How to Become a Firefighter
Firefighters begin their careers by attending fire academy training.
Firefighters typically need a high school diploma and training in emergency medical services. Prospective firefighters must pass written and physical tests, complete interviews, and train at a fire academy. Additionally, fire departments may require firefighters to have other credentials, such as emergency medical technician (EMT) certification. Firefighters must complete continuing education to obtain or maintain these credentials.
Applicants for firefighter jobs typically must be at least 18 years old and have a valid driver’s license. They must also pass a medical exam and drug screening to be hired. After being hired, firefighters may be subject to random drug tests and also need to complete routine physical fitness assessments.
The entry-level education typically required to become a firefighter is a high school diploma or equivalent. However, some postsecondary instruction, such as in assessing patients’ conditions, dealing with trauma, and clearing obstructed airways, is usually needed to obtain the emergency medical technician (EMT) certification. EMT requirements vary by city and state.
Entry-level firefighters receive a few months of training at fire academies run by the fire department or by the state. Recruits learn firefighting and fire-prevention techniques, local building codes, and emergency medical procedures. They also learn how to fight fires with standard equipment, including axes, chain saws, fire extinguishers, and ladders. After attending a fire academy, firefighters usually must complete a probationary period.
Those wishing to become wildland firefighters may attend apprenticeship programs that last up to 4 years. These programs combine instruction with on-the-job-training under the supervision of experienced firefighters.
In addition to participating in training programs conducted by local or state fire departments and agencies, some firefighters attend federal training sessions sponsored by the National Fire Academy. These sessions cover topics including anti-arson techniques, disaster preparedness, hazardous materials control, and public fire safety and education.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Requirements for licensure or certification vary by state or locality. Check with your local state licensing agency or local fire department for more information.
Firefighters may need certain credentials, such as emergency medical technician (EMT) and paramedic certifications. The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) certifies EMTs and paramedics who have completed a formal program and passed the national exam. More information about EMTs and paramedics is available in a separate profile.
Continuing education is required to maintain these credentials.
Depending on the state or locality, some firefighters are required to have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) or driver’s license with firefighter endorsement to operate a firetruck.
Working as a volunteer firefighter may be helpful in getting a job as a career firefighter.
Firefighters may be promoted to engineer, then to lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and chief. For promotion to positions beyond battalion chief, many fire departments require candidates to have a bachelor's degree, preferably in fire science, public administration, or a related field. Some firefighters eventually become fire inspectors or investigators after gaining enough experience.
Communication skills. Firefighters must be able to explain conditions at an emergency scene to other firefighters and to emergency-response crews.
Compassion. Firefighters, like EMTs and paramedics, need to provide emotional support to those in emergency situations.
Decision-making skills. Firefighters must be able to make difficult choices quickly, sometimes in life-or-death situations.
Mental preparedness. Firefighters must be able to handle the stressfulness of their work, which may involve entering a burning building or treating medical emergencies.
Physical stamina. Firefighters may have to stay at disaster scenes for long periods of time to rescue and treat victims.
Physical strength. Firefighters must be strong enough to carry heavy equipment and move debris at an emergency site. They also carry victims who cannot walk.