How to become a structural (city) firefighter

This set of web pages is designed to help would-be firefighters learn more about the job of a city firefighter and prepare themselves for the job and the hiring process. It is divided into several linked sections, as follows:

1. How firefighting has changed in recent years

2. Why would I want to be a firefighter? What does it take to be a good firefighter?

3. Preparing for your career as a firefighter

4. Choosing a fire department

5. Taking tests for practice / The application and testing processes

6. The written and physical abilities tests

7. The interview / After the tests are over


Recent changes in firefighting

The fire service has changed a great deal in the last forty years or so. If you were a city firefighter in the 1960's, your job usually consisted mostly of taking care of the fire engines and the station and, when there was a fire, going to it and putting it out. Your protective gear -- probably a canvas or rubber coat, thigh-length boots, and a heavy leather helmet with no eye protection -- would now be considered primitive and unsafe. You probably had nothing to protect your lungs from the smoke and heat of a fire; coughing and choking on toxic fumes, and sometimes throwing up afterwards, were just part of being a good, tough firefighter. Overall concern for the health and fitness of firefighters was minimal. If anyone exercised on duty, it was usually more out of boredom or a personal desire to be stronger, and the workouts were usually limited to lifting weights someone had brought in from home.

Other than fighting fires and, in some places, staffing load-and-go ambulances, you performed few community services. Most firefighters had a high-school diploma at best; college and specialized fire service education were unheard of. Promotion to officers' and chiefs' positions came largely through seniority or through tests that measured your ability to memorize pages from designated books and pass a multiple-choice test based on that information.

By the 2000's, almost all of this had changed. Firefighters in most fire departments now take part in public education, fire inspections, and other forms of community outreach. Almost all fire departments provide emergency medical response at the basic level, and many offer full-service paramedic care and patient transport. Special units of firefighters are trained to handle hazardous materials ("hazmat") incidents, fast-water rescue, dive rescue (SCUBA), and technical (high-angle and collapse) rescue. Arson investigation, fire code enforcement and fire safety education often form separate divisions within the fire department. A wide range of community-service careers has replaced the limited choices of a generation ago.

The field has become increasingly professional. It's not unusual for firefighters to have at least a two-year degree in fire science or some other field, and chiefs of most major departments are expected to have master's degrees. Fire departments, colleges and specialized training programs provide ongoing education in command and management skills for company officers and chiefs. Promotions in many fire departments are based on the employee's performance in a promotional assessment center instead of, or in addition to, more traditional types of tests and interviews.

The fire service workplace has also become more professional. Fire stations once boasted a fraternity-house atmosphere, the men's "home away from home." Historically, this made sense: only four or five generations ago, firefighters worked six 24-hour days out of every seven and basically lived at the firehouse. Up until World War II, most departments used a 24-on/24-off schedule that persists in the federal sector today. With so much of one's time spent in the station, and with work time encompassing aspects of domestic life such as cooking, eating, showering and sleeping, it is not surprising that firehouses were viewed as very different from other workplaces. Drinking, sexual activity (with girlfriends or prostitutes), reading or viewing of pornography and other traditional male social behaviors that would have been completely unacceptable in other work environments were often commonplace in fire stations.

Gradually, in most places, as firefighter pay has improved and the educational background of personnel has increased, such traditions have yielded to more enlightened management, and professional standards have replaced frat-house cultural norms in the fire service. Firefighters are now expected to behave like responsible public employees during their time on duty, and to treat the fire station like the workplace it is.

Organizational change happens slowly and unevenly. As might be expected, some fire departments have come farther than others; many have yet to make many of the changes mentioned above. On most departments, the most senior firefighters -- those with more time on the job -- were brought up in the old ways, and may or may not have adapted well to change. This resistance can cause conflict and resentment. Those who represent change, such as women firefighters, sometimes bear the brunt of this resentment. This isn't fair, and the resulting behavior may be illegal, but women firefighters may find they have to deal with it nonetheless.

Because the fire service has changed, so has the way you should approach the possibility of becoming a firefighter. Back when firefighting was seen as manual labor, semi-skilled work suitable to the sons of immigrant families, the idea of preparing for it as a career was unheard of. But today, anyone who applies for a firefighting job without preparing for it beforehand is unlikely to be hired. Much is expected of today's firefighters, and the competition for jobs is tough.


This article is adapted from material developed by WFS under contract to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's U.S. Fire Administration, and published by FEMA/USFA as Many Women Strong: A Handbook for Women Firefighters. The handbook may be ordered free of charge from the USFA's website.

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