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Guide to How to Become a Firefighter
Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.Full Bio
Firefighters provide an incredibly valuable service to our communities. Not only do they fight fires, they also respond to medical emergencies, perform search and rescue efforts, and help with traffic incidents. Breaking into the firefighting field is highly competitive, but it’s entirely possible with enough hard work, passion, and determination. Keep reading to learn how to become a firefighter.
Related: Top firefighter scholarships
1. Meet the basic requirements
The first step to becoming a firefighter is making sure you meet the minimum qualifications. Basic requirements vary between fire departments, but the following are pretty standard:
- Be at least 18 years old
- Possess a high school diploma (or GED equivalent)
- Possess a valid driver’s license
2. Consider starting at the volunteer level
Becoming a volunteer firefighter is an excellent way to get your foot in the door of this competitive field. Volunteers perform many of the same duties as career firefighters, including responding to fire outbreaks and performing search and rescues. Not only do volunteers learn about what it’s like to be a firefighter, they also build valuable professional contacts.
If you’re interested in pursuing this route, contact your local fire department about current or future volunteer openings. From there, you can apply for a position and go through the screening process. While volunteering isn’t the only way to become a paid firefighter, it’s a great place to start. You may even be able to bypass the educational requirements we’ll discuss in the next section.
3. Get the proper education
Employment requirements for firefighters vary from state to state. While a high school diploma or GED is technically the minimum qualification, most employers expect some form of additional education and training. Fortunately, there’s several paths you can take to launch your career as a firefighter. Here’s the most common routes:
Certificate in fire science
A certificate in fire science provides students with the basic knowledge and training required to pursue entry-level work as firefighters. Getting a certificate is a great option for anyone looking to quickly launch their career. Because they don’t require any general education courses unrelated to fire science, certificate programs can usually be completed in a few months to a year.
Fire science certificates are available in several fields such as firefighting, fire investigating, airport firefighting, apparatus driving, wildland firefighting, and more. Certificate programs are available at both trade schools and community colleges throughout the U.S. Online programs may be available in some cases.
Associate degree in fire science
Like the fire science certificate, an associate degree in fire science is great for anyone seeking entry-level work. However, they’re more beneficial for anyone with aspirations of advancing their career down the line. With an associate degree, you typically have a better shot at finding entry-level work and moving up the ranks once you’re employed. An associate degree can be a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree, which we’ll discuss in the next section.
Similar to certificate programs, an associate degree provides students with strong foundational knowledge in the field. The key difference is that associate degree programs take longer to complete (two years of full-time study). They include general education coursework in the liberal arts and sciences. Programs are available at community colleges both in-person and online.
Bachelor’s degree in fire science
A bachelor’s degree in fire science is typically sought by working firefighters looking to advance their careers into management or supervisory positions. Bachelor’s degree programs usually require four years of full-time study, although they can be completed in two years if you’ve already earned your associate degree. Part-time programs with longer completion times are also available for working professionals. After getting your bachelor’s, you can even go on to earn a master’s degree in fire science if you’re seeking top-tier supervisory work.
4. Obtain EMT certification
Regardless of what level of education you pursue, you’ll need to obtain your Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification at some point along the way. Along with putting out fires, firefighters must also act as first responders to accident scenes and other emergency situations. That’s why nearly all fire departments require employees to become certified EMTs. This typically occurs either during the candidacy process or immediately after hiring. However, getting your EMT certification ahead of the application process can give you a big edge over your competition. EMT training can be obtained at trade schools, community colleges, and organizations like the American Red Cross.
5. Apply for work
Now that you’ve obtained the proper education and training, it’s time to apply for work. The hiring process is rigorous and typically includes a physical ability test, written exam, interview, background investigation, drug screening, and sometimes a psychological evaluation. Let’s cover the main components:
The most common physical test is the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT). Participants in the CPAT must complete eight events in the span of about 10 minutes, each event simulating a physical function firefighters experience on the job. Events include the stair climb, hose drag, equipment carry, ladder raise and extension, forcible entry, search, rescue drag, and ceiling breach and pull.
Another important step in the application process is the written exam, which determines your rank on the hiring list. The higher you score, the better chance you’ll have of getting an interview. The exam is a test of general knowledge, covering topics such as math, reading comprehension, and problem solving.
If you make it to this stage, you can expect to be interviewed by a panel of 3-7 current officers. Interviews last anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes. Prepare to answer questions about your career goals and why you want to be a firefighter. Candidates that make it past this initial interview must conduct a final interview with the fire department chief. This interview allows the chief to get to know you on a personal level, and is typically more relaxed than the first one.
6. Go through firefighter training
Once hired, you’ll need to complete your department’s firefighter training program. The specifics of your training will depend on your department. Small town and rural fire departments usually operate their own weekend and evening training sessions, while bigger departments rely on formal fire academy programs. Training typically lasts anywhere from a few weeks to several months, covering important topics such as department organization, equipment use, and fire control and suppression methods.
7. Start serving your community
Once you’ve made it to this point, you can start serving your community. Although the road to becoming a firefighter is a long one, it’s entirely worth it for anyone passionate about public service.
Finances for a firefighting education
There are a myriad of resources out there to help pay for your firefighting education. For undergraduate programs, you can use the Pell Grant to get need-based aid per semester. Additionally, as a public service worker, you can qualify for public service loan forgiveness. This doesn’t help you pay your way through the program, but forgives any remaining federal loans after ten years of paying them back.
You can also consult our scholarship lists for additional funding assistance. Our scholarship search tool will provide custom-matched, vetted scholarships based on your demographics, income, and interests. You can also check out our scholarships for high school seniors and scholarships for middle school students, if you are getting started on your career planning early. Good luck!