Choosing a Department

You may already know what fire department you want to work for. Perhaps you already own a home and don't want to move, or you have friends on a particular department, or you simply have wanted to work for the XYZ Fire Department since you were little.

But choosing where you want to work as a firefighter may be a decision you'll live with for the next twenty or thirty years. It's worth making carefully. All fire departments and firefighting agencies are not the same, and they can differ in many ways. Some obvious factors include the number of firefighters on the department, the size and location of the town or city, and the type of area protected.

Large department or small?

All sizes of fire departments offer advantages and disadvantages. On a small fire department, you quickly come to know everyone on the job, as well as their families and friends. Departmental policies and the overall feel of station life are often less formal and militaristic than on larger departments. The department is more likely to be an integral part of the community, so the people whose houses you go to on fire or EMS calls are often friends or relatives of firefighters. You can often follow up on the condition of patients you've treated, even after they leave the hospital, which is more difficult if not impossible in a big city. People you've dealt with on emergency calls may stop by the station later to visit or to thank you for helping them, bring you cookies at Christmas, and generally treat you as a person and not as just someone doing a job.

Fire departments in smaller towns are usually "slower," meaning they have fewer fires and other emergency calls. Whether this is a plus or a minus depends on what you want from your career. If you're itching to work at a station with lots of fire or EMS action, you will probably be disappointed on a small department. On the other hand, if you want a firefighting job that allows you an opportunity to be involved in many different kinds of activities, and to have your individual talents recognized and used, your chances may be better on a small department.

Promotional opportunities can be few and far between when a department has only a few officers; if your goal is to become a lieutenant or captain in the next few years, you may be better off on a department with more personnel. Keep in mind, though, that the best career opportunities are often found on fire departments in towns or suburbs where the population is growing rapidly. The department will have to grow to keep up with the population, and those who are in it now will be prime candidates for promotion when it does.

Large fire departments, and particularly their busy stations, have status and glamour in the eyes of many firefighters who want as much action as possible. If this type of assignment is attractive to you, you'll only find it in a large department. Just keep in mind that every department has slow stations as well, and you won't necessarily be assigned to the busiest station just because you want to be.

Larger departments are more likely to have more professional management, regular promotions and set promotional processes, more formalized training and better training facilities. They are also more likely to have specialized teams such as hazmat, SCUBA, and technical rescue.

The disadvantage to a larger department is that employees often to get less individual recognition, just like employees of a big corporation. The status of working for a big-city department can be diminished if you end up feeling like just a small fish in a big pond. Bureaucracy and a many-layered hierarchy can make firefighters feel very remote from decision-making, which can be frustrating for some people. Also, depending on how station assignments are made, you can end up with a long commute across town to get to and from work each shift. As a recruit, you may find yourself "carrying your boots" -- that is, detailed to work at other stations than the one you're normally assigned to -- quite often, which can disrupt the process of getting to know your crew members.

Where should the department be located?

If you want to settle down where you're now living, this question will be easy to answer. There may be only one fire department serving your area, or you may have a few to choose from. If you plan to move, you probably have some idea where you'd like to live: in the mountains, nearer to your family, in a warmer climate, by the ocean, etc. If you see yourself in a remote, rural setting, choosing a large metropolitan fire department may not make sense unless you don't mind a long commute in all kinds of weather, and the fire department doesn't have a residency requirement.

If the department does require residence in the city, county, or within a restricted distance of its territory, are you comfortable with that? Will you be able to find the kind of home you want to buy there, at a price you can afford, in a neighborhood where you are comfortable? If your spouse or partner is a firefighter from another department, does that department also have a residency requirement? It is not a good idea to start the job intending to violate such requirements, and many departments are not flexible about them, even in cases of two-firefighter marriages.

What do you want to do as a firefighter?

What fire department activities interest you most? If you hope to become a firefighter/paramedic, choose a department where this is an option. Some fire departments will give you hiring preference or extra pay if you're already a paramedic when you're hired. In others, becoming a paramedic is a promotion you must compete for and are only eligible after you have some time on the job.

If you have a particular interest in specialty teams -- hazardous materials response, technical rescue, SCUBA -- be sure to choose a department that has those teams. Some fire departments participate in Urban Search and Rescue teams that respond to major incidents all around the world. While positions on these teams are limited to a select, highly trained few, you should choose a participating department if being on such a team is your goal.

If you want to be a firefighter only for a few years and then become a fire inspector or fire marshal, don't choose a department that has a civilian fire inspection bureau. Make sure the departments you apply for have these positions as promotions or in some other way part of a career ladder that begins in suppression.

The U.S. Forest Service and several western states employ firefighters who specialize in wildland (forest fires) firefighting. Some urban fire departments, particularly in California, do both structural and urban firefighting. If this is of particular interest to you, you should focus on these agencies and areas. See our article on being hired as a wildland firefighter for more information.

[The link is to the article on becoming a wildland firefighter, below]

The answers to the above questions should narrow down your options. Once you have a short list, you can start investigating the details of specific departments more closely. It may also simply be that you don't really care where you work: you're unemployed or working at a job you hate, and you just want to get on a fire department and get started. In that case, you're probably already scanning the Sunday classifieds and putting in job applications every time you find an announcement for firefighter hiring. But even if you don't think you care, you may care. If you have even two fire departments to choose from, you'll want to make the right choice.

Is this fire department a good place to work?

Go to the fire stations and talk with the firefighters and officers there. (This will work best if you know someone on the department or can get a mutual friend to introduce you). How do they feel about their work? Do they seem to have respect for each other and for the department's management? Take a look at the station and the fire equipment. Is it clean, in good repair and well taken care of? Or is it run-down and shabby through neglect or lack of funds?

What is the department's track record with respect to hiring women firefighters? The environment can be very different in a department where women have worked successfully for many years and earned the respect of their co-workers, compared to one that has yet to hire its first women. The first woman in any fire department will often encounter obstacles that are not found, or are much smaller, in fire departments that already employ women: someone else has already blazed the trail and smoothed out some of the rough spots. If you aren't sure you're cut out for the dual role of pioneer and firefighter, you may wish to concentrate on fire departments where women already work as firefighters and officers.

How do the department's personnel treat you? Do you feel comfortable talking with them as a prospective firefighter? Do they give you information about how to apply for the job, and about the testing process? Do the women on the job say good things about the department? Be sure to visit more than one station, including at least one where a woman is working.

What about pay and benefits?

Naturally, you will want to find out how much firefighters on the department make. Also find out how long their work week is. Firefighters on different departments in the same county or area may have pay scales and working hours that differ by 20% or more. The competition will be greater for the jobs with higher pay and shorter hours, but the benefits are also greater. Don't just compare starting pay. How much do firefighters with one year on the job make? Two years? What is top firefighter pay, and how long does it take to get there? Are raises based strictly on longevity, or are they merit raises? When was the last contract negotiated, and are the pay scales expected to go up with the next contract?

Is there an annual fitness or performance standard that fire personnel must meet in order to keep their jobs or their suppression assignments? What does this consist of, and what happens to people who don't meet the standard? Do people on the job find the standard is relevant to the job's demands, or do they feel the annual test is stressful or unnecessary?

Are pay bonuses or incentives available? Do paramedics or engine drivers receive additional pay, and how are personnel selected for these spots? If you plan to continue your college education while you're working as a firefighter, what kind of tuition reimbursement or educational incentive pay is offered?

What kind of promotional opportunities are available? How often are promotions made, and what kind of testing is given? How many years as a firefighter are required for promotion? Is a college degree or other advanced education required or given preference?

Is the department unionized? Departments with firefighters' unions typically offer better pay and benefits than non-union departments, and the union is, or should be, an advocate for you if you have any problems on the job. What is the relationship between labor and management like: positive or hostile? Has the union been supportive of its women members?

Making your choice

If no one fire department stands out above the others, you are the only person who can decide which factors are most important to you. The answers to these questions should at least help you make an informed, positive decision about where you might like to work for the next 20 or 25 years.




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