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What is it like to be a firefighter?

Every year, fires take many lives and destroy billions of dollars worth of property. Firefighters help protect people and property. They are often the first at an accident or emergency.

Firefighters put out fires, which is not as simple as it may sound. Fighting fires is dangerous and complex, and it requires organization and teamwork.

Firefighters also save people who are trapped.

They treat people who are hurt or ill, both at fires and in other situations. In fact, most calls that firefighters respond to involve medical emergencies.

In between alarms, firefighters must clean and repair their equipment. They practice firefighting and they may perform fire inspections. They exercise to keep fit.

There are firefighters in cities and suburbs. Some work at airports or in factories. Others work in forests and rural areas. Special firefighters, called smoke jumpers, fight forest fires. They parachute from airplanes to remote areas.

The local fire marshal and fire inspectors work to prevent fires. They conduct building inspections. They make sure that laws related to fire safety are enforced. They also work with builders and city planners. Fire prevention workers often visit schools to teach fire safety.

Some firefighters become fire investigators. Fire investigators study fires to see how they started. Fire investigators collect evidence from the scene. They also may talk to witnesses.

Firefighters are at fire stations much of the time. Fire stations usually have living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms. When the alarm sounds, firefighters must respond rapidly.

Firefighting is dangerous work. During a fire, floors can cave in and walls can topple. Flames and smoke can burn or kill. Firefighters may come in contact with poisonous gases or other hazardous materials. These substances may make them ill. To protect themselves, firefighters wear protective gear. The protective gear can be heavy and hot.

Many firefighters work more than 50 hours a week. Some are on duty for 24 hours straight. Then they get 48 hours off. They also get an additional day off on a regular basis. Others work a 10-hour day shift for 3 or 4 days. Then they work a 14-hour night shift for 3 or 4 nights. Then they have 3 or 4 days off.

How do you get ready to become a firefighter?

Generally, a written exam is required to be a firefighter. Tests of strength, coordination, and agility are also necessary. A medical exam is also needed. Courses in fire science at a community college may help an applicant to get a job. In recent years, more new firefighters have had some college education.

New firefighters usually train at a special school. They learn to prevent fires. They study how to put out fires. They learn how to use axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, ladders, and other tools. They study local building codes and emergency medical procedures, such as first aid. After completing this training, they are assigned to a fire station.

Firefighters need to be alert and self-disciplined. Firefighters should be brave and strong. Being good with machines is important too. Firefighters should have a sense of public service. A firefighter makes quick decisions, so good judgment is important. They must be able to get along well with others, because they live and work closely together.

How much does this job pay?

In 2002, the middle half of all firefighters earned between $12.53 and $22.96 per hour. The lowest-paid 10 percent earned less than $8.51. The highest-paid 10 percent earned more than $28.22.

Firefighting supervisors and managers and fire inspectors earned more.

How many jobs are there?

Paid firefighters held about 282,000 jobs in 2002. This number does not include volunteer firefighters. In some areas there are more volunteer firefighters than paid firefighters.

There were about 63,000 supervisors and managers of firefighters in 2002. Fire inspectors numbered about 14,000.

What about the future?

The number of firefighters is expected to grow about as fast as all other occupations through 2012. Most job growth will occur as volunteer positions become paid jobs. However, there will be keen competition for jobs. Many people want to become firefighters because it is challenging and it gives them a chance to help others.

Layoffs of firefighters are rare. Local officials generally try to expand or at least preserve firefighting service.

Are there other jobs like this?

  • Emergency medical technicians and paramedics
  • Police officers
Where can you find more information?

More information about firefighting occupations can be found in the Careers Database.

Source: Occupational Outlook Handbook -- U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics

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