You want to know how to become a firefighter. Great! A career as a fireman is exceptionally rewarding, though you should be aware that it’s not a very easy task: a firefighter needs to be in excellent shape, must meet a number of requirements dependent on state, be courageous, have an immaculate character, not suffer from claustrophobia, and not use recreational drugs. Becoming a firefighter is more than just about putting out fires; it’s about preventing them through inspections, rescuing people and evacuating them, and giving medical attention to those who need it.
NOTE: There is no clear-cut road to becoming a firefighter, nor a “minimum required prior training.” The fire department will hire those who seem most desirable to them, so the more training and knowledge you have before applying, the better your chances are. Many applicants nowadays have 2-year degrees in fire science or a similar field.
So, what are the steps for becoming a firefighter? The exact procedures differ from state to another and from one fire department to another, so for an exact outline you must get in touch with your local fire brigades – there is no way around this. You can however check the requirements for becoming a firefighter in different States on our website, and below is a general but very detailed outline of what the process will most likely entail.
How To Become a Firefighter – Basic Requirements
The absolute minimum requirements are:
- You must be 18 or 21 years old (depending on your place of residence)
- You must have a high school diploma or an equivalent
- Depending on the fire department, you will likely also need to have a valid driver’s license.
The above, while the minimum requirements, are very unlikely to get you a job as a firefighter in most departments. The field is quite competitive and depending on where you want to apply, it’s likely that only 1 in 15 applicants get accepted. This job is for those who are truly dedicated – if you are, then follow the steps for becoming a firefighter outlined below.
Step #1: Complete a Fire Academy Training (Optional; Recommended)
Fire training can usually be completed as part of a junior/community college, so it’s quite affordable. This training will usually last around two years (although there are shorter courses that will last only around 50-100 hours), during which time you will learn the following:
- Organization and inner-workings of a fire department
- Tying knots/hitches and using ropes for safety and rescue missions
- Proper handling of a water hose
- The “anatomy” of wildland fires and how to control them
- Investigating fires, understanding fire patterns
- Proper fire prevention and precautions for businesses and private dwellings
- How to rescue people froma burning establishments
- Breakdown of firefighting tools and equipment
- The workings and maintenance of breathing apparatus
- Detailed training on the types of extinguishers and how/when to use them
- Communication between firefighters using radios and other equipment
- Understanding and using personal protective wear
- Handling hazardous chemicals and materials
- How to handle water rescue missions
Depending on the course you attend, you may also receive basic EMT training, undergo extensive fitness training and regular tests, and even participate in mock fire department interviews. Think this answers the question of how to become a firefighter? No way – we’re just getting started!
Please keep in mind that completing a fire academy is demanding, both physically and mentally. Most of what you’ll be learning will require tremendous focus, which is something not everyone is capable of doing. Practicing yoga at home is a good way to get better at it, but if you prefer a more physically-oriented way of improving your focus, consider taking up recurve archery as a hobby sport. Bonus: it will improve your back muscle strength, which will come handy during your CPAT exam.
Alternatives: while most fire departments will not specifically ask that you complete a Fire Academy, it will give you a significant advantage over other applicants. If for some reason you can’t partake in the training, however, you can always train yourself: read books about firefighting equipment and rescue, learn how to get yourself (and stay there) into top physical shape, become a volunteer firefighter – basically do whatever you can to learn as much as possible about a firefighters career so that you can later mention your knowledge and experiences in your application (more on that later). Completing a Fire Academy, however, is strongly recommended.
Step #2: Become a Certified EMT
Having an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) certification is required by the vast majority of States and fire departments in the United States. In fact, a few departments will even require that you hold a Paramedic certification, which takes much more time and dedication than an EMT certification. It usually takes one semester only to finish an EMT course.
Why is it necessary to have an EMT certification to become a firefighter? Because as a fireman, you’ll need to help the people you rescue from burning buildings. You may need to temporarily patch a wound, perform CPR, do a quick physical exam, or otherwise help an injured person. Remember: a firefighters job is not limited to putting out fires; it is, first and foremost, helping people survive.
Note: some fire departments will require that you be a certified EMT (or paramedic in some cases) even before you apply to become a firefighter, while other departments will only require that you get the certification after you’ve been hired by them.
Step #3: Fill Out An Application At The Department
At this point you need to visit your local fire department of choice and inquire about their application procedure. Everything you have done so far (fire academy, EMT training, etc.) was just the tip of the iceberg, and it does not in any way guarantee you a career as a firefighter.
The questionnaire you’ll be asked to fill will be extremely detailed, often spanning more than 30 pages. You will need to:
- List all of your previous employers, including from -> to work dates, salary earned, duties etc.
- List all of your acquired education diplomas, certifications and licenses; you’ll be asked to provide a photocopy of each document listed.
- Provide information regarding your military experience, if applicable
- Information and contact details for your friends and family members (this will be used later on during your background check)
- Detailed information about your financial situation, debts currently being paid off, a list of all bank accounts and credit cards owned, and more.
- Answer questions regarding your past, any convictions or troubles with the law
And much, much more. Be prepared to do a lot of digging into your own past to actually fill out the questionnaire. Also, make sure never to lie in this questionnaire, as pretty much everything you list there will be double-checked by the fire department, one way or another.
Step #4: Complete a Written Exam
If your application meets the minimum requirements set forth by your fire department, and if they believe you stand out among other applicants in terms of devotion to the career, you’ll be one giant step closer to becoming a firefighter. At this point you’ll be invited to participate in a written test, which will try your knowledge in areas such as:
- Basic math skills
- Ability to read basic maps
- Comprehensive reading skills
- Working in a team
And other similar things, which should not pose a problem to anyone who has done their research and who remember most of what they learned in high school. After the written test and depending on the fire department, you might also participate in an EMT / Paramedic simulation, wherein your skills in helping victims of a fire will be tested. Additionally, a test of your physical conditioning and stamina could be administered as well, although this is not always the case, especially if you have completed Fire Training that involved rigorous physical workouts or if you have other certifications to prove your in top shape.
Those who perform the best on the above tests will move on to the next step in becoming a professional firefighter, which is:
Step #5: Obtaining a CPAT Certification
CPAT stands for Candidate Physical Ability Test, and it’s a certification that is issued to aspiring firefighters upon successful completion of a series of 8 challenges, designed to simulate the activities a professional firefighter is likely to face during his career, such as climbing stairs, positioning and extending ladders, crawling through tight spaces, dragging a victim to safety, extending a fire hose, and so on.
The vast majority of fire departments will require that you present your CPAT certification before they will consider inviting you to the oral interview.
Step #6: Oral Interview
You’ll be invited to an oral interview conducted by a panel of usually 3 to 5 fire officers (usually captains or chiefs). The goal of this interview will be mostly to find out about your passion for being a fireman and helping others, but also to confirm your general knowledge on the subject (though it’s highly unlikely that any specific exam-like questions will be asked). Expect, however, to be asked questions such as “What do you think of the current state of fire services in the country?” or “Do you think the changes that have happened over the last 10 years to the fire service industry are good or bad?” You will therefore need to be passionate about firefighting and learn about the subject as much as possible beforehand. Refer to the “Increase Your Odds” section at the bottom of this article for more tips on this.
I know, I know – the answer to how to become a firefighter is quite long winded, but we’re almost there. If the interview panel is happy, you’ll move on to the next step:
Step #7: Psychological Test
Expect to undergo detailed psychological screening before you can become a firefighter. Firemen regularly face very tough situations and need to make extremely difficult decisions; as a result, they need to be exceptionally stable emotionally and capable of dealing with difficult circumstances. Most people believe they are capable of handling severe stresses, but when it comes down to it – they break. Psychological screening is designed to predict whether you are likely to break or not.
Also, expect to undergo regular psychological screening once you are hired as well.
Step #8: Background Check And Drug Test
An employee of the fire department will likely get in touch with some of your friends and previous employers and co-workers (who’s names you would have listed earlier in the questionnaire) to ask and find out as much as possible about you, your character, whether you are a trustworthy person, etc. If you are a convicted criminal and failed to mention this fact in your questionnaire, expect this fact to surface at this point. Keep in mind that if you have some past misdemeanors to your name, this does not automatically disqualify you from becoming a firefighter: the issue is approached by the department on a case by case basis, an things like the severity of the misdemeanor, the circumstances, as well as how long ago it was will all be considered before a final judgement is made.
The reason why firefighters must have a “clean slate” is because they need to be trustworthy. You will be responding to 911 calls, upon which you’ll be allowed to enter into other people’s homes, often breaking in through a window or door – all of this without any warrants. You need to be someone who a total stranger can entrust with both their belongings and life.
A drug test will also be conducted at this point, and needless to say the results must be negative. Additionally, random unannounced drug screens will be conducted as well throughout your entire career as a firefighter, so if you really want this job, then you must remain “clean” for as long as you are in service.
Step #9: Probation Period
If everything went well so far, you will become a probationary firefighter. Probation lasts for 6 to 12 months, depending on the fire department, and during probation you will learn the following:
- The internal policies of the fire department (who’s who, what’s where, coming on and off duty, etc.)
- Get to know the other firefighters on the team and learn to work with them as a team
- Learn how to handle the specific equipment used at the department.
And other similar subjects. Basically, at this point the department wants to confirm that you are in fact the type of person who is right for the job, and to make sure you are fully prepared to go out there to rescue people and put out fires, when the time comes. During probation you will likely be working with all the different shifts in rotation, so that you can learn as much as possible and get to know as many firefighters as possible.
You Have Now Become a firefighter!
After completing your 6 to 12 month probation period successfully, you will have officially become a professional firefighter. Congratulations!
Increasing Your Odds
There are numerous things you can do to increase your odds of becoming a firefighter. Below is a list of a few of them:
Make sure you have a clean driving record
The less traffic tickets and/or traffic-related incidences you have to your name, the better. Remember – firefighters must be people worthy of trust. Make sure to abide by all regulations, never drive beyond speed limits, and all that other good stuff.
The ideal firefighter is someone who loves to help out their community, and people in general. And there’s no better proof of this trait than having done some volunteer community work, regardless of whether it’s related to firefighting, rescue, or something completely different. You’d be amazed how many organizations are looking for volunteers at any given time. After you complete your work, you will receive a letter of recommendation; include it with your application/questionnaire and it will speak volumes about the type of person you are.
Take as Many Tests as You Can
Even if you do not intend to work at a certain fire department, you should still consider applying and taking their test (if your application is accepted). Regardless of whether you’re accepted or not, this will provide you with lots of experience and psychological confidence that is bound to help you with any future firefighting tests.
Nothing more annoying from a fire unit’s chief’s point of view than a firefighter who has excellent knowledge of how to put out fires and rescue people, but who can’t fix a clogged sink in his quarters during his or her shift. Learn how to cook your own meals, get along with other people, how to clean and do basic maintenance work, including drilling and such. This will go a long way towards making you feel more confident in your surroundings once you get hired by the department, and it will also prove to your superior that you can be trusted with many different tasks.
Talk With Other Firefighters
If you have a friend who’s a firefighter, pick his brains. Learn everything you can from him, find out how his recruitment process went and what tips he/she can offer. If you don’t personally know any fireman, don’t fret; visit one of the fire stations that are a part of the department you plan to apply to, and try to have a quick chat with some of the firefighters there – you’d be surprised how eager they are to help other aspiring firemen. You can ask them about the little details no one else except them knows, about what it took for them to get hired, the type of equipment they use so you can better educate yourself on that, and much more. What you learn here will also serve you during the live interview process, as you’ll be able to provide very unique answers to the questions received – answers that only someone who has visited the department’s stations is able to provide, making you stand out instantly.
Thrive On Knowledge
Being a firefighter is, in a way, very similar to being a doctor: you are saving lives, and you need to keep yourself constantly updated on what’s going on in the industry. The latter point requires passion, and make no mistake – becoming a firefighter requires a lot of passion and dedication. With that in mind, consider subscribing to some respected publications such as Fire Engineering Magazine or the excellent Firehouse Magazine. These will help you remain on top of things, and will make the panel during your interview feel like they have a common language with you, as you’ll be well-versed in the intricacies and problems that the fire service industry is facing.
How To Become a Firefighter – Summary
As you can see, the answer to how to become a firefighter is quite long, but for those of you that are truly interested in this career I’m sure it’s not so much deterring as it is motivating. If this is how you felt after reading the above instructions, then you are exactly the type of person that any fire department would like to have on their team. Now follow up and pursue your dream by learning as much as you can about the fire service, completing a Fire Academy course and an EMT course, and doing your best to remain on the good side of the law in everyday life. With some determination and true passion, you will get there – and many will thank you for it.