The duties of firefighting require quick decision making and physical fitness, among many others. Firefighters often encounter dangerous scenarios. Learn more about the firefighter job description, the tasks, skills and qualifications needed to become a firefighter, and the opportunities to advance in the field.
Job Overview: What Does a Firefighter Do?
The title “firefighter” does not capture all of the duties and skills involved in the job. These professionals must perform various tasks and first aid services. When they don’t have to respond to emergency calls, firefighters inform the public about fire prevention and other safety measures. To fulfill their duties, firefighters need the physical and mental capabilities to quickly respond to stressful situations.
Firefighter Job Duties
- Extinguish fires with water hoses, extinguishers, water pumps and foams.
- Rescue victims from buildings impacted by fire, storms, or other incidents.
- Treat injured or ill people by administering first aid, or assist emergency management technicians with these tasks.
- Contain hazardous or other flammable materials and keep passersby, motorists and other members of the public away from these materials.
- Investigate causes of fires.
- Prepare reports of incidents.
- Educate public on fire safety.
- Conduct continued training on incident response and physical fitness.
- Oversee evacuations of areas with active fires or danger, including those in areas with forest fires.
Fire extinguishing and prevention constitute a small part of the firefighter job description. Medical emergencies rather than fires account for two out of every three calls to fire departments. Other types of rescue may involve victims trapped in storm-damaged buildings or struggling in rivers and lakes.
Firefighter Job Essential Skills
Communication Skills. Firefighters must report conditions to other firefighters and emergency responders. Communication skills also include listening carefully to dispatches and instructing other responders or bystanders. Accurate written reports and narratives allow investigators, including law enforcement and insurance companies make decisions about criminal activities or fraudulent insurance claims.
Decision-Making Skills. Emergencies demand quick decisions from firefighters. Often, these responders must act under significant pressure and peril. Courage and command skills factor into the ability of firefighters to promptly act to save lives.
Physical Skills. Fire departments set physical fitness requirements to ensure that firefighters can lift, carry, climb, and run adequately to rescue victims. Firefighters must have enough stamina to withstand several hours at incident scenes, often in extreme or uncomfortable weather conditions, or even in forest fires.
Becoming an Firefighter
Training and certification in firefighting, rescue operations, and first aid techniques are essential prerequisites to becoming a firefighter. On-the-job training and probationary work periods afford the bulk of experience that leads to full-time employment. In the time of preparation for permanent service, firefighter candidates demonstrate their physical skills, knowledge, and ability to act quickly to save lives.
Qualifications & Training
A high school diploma will normally satisfy the minimum educational degree requirements in the firefighter job description. Approximately three out of ten firefighters hold a post-secondary certificate. Another 31 percent attended college, but did not obtain a degree.
Much of a firefighter’s education occurs in training, often led by the department for whom the firefighter will work. The training covers subjects such as rescue and firefighting techniques, fire and other applicable safety codes, and emergency medical procedures. Candidates learn how to operate fire trucks, axes, “jaws of life,” fire extinguishers, chain saws, and ladders.
Programs outside the department or state fire agencies cover arson investigation, preparing for disasters, managing and responding to hazardous material spills, and public safety education.
A firefighter must earn a basic certification as an emergency management technician (EMT). To reach this level they need post-secondary courses in airway management and trauma care. In some fire departments, firefighters must also be EMT-Paramedics. Both certifications involve training and coursework, followed by a national written and practical exam.
Generally, prospective firefighters gain their experience through training and working during a probationary period following their time in the academy. This initial period varies according to department.
Service in a volunteer fire department or volunteer rescue squad can also offer work experience. Volunteer departments generally provide fire prevention and protection to rural residents where a municipal or other government-run fire department is not available. In 2013, approximately seven out of ten fire departments filled their positions entirely with volunteers.
Firefighters work full-time and typically have shifts that vary. Depending on the employer, shifts may last 24 hours at a time. Those who are on duty 24 hours at a time get the next two or three days off duty. Some departments schedule their firefighters for ten hours on duty and the subsequent 14 hours off.
Those in municipal departments normally report to fire stations for their shifts to be readily available for emergency calls. When they are not responding to calls, firefighters eat and sleep at the station. Beyond their appointed schedules, firefighters may have prolonged hours when responding to mass fires or emergency incidents.
Whether at the station or home, firefighters must be available to promptly act on fires, vehicle wrecks, or other emergencies any time of the day. Accordingly, firefighters can expect the possibility of night, weekend, and holiday duty or time spent on-call.
Job Outlook & Advancement Opportunities
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a five percent rise in the employment of firefighters through 2024. This translates to 17,400 openings in the field. In 2014, the United States had 344,700 firefighters.
Local governments account for 91 percent of employed firefighters, while state and federal agencies fill much of the remaining openings. The availability of positions will depend upon turnover from those seeking career changes or retirements.
The firefighting profession should prove highly competitive. Along with sometimes limited openings come relatively low educational prerequisites. Generally, firefighters need only a high school diploma and enough classes and training to earn a basic EMT certification.
Promotions for firefighters lead to positions as engineers, lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs, and assistant chiefs. With experience and longevity, some firefighters can reach the level of chief or serve as fire investigators or fire marshals. Certain departments may require bachelor degrees in fire science or related disciplines for firefighters seeking positions beyond battalion chief.
Firefighters serve the public as rescue personnel and prevention educators. As emergencies happen at all times, these first responders must prepare to work at irregular times and remain on call for a long time. With weather conditions sometimes proving harsh and uncomfortable, the firefighter job description requests stamina, strength, and concentration.
Experience and performance can lead to supervisory and senior positions in fire departments, such as battalion chief and department chief.