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Firefighters respond to a variety of emergency situations where life, property, or the environment are at risk. They frequently are the first emergency response team at the scene of an accident, fire, flood, earthquake, or act of terrorism. Every year, fires and other emergency conditions take thousands of lives and destroy property worth billions of dollars. Firefighters help protect the public against these dangers. This statement provides information only about career firefighters; it does not cover volunteer firefighters, who perform the same duties, and who may comprise the majority of firefighters in your area.
Most calls that firefighters respond to involve medical emergencies, and many fire departments provide ambulance service for victims. Firefighters receive training in emergency medical procedures, and many fire departments require them to be certified as emergency medical technicians. (For more information on this occupation, see the Handbook statement on emergency medical technicians.)
During duty hours, firefighters must be prepared to respond immediately to a fire or other emergency situation that arises. Each situation a firefighter encounters is unique. Because firefighting is dangerous and complex, it requires organization and teamwork. At every emergency scene, firefighters perform specific duties assigned by a superior officer. They may connect hose lines to hydrants, operate a pump, or position ladders. They may rescue victims and administer emergency medical aid, ventilate smoke-filled areas, operate equipment, and salvage the contents of buildings. Their duties may change several times while the company is in action. Sometimes they remain at the site of a disaster for several days or more, rescuing survivors and assisting with medical emergencies.
The job of firefighter has become more complicated in recent years due to the use of increasingly sophisticated equipment. In addition, many firefighters have assumed a wider range of responsibilities-for example, working with ambulance services that provide emergency medical treatment, assisting in the recovery from natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes, and becoming involved with the control and cleanup of oil spills and other hazardous materials incidents.
Firefighters are primarily involved with protecting structures, but they also work at airports on crash and rescue crews, at chemical plants, by waterfronts, and in forests and wildland areas. In forests, air patrols locate fires and report their findings to headquarters by telephone or radio. Fire rangers patrol areas of the forest to locate and report fires and hazardous conditions and to ensure that travelers and campers are complying with fire regulations. When fires break out, firefighters use hand tools and water hoses to battle the blaze. Some specialized firefighters parachute from airplanes when necessary to reach inaccessible areas.
Most fire departments have a fire prevention division which is usually headed by a fire marshall. Fire inspectors are specially trained to conduct inspections of structures to prevent fires and to ensure fire code compliance. These firefighters may also check and approve plans for new buildings, working with developers and planners in that process. Fire prevention personnel often speak on these subjects before public assemblies and civic organizations. Some firefighters become fire investigators, who determine the origin and cause of fires. They collect evidence, interview witnesses, and prepare reports on fires where there may be arson or criminal negligence. Some investigators have police powers and may arrest suspects. They may also be called upon to testify in court.
Between alarms, firefighters have classroom training, clean and maintain equipment, conduct practice drills and fire inspections, and participate in physical fitness activities. They prepare written reports on fire incidents and review fire science literature to keep abreast of technological developments and administrative practices and policies.
Firefighters spend much of their time at fire stations, which usually have facilities for dining and sleeping. When an alarm comes in, firefighters must respond rapidly, regardless of the weather or hour. They may spend long periods on their feet, sometimes in adverse weather, tending to fires, medical emergencies, hazardous materials incidents, and other emergencies.
Firefighting is a very hazardous occupation. It involves risk of death or injury from sudden cave-ins of floors or toppling walls and from exposure to flames and smoke. Strong winds and falling trees and branches can make fighting forest fires particularly dangerous. Firefighters also may come in contact with poisonous, flammable, and explosive gases and chemicals, and radiation or other hazardous materials, that may have immediate or long-term effects on their health. For these reasons, they must wear all kinds of protective gear, which can be very heavy.
Work hours of firefighters are longer and vary more widely than hours of most other workers. Many work more than 50 hours a week; during some weeks, they may work significantly longer hours. In some cities, they are on duty for 24 hours, then off for 48 hours, and receive an extra day off at intervals. In other cities, they work a day shift of 10 hours for 3 or 4 days, a night shift of 14 hours for 3 or 4 nights, have 3 or 4 days off, and then repeat the cycle. In addition, firefighters often work extra hours at fires and other emergencies and are regularly assigned to work on holidays. Fire lieutenants and fire captains often work the same hours as the firefighters they supervise. Duty hours include time when firefighters study, train, and perform fire prevention duties.
Firefighters held about 284,000 jobs in 1994. Nine of every 10 worked in municipal or county fire departments. Some very large cities have several thousand firefighters, while many small towns have only a few. Most of the remainder worked in fire departments on Federal and State installations, including airports. Private firefighting companies employ a small number.
Applicants for municipal firefighting jobs may have to pass a written test; tests of strength, physical stamina, coordination, and agility; and a medical examination-including drug screening. Workers also may be monitored on a random basis for drug use after accepting employment. Examinations are open to persons who are at least 18 years of age and have a high school education or the equivalent. Those who receive the highest scores have the best chances for appointment. The completion of community college courses in fire science may improve an applicant's chances for appointment. In fact, in recent years, an increasing proportion of entrants to this occupation have some postsecondary education.
As a rule, beginners in large fire departments are trained for several weeks at the department's training center. Through classroom instruction and practical training, the recruits study firefighting techniques, fire prevention, hazardous materials, local building codes, and emergency medical procedures, including first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Also, they learn how to use axes, saws, chemical extinguishers, ladders, and other firefighting and rescue equipment. After successfully completing this training, they are assigned to a fire company, where they undergo a period of probation.
A number of fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs lasting 3 to 4 years. These programs combine formal, technical instruction with on-the-job training under the supervision of experienced firefighters. Technical instruction covers subjects such as firefighting techniques and equipment, chemical hazards associated with various combustible building materials, emergency medical procedures, and fire prevention and safety.
Most experienced firefighters continue studying to improve their job performance and prepare for promotion examinations. Today, firefighters need more training to operate increasingly sophisticated equipment and to deal safely with the greater hazards associated with fighting fires in larger, more elaborate structures. To progress to higher level positions, they must acquire expertise in the most advanced firefighting equipment and techniques and in building construction, emergency medical procedures, writing, public speaking, management and budgeting procedures, and labor relations. Fire departments frequently conduct training programs, and some firefighters attend training sessions sponsored by the National Fire Academy. These training sessions cover various topics, including executive development, anti-arson techniques, and public fire safety and education. Some States also have extensive firefighter training programs.
Many colleges and universities offer courses leading to 2- or 4-year degrees in fire engineering or fire science. Many fire departments offer firefighters incentives such as tuition reimbursement or higher pay for completing advanced training.
Among the personal qualities firefighters need are mental alertness, courage, mechanical aptitude, endurance, strength, and a sense of public service. Initiative and good judgment are extremely important because firefighters often must make quick decisions in emergencies. Because members of a crew eat, sleep, and work closely together under conditions of stress and danger, they should be dependable and able to get along well with others in a group. Leadership qualities are necessary for officers, who must establish and maintain discipline and efficiency as well as direct the activities of firefighters in their companies.
Opportunities for promotion are good in most fire departments. As firefighters gain experience, they may advance to a higher rank. The line of promotion usually is to engineer, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and finally to chief. Advancement generally depends upon scores on a written examination, job performance, and seniority. Increasingly, fire departments are using assessment centers-which simulate a variety of actual job performance tasks-to screen for the best candidates for promotion. Many fire departments now require a bachelor's degree, preferably in public administration or a related field, for promotion to positions higher than battalion chief. Some departments now require a master's degree for the chief and for executive fire officer certification from the National Fire Academy, or for a State chief officer certification.
Firefighters are expected to face considerable competition for available job openings. Firefighting attracts many people because a high school education usually is sufficient, earnings are relatively high, and a pension is guaranteed upon retirement. In addition, the work is frequently exciting and challenging and affords an opportunity to perform a valuable public service. Consequently, the number of qualified applicants in most areas generally exceeds the number of job openings, even though the written examination and physical requirements eliminate many applicants. This situation is expected to persist through the year 2005.
Employment of firefighters is expected to about as fast as the average for all occupations through the year 2005 as a result of the increase in the Nation's population and fire protection needs. In addition, the number of paid firefighter positions is expected to increase as a percentage of all firefighter jobs. The increased level of specialized training required in this occupation makes it more difficult for volunteer firefighters to remain qualified for duty. Much of the expected job growth will occur in smaller communities with expanding populations that augment volunteers with career firefighters to better meet growing, increasingly complex fire protection needs. However, little growth is expected in large, urban fire departments. A small number of local governments are expected to contract for firefighting services with private companies.
In response to the expanding role of firefighters, some municipalities have combined fire prevention, public fire education, safety, and emergency medical services into a single organization commonly referred to as a public safety organization. Some local and regional fire departments are being consolidated into county-wide establishments in order to cut overhead, take advantage of economies of scale, reduce administrative staffs, and establish consistent training standards and work procedures.
Turnover of firefighter jobs is unusually low, particularly for an occupation that requires a relatively limited investment in formal education. Nevertheless, most job openings are expected to result from the need to replace those who retire or stop working for other reasons, or who transfer to other occupations.
Layoffs of firefighters are not common. Fire protection is an essential service, and citizens are likely to exert considerable pressure on city officials to expand or at least preserve the level of fire-protection coverage. Even when budget cuts do occur, local fire departments usually cut expenses by postponing equipment purchases or not hiring new firefighters, rather than by laying off staff.
Median weekly earnings for firefighting occupations were around $630 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between $490 and $775 weekly. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $380, while the highest 10 percent earned more than $975. The average annual salary for all firefighters in the Federal Government n nonsupervisory, supervisory, and managerial positions was about $27,100 in 1995. Fire lieutenants and fire captains may earn considerably more.
The law requires that overtime be paid to those firefighters who average 53 or more hours a week during their work period-which ranges from 7 to 28 days. Firefighters often earn overtime for working extra shifts to maintain minimum staffing levels or for special emergencies. Firefighters receive benefits that usually include medical and liability insurance, vacation and sick leave, and some paid holidays. Practically all fire departments provide protective clothing (helmets, boots, and coats) and breathing apparatus, and many also provide dress uniforms. Firefighters generally are covered by pension plans that often provide retirement at half pay at age 50 after 25 years of service or at any age if disabled in the line of duty.
Many career firefighters are unionized, and belong to the International Association of Firefighters. Many company officers and chief officers belong to the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
A related fire protection occupation is the fire-protection engineer, who identifies fire hazards in homes and workplaces and designs prevention programs and automatic fire detection and extinguishing systems. Other occupations in which workers respond to emergencies include police officers and emergency medical technicians.
Information about a career as a firefighter may be obtained from local fire departments and:
International Association of Fire Chiefs, 4025 Fair Ridge Dr., Fairfax, VA 22033-2868.
International Association of Firefighters, 1750 New York Ave. NW., Washington, DC 20006.
U.S. Fire Administration, 16825 South Seaton Ave., Emittsburg, MD 21727.
Information about firefighter professional qualifications and a list of colleges and universities that offer 2- or 4-year degree programs in fire science or fire prevention may be obtained from:
National Fire Protection Association, Batterymarch Park, Quincy, MA 02269.
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