Protective Services Careers: Job Description & Salary Information

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What are the pros and cons of a career in protective services? Get real job descriptions, career prospects, and salary information to see if a career in the arena of protective services is right for you.
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Pros and Cons of a Protective Services Career

Protective services is an umbrella term that covers a variety of occupations that deal with public and personal safety. Among the best-known careers in protective services are police officer or detective, firefighter, and correctional officer. Below is a table of comparison for these three occupations:

Police Officer or Detective Firefighter Correctional Officer
Career Overview Protect lives and property, collect evidence, investigate crimes, make arrests Protect lives and property by responding to and dealing with fires and emergencies; may perform some emergency medical services Oversee people who are in custody awaiting trial or individuals who are serving a prison sentence
Education and Training Requirements High school or college degree plus training academy High school or some postsecondary education plus training program High school or college degree plus training academy
Program Length Roughly six months Several weeks Roughly 2-5 months
Certification and Licensing Pre-employment POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) certification sometimes required Professional firefighter, EMT or paramedic certification sometimes required, either before or after hire; additional voluntary certifications available Certified Corrections Officer (experience required; voluntary)
Experience Required Some states require a minimum of relevant experience None; entry level None; entry level
Job Outlook 2012-2022 Slower than average (5%)* Slower than average (7%)* Slower than average (5%)*
Median Salary (2014) $56,810* $45,970* $39,780*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Police and Detectives

Police officers and detectives enforce laws. In this, they are tasked with crime prevention and investigation and the protection of lives and property. Jurisdictions can include localities, counties, state or federal government, universities, private companies, and public facilities, such as airports. The size and mission of the individual department typically dictates the specific duties of the officer or agent.

Requirements

The BLS reports that all potential police officers and detectives must be at least 21 years old. Depending on the department, you may be eligible for employment with only a high school diploma or GED. State-level departments may require you to hold an appropriate associate's degree or have completed a specified amount of postsecondary education. Federal agencies may require that you hold at least a bachelor's degree and have a minimum of qualifying work experience. Military experience can be to your advantage. In some cases, acceptance to a police officer training programs is by exam. In others, you're required to have already completed POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) certification.

As a police recruit, you're usually required to pass a drug screening and physical and mental tests and complete an interview. You must also pass a criminal background check. Conviction of a felony can disqualify you. All departments require that you complete a basic training program that can last a number of months at an approved training academy. Following academy graduation, you're often required to complete a period of time as a probationary law enforcement officer.

Here are a few examples of employers who were seeking police officers in November 2012:

  • A California police department sought to fill a full-time officer position. Applicants needed to have a completion certificate from a Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) academy or have earned one by the hire date.
  • A college in Massachusetts wanted to hire a campus police officer with at least one year of qualifying work experience. Qualifications included possession of a valid driver's license and the ability to meet physical fitness, training, and certification requirements of Massachusetts Special State Police.
  • A city in Delaware was looking for a full-time, entry-level police officer. The successful candidate would be a high school graduate with a clean driving record and no adult criminal convictions. The department required that applicants have good moral character and at least 20/200 vision, correctable to 20/20. Candidates also had to be at least 21 years old upon completion of the academy training program.

Standing Out

The BLS notes that detectives generally begin their careers as uniformed police officers. You can qualify for promotions by way of excellent on-the-job performance and high scores on promotion exams. Additional factors, such as continuing education, advanced degrees, and special skills, also can enhance your potential for advancement.

Firefighters

Firefighters perform protective services duties by responding to fire and medical emergencies. A firefighter might climb ladders, connect and maintain hoses, handle hose operations, break through obstacles to gain access to fires, or perform emergency medical treatment. Your assignment might change during the course of an emergency, which can last a number of days. Firefighters also educate the public about fire prevention and safety.

Requirements

According to the BLS, to qualify to become a firefighter, you generally need only a high school diploma or GED. However, the BLS also notes that many firefighters have completed a postsecondary degree or certificate program in an area related to fire science. Formal training and certification is also available in some states, and some states require it of their firefighters. These programs may be open to already-hired and non-sponsored students.

Most fire departments require recruits to be at least 18 years of age and hold a current driver's license. You must pass a drug screening and medical examination as well as be physically fit. All fire departments require that their recruits complete a basic training program at either a department-, local-, or state-run academy. Some departments also offer an apprenticeship program that can last as long as four years. Some agencies require that firefighters hold emergency medical technician or paramedic certification, earned either prior to employment or on the job.

Here's what some employers were seeking in November 2012:

  • An Illinois city sought aspiring firefighters to sit for an entry-level firefighter examination. A passing score on the written test qualified a candidate for a physical exam to be conducted the same day the test was given. The minimum education requirement to qualify for the exam was an associate's degree.
  • A city in Missouri wanted to hire a full-time firefighter. Firefighter 1 and 2 certifications from St. Louis County were required prerequisites; EMT certification was preferred.
  • A Michigan fire department was looking for a highly experienced candidate with at least an associate's degree in fire science to fill the job of firefighter/EMT on a full-time, 24-hour shift schedule that included weekends and holidays. The role included inspection of public buildings and public education efforts. A bachelor's degree was preferred, as were the additional qualifications of Michigan Firefighter II, Operations Level Hazardous Materials Certification, and Basic EMT licensure. Some cross-training in law enforcement was required.

Standing Out

Participating in various training programs related to fire science or specialty skills, which might be offered by your department or the state, could help you stand out as a firefighter. You also might pursue professional, state and/or national training and/or certification in areas such as confined space rescue, collapse rescue, or hazardous materials first responder operations. There are a number of certification courses offered by the International Association of Firefighters, the National Fire Protection Association, and the National Fire Academy of the U.S. Fire Administration. Classes are offered online and in-person. You also might find that additional formal education in fire science can enhance your employment and advancement possibilities; the BLS reported that some fire agency jobs beyond the entry level commonly require at least a bachelor's degree.

Correctional Officers

Though their law enforcement responsibilities don't extend beyond the confines of the jail or correctional institution where they work, correctional officers are responsible for the enforcement of all rules and regulations inside that setting. They oversee and supervise the behavior and well being of people who have been arrested and are waiting for trial or those who have been convicted of a crime and are serving a prison sentence. In addition to maintaining control over prisoners, they examine prisoners themselves, inspect facilities for contraband, settle disputes, and enforce discipline. At times, correctional officers offer counsel and rehabilitation advice to prisoners.

Requirements

The BLS states that while correctional officers must hold a high school diploma or GED, some agencies require correctional officers to have completed some college credits. You might find that military experience can serve as a substitute for this education requirement. However, the Federal Bureau of Prisons mandates that federal correctional officers hold a bachelor's degree or have at least three years of counseling experience or a combination of these requirements. Many departments of correction insist that correctional officers complete a training program that meets the standards of the American Correctional Association (ACA). Some states offer basic correctional officer programs at regional training academies or postsecondary institutions. You may be able to earn college credits for academy courses. You may be able to enroll as a self-sponsored student if you don't have a job lined up.

Below are a few examples of employment opportunities for correctional officers that were advertised in November 2012:

  • A corrections center in Ohio sought full-time corrections officers. Minimum qualifications included possession of a high school diploma or GED and a valid driver's license; applicants also had to be at least 21 years of age and live in the northwest Ohio region. Psychological, medical, and drug tests were required.
  • A county sheriff's office in Kentucky sought a female correctional officer to work the midnight shift, including weekends and holidays. A high school diploma or GED was required, as were good telephone skills, computer and typing skills, and public relations skills. Applicants needed to be at least 21 years of age.
  • A medium-security state prison in South Dakota was looking for full-time male and female correctional officers; weekend shifts might be required. New uniformed correctional officers would receive employer-provided training. Candidates had to undergo extensive background checks and drug screening.

Standing Out

The BLS states that becoming voluntarily certified can serve to advance your career. The American Correctional Association administers certification exams. You can qualify to become a Certified Corrections Officer for adults or juveniles with a high school diploma or GED and one year of experience as a corrections officer. To qualify for certification as a supervisor, manager, or executive, you need as much as ten years of qualifying work experience, including one year at the job level for which you want to become certified. Alternately, if you hold an associate's or bachelor's degree, you need only one year total of work experience, as long as it's at the job level for which you want to become certified.

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