Pros and Cons of Being a Firefighter
Firefighting is a dangerous and unpredictable job, as firefighters are exposed to hazardous situations and must respond to emergencies at all hours. However, they perform a public service and even have the chance to save lives. Keep reading to find out the pros and cons of being a firefighter and see if it's the right job for you.
|Pros of a Firefighting Career|
|Work is challenging*|
|Performs an essential public service*|
|Pension usually available after 25 years of service*|
|Advanced education not required to enter the field*|
|Cons of a Firefighting Career|
|Long and irregular hours (possible to work 50 hours per week and be on call 24 hours at a time)*|
|Exposed to harmful chemicals and materials*|
|Dangerous and possibly fatal conditions (average of 100 firefighter deaths per year)**|
|Protective gear is heavy, hot and uncomfortable*|
Sources: *The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
Job Description and Duties
Firefighters respond to fires and other emergencies 24 hours a day. They often arrive on the scene of accidents to provide medical treatment to victims. Firefighters might specialize in areas such as forest fires or hazardous materials cleanup, but they are able to work in a range of other settings, too. When not responding to emergencies, firefighters often maintain equipment, research firefighting techniques and provide public education on fire and medical safety.
As a firefighter, you can expect to spend a lot of time at a fire station and to work long and irregular hours. Fires and other emergencies can occur at any time, so firefighters are always needed to be on call. Work can be highly dangerous, especially due to building collapses, burns and exposure to chemicals. It's important to consider how comfortable you are with entering these situations, sometimes on a daily basis.
Career Outlook and Salary
As noted by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a growth of 7 percent was expected in the employment of firefighters from 2012-2022. Many existing volunteer positions are expected to be converted into paid positions. There will also be a larger need for emergency personnel as urban areas develop and more people move into cities, where fire and other emergencies can spread quickly and cause great damage.
According to the BLS, the middle 50 percent of firefighters earned a median salary between $31,000 and $62,000 in May 2014. States that paid their firefighters the most in this same period include New Jersey, New York, California, Washington and Connecticut. Firefighters are usually eligible for overtime pay and commonly have pension plans that allow for retirement after 25 years.
What are the Requirements?
No specific education is required to become a firefighter, though you need to have a high school diploma or GED and applicants with postsecondary coursework or degrees may be given hiring preference. You'll need to perform well on physical and written exams before being hired as a firefighter. Other requirements can vary by state, and some employers let their firefighters complete requirements during an initial probationary hiring period.
The skills of successful firefighters always include:
- Ability to work on a team
- Initiative and good judgment
- Sense of public service
- Self-discipline combined with physical and mental endurance
- Strong mechanical and technical abilities
Job Postings from Real Employers
While all new firefighters receive extensive training, many employers desire applicants who already hold specific medical and firefighting certifications. Most firefighting positions actually require qualification as an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic in order to provide emergency treatment at the scene of fires and other accidents. Below are a few sample job listings to give you an idea of what employers were looking for in March 2012:
- A city in Michigan looked for firefighters who are at least 21 years old and are certified licensed paramedics. The posting specified that applicants need to demonstrate both financial responsibility and have no criminal history.
- A city in northern Virginia advertised for firefighters to perform rescue and salvage missions, as well as provide training and public education programs. Hiring preference and financial incentives will be given to those trained in Advanced Life Support (ALS).
- A city in Kansas searched for firefighters to be placed on an eligibility list for future hire. Candidates need to have a valid driver's license with a good driving record, EMT certification or licensure, Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) certification and Kansas Firefighter I or II certification.
- A city in Wisconsin posted for a firefighter/paramedic with a high school diploma or GED. Duties include performing technical rescues, using and maintaining department equipment and holding classes on topics such as CPR, first aid and babysitting safety.
Stand out in the Field
Since you don't need an advanced degree to start work as a firefighter, competition can be tough for entry-level positions. If you perform especially well on the initial written and physical exams, you might have an edge over other applicants.
Degree programs in firefighting engineering and safety are available if you want to increase your career preparation and hiring potential as a firefighter. These advanced skills can also be useful for experienced firefighters seeking promotions and advancement in the field. Both two- and four-year degrees are available, and you might need a bachelor's degree to continue to be promoted up the ranks.
Alternative Career Paths
If you love the idea of working in the public sector and helping the community but firefighting doesn't sound like the right fit, there are many other career choices out there. Police officers enforce laws and help maintain public safety. Similar to firefighters, the majority of police officers are employed by local government. According to the BLS, job growth from 2008-2018 for police and sheriff's patrol officers was predicted to be 10 percent; those in this profession earned a median annual wage of $53,500 in May 2010.
Emergency Medical Technician
If providing medical care is more appealing to you than combating fires, consider a career as an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic. A high school diploma is usually required to enter a career training program, and three different levels of training are available: EMT-Basic, EMT-Intermediate and Paramedic. EMTs should be emotionally stable and able to handle stress. With experience, you could move on to teach or supervise emergency services. According to the BLS, emergency medical technicians and paramedics earned a median annual wage of $30,000 in May 2010. Employment growth was expected to be 9 percent from 2008-2018.
Maybe you're interested in fire protection without the physical stress of firefighting; if that's the case, you could consider a career as a fire inspector or investigator. You could work with building inspectors and construction crews to ensure that current projects meet the fire safety code; in addition, you might check up on established buildings of business to make sure they meet these same standards. As a fire investigator, you would help determine the cause of fire through criminal investigation. Fire inspectors and investigators earned a median salary of $52,000 in May 2010, as noted by the BLS. Job growth was projected to be about as fast at average from 2008-2018 compared to all occupations.