Whichever direction you choose to take, it’s important to stay involved in professional training so that you can be ready when advancement opportunities present themselves. (Photo by Bill Tompkins.)
Firefighting is an exciting and honorable profession - but not one to be entered lightly. Many cherish childhood dreams of becoming a firefighter, but hard work and dedication are required to meet the steep qualifications. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are slightly more than a quarter of a million career firefighters in the entire country, and the hiring process is difficult and highly competitive.
A career in firefighting is similar in its inception to any career path: gathering as much information as possible, making contacts with people in the field, and seeing if you fit the requirements. The best way to get started in this field is to volunteer some of your time with your local fire department. This will give you an introduction to the community, show what a firefighter’s day-to-day life is like, and help you build useful relationships.
It’s important to connect yourself early on in any career path to people who will help you along your way, according to Dr. Andrew Clements, lecturer in organizational psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, United Kingdom. “It can be useful to seek mentors who are willing to encourage our career progression,” he says. “Ideally, they should be in senior positions so that they can provide information about job opportunities and recommend us for high-profile tasks. Seeking advice from people who have succeeded in the chosen profession may help, by identifying the most important qualities and strategies that careerists need.”
First Steps Toward Career Progression
It is important to note at this stage that there are many varied options for working in the firefighting service, and each organization or department has its own hiring and training requirements. So, identify your career aspirations and check whether they fit with the organization before starting any training on your own.
The following are some basic guidelines that most firefighters will have followed to get started on their career path:
- Work on your fitness level and get emergency medical training.
- Firefighters must maintain a higher level of fitness than professionals in most other fields, with the exception of police and military services, and grueling physical exams will be part of any fire school hiring process, so start hitting the gym now. It also adds to your competitive edge in the hiring process if you are already cardiopulmonary resuscitation certified or have completed emergency medical training, although most departments will include this in your training when you are hired.
- Get the appropriate training.
- Some fire departments will hire you first and then send you to training afterward, especially large ones like New York or Los Angeles, but some will require you to attend fire school on your own. In this case, make sure the school you choose is accepted in your state and by your department. You can expect to train for at least several months, although some schools offer both part- and full-time options.
- At any fire school, you can expect to learn how to mitigate and put out fires with firefighting equipment, evacuate burning structures and treat victims, drive and operate emergency response vehicles and pump trucks, maintain equipment, and participate in public education about fire safety and prevention.
- Cost is another issue to consider. Some departments or organizations will pay for your training when you are hired, while others will require you to fund yourself.
- It is worth noting that some states require you to not be a tobacco user for you to be covered for medical treatment should you develop certain heart or lung disorders during your fire service career.
- Get hired!
- Each department will have its own process, but they will all include some form of written exam, an oral interview, and a background investigation. You must also test drug free and meet physical fitness requirements. Many will screen your job history, academic performance, and credit score and request personal references.
Advancing in Your Profession
Besides being a firefighter, there are many options for expansion within this career field. With additional training, you can become a fire inspector, fire investigator, fire marshal, fire protection engineer or protection technician, wildland firefighter, or arson investigator.
Whichever direction you choose to take, it’s important to stay involved in professional training so that you can be ready when advancement opportunities present themselves. Lateral moves are also possible, from local fire departments to wilderness firefighting organizations, state fire agencies, specified jobs within the construction trade, or equipment manufacturing.
Staying Motivated by Harnessing Failure
Staying dedicated and plugged in to your organization and its network is essential if you wish to rise in the ranks in any career, as is not giving up when you face obstacles - whether they be in training or attempting to get a promotion. “Rejection and failure are normal parts of career striving,” says Clements. “However, as with many aspects of life, it is easy for us to think that everyone is doing so much better compared to us! Remembering that failure is normal is important. We also learn more from failure than we do from success - if we succeed, why do we need to change? Treating failure as an opportunity to review our career strategies can help strengthen motivation in the face of adversity.”
A key aspect of picking ourselves up after failure is commitment. “It is important to be committed to our career goals, as commitment helps to protect against stress,” explains Clements. “Therefore, it is important to reflect on whether our career goals are what we really want to achieve. I have known people who were frustrated in their inability to advance into management, even though it became clear that they did not really want to be a manager. For some of us, career progression might not necessarily be about seeking greater status (which not what everyone wants) but might be about having opportunities to do something new that varies from a past routine.”
Remember to do the research and count the costs when choosing a career in the fire service, but if you are dedicated, hard working, quick thinking, and a team player, this highly rewarding career could be for you.