Fire fighting involves hazardous conditions and long,
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 different methods.
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 them.
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 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 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 civic organizations.
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
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
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
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 training.
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
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 staff reductions.
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 a year.
According to the International City-County Management Association,
average salaries in 2004 for sworn full-time positions were
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
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
International Association of Fire Fighters, 1750 New York
Ave. N.W., Washington, DC 20006. Internet: http://www.iaff.org/