sworn full-time positions were as
Minimum annual base salary
Maximum annual base salary
Assistant fire chief
Fire prevention/code inspector
Fire fighters who average more than a certain number of hours
a week are required to be paid overtime. The hours threshold is
determined by the department during the fire fighter’s work period,
which ranges from 7 to 28 days. Fire fighters often earn overtime
for working extra shifts to maintain minimum staffing levels or
for special emergencies.
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 providing retirement at half pay after 25 years of
service or if the individual is disabled in the line of duty.
Like fire fighters, emergency medical technicians and paramedics
and police and detectives respond to emergencies and save lives.
Sources of Additional Information
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. N.W., Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.iaff.org/