What Does a Firefighter Do?
If you tend to run toward danger instead of running away from it, here’s a job that can channel that energy.
A firefighter, also called a fireman or firewoman, is a highly skilled first responder who works to prevent, fight and extinguish fires. A firefighter serves as an emergency medical technician (EMT), caring for those rescued from a fire or another emergency. Some firefighters also investigate the causes of fires, especially if arson is suspected.
Firefighters — many of them volunteers — are almost always the first ones on the scene, thus the name first responder. They respond to fires, traffic accidents, hazardous material spills and other emergencies.
The work can be dangerous. For some, that’s part of the appeal.
These workers remain on call at the fire station, where they sleep, eat and perform other duties during shifts that typically last 24 hours. This odd schedule allows cities to provide continuous coverage, and it also builds camaraderie among the firefighters.
If the thought of this rewarding job makes your heart beat faster, keep on reading to learn how to train to become a firefighter and hear from a career firefighter and a volunteer what’s it’s like to do this job.
- Respond to emergencies
- Fight fires using water hoses, fire extinguishers and water pumps
- Enter burning buildings to rescue people and animals
- Keep the fire station and fire equipment in good condition
- Participate in fire safety educational activities
- Update records on service calls, equipment inspection or repair
- Follow all safety protocols
- Conduct drills and training exercises
- Participate in physical fitness training
- Inspect buildings for fire safety (depends on role)
How To Become a Firefighter: FAQs
What steps do I need to take?
First, you’ll need a high school diploma or equivalent. While in school, make sure you are taking courses in math and problem-solving. You can get a head start by taking a local CPR class and volunteering to help out around the local fire station.
Next, you’ll need to start more in-depth medical training by earning emergency medical technician (EMT) certification.
Next, focus on fire training. Most prospective firefighters get the bulk of their initial training at a fire academy. Training includes learning firefighting and fire-prevention techniques, local building codes, use of firefighting tools and emergency medical tactics.
Fire academy is also when you can begin to specialize. When a firefighting team reaches the scene of a fire, each member is in charge of a specific task. For example, a hose operator connects the hose to the hydrant and sprays the hose toward the flames. A tiller maneuvers the aerial ladder into place.
Another stop on your journey could be earning a certificate or associate degree in fire science. Programs cover fire behavior, firefighting and prevention, fire management, evacuation techniques and fire investigation. This step is in addition to fire academy but it may set you up for leadership roles in the future.
If you want to become a wildland firefighter, you’ll need to complete an apprenticeship, which can last from 12 to 48 months.
No matter your path, you’ll need pass tests to prove physical stamina as well as written tests and interviews. Once accepted, you’ll go through a probationary period that typically lasts a year.
You may need to earn certification or licensing; it depends on city and state rules. Two common certifications are Firefighter I and Firefighter II certifications, but not all agencies require them.
For example, in Georgia, those who complete fire academy training can take the Firefighter I test to earn state certification as a firefighter. They can take another test to earn national certification. Other states and fire academies combine Firefighter I and II certification into their programs. So again, make sure you understand the rules for your state or locale.
Some career and long-term volunteer firefighters attend training sessions, such as the ones sponsored by the National Fire Academy that cover anti-arson techniques, disaster preparedness and hazardous materials control.
Are there any other qualifications?
You must be 18 years old to work for most local agencies or employers. For some, the age requirement is 21.
Expect a background check and drug screening.
Some departments require firefighters have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive a fire truck.
How long does it take to become a firefighter?
Fire academy typically lasts about five to six months.
Practice drills are a constant in a firefighter's life, and continuing education to maintain EMT and other credentials is ongoing.
What is a volunteer firefighter?
Volunteer firefighters work alongside paid firefighters to keep their community safe. As volunteer firefighter Michal Cohen explains, most volunteers get the same training and do the same job as their paid counterparts. One difference is that volunteers typically work part-time as firefighters so they can still earn a living at their regular jobs.
Are firefighters in demand?
The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts about 28,000 openings each year between 2021 and 2031. (That’s 4% growth.)
What skills are needed to be a firefighter?
Being a successful firefighter requires that you be:
- Physically fit (may include 20/20 eyesight)
- Compassionate and empathetic
- Calm under intense pressure
- Decisive, even in difficult situations
- A good communicator