Differences Between Federal, Municipal and Private Fire Employers

I am often asked about the differences between and pros and cons of working for municipal, federal and private fire departments. For those unfamiliar with any one of these entities, there is often some mystery surrounding the different types of agencies and the jobs associated with them. I thought it might be helpful to shed some light on this and explain some of the basics regarding these three types of fire service employers.

The Federal Fire Department
As an employee of a federal fire department you are employed by a federal agency. This can be as a structural firefighter, wildland firefighter or both depending on the entity and service area. Such entities include the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, a Veterans Affairs facility, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife or any number of other federally operated departments that employ fire service personnel. It may also fall under one of the branches of the U.S. military who often employ civilian fire personnel at various federally owned and operated bases or other military sites.

Federal jobs are salaried under the GS (Government Salary) system. This means that there is more consistency within the same position and rank than you will find with municipal or private departments, but some allowances are made in areas where the cost of living is very high. Generally speaking, in areas where the cost of living is low, federal firefighters sometimes make more than their municipal brothers and sisters. However, in areas where the cost of living is higher they often find themselves a little lower in comparison—sometimes much lower.

Federal firefighters usually work a 72-hour work week, compared to a 42 to 56-hour work week for municipal firefighters. This is true whether you are a federal wildland firefighter or federal structural firefighter. For these reasons the federal jobs tend to be stepping stone opportunities for many. Many individuals often seek out employment opportunities in municipal departments as experienced or lateral applicants after obtaining employment as a federal firefighter. However, there are many who make a career in the federal fire service and find great reward doing so.

The federal jobs I am speaking of are all civilian positions and do not require enlistment. Do not be fooled by the hundreds of newspaper ads promising firefighter jobs and training with no experience necessary. This is a ploy that the military uses to attract enlistees, because they know how popular and desirable firefighter positions are. These ads can be quickly identified by the age requirement of 17-34 and by a toll free number. That toll free number will connect you with a recruitment office.

The federal jobs posted on FireRecruit.com are all civilian jobs that are open to the general public, meaning you do not need to enlist or be a current federal employee to apply. We filter through them for you and only post civilian jobs that are open to the public. The agency is often listed as the Department of Army, Department of Navy, Coast Guard, etc., but enlistment is never required for any job you will find on this site. I have had many members tell me that they never look at the jobs posted with the word Army, or other military branch as the hiring agency, because they were under the impression that employment required enlistment. It does not and there is no military commitment whatsoever for these civilian firefighting positions.
I am also sometimes asked if the military is a good place to get fire training. Personally, I feel that there are better options out there for most people than enlisting as an avenue into the fire service, but this is a personal choice and many people have found both success and reward in doing so. I feel that given the commitment asked of enlistees, if that same amount of time and energy could be spent working towards a fire science degree, volunteer work or a paramedic license then that is a better path to take. There are many great benefits to enlisting and serving your country, including money towards education, but if the fire service is your goal, weigh all of your options and understand all of your choices before enlisting for this reason and with that goal in mind.

The Municipal Fire Department
Municipal agencies are either: cities, districts, counties, and, for the purposes of this article, state agencies as well.

The salaries will vary greatly throughout the nation and even within smaller geographic areas due to cost of living differences and differences with each jurisdiction's own economic resources.

Most municipal firefighters work a 56 hour work week, rotating 24 or 48 hour shifts. There are some work schedules that are less, such as 42 hours per week and some departments work 8 to 12-hour shifts rather than 24-hour shifts.

There are many "combination" departments in the East Coast that employ full-time personnel during the day and rely on their volunteers in the evenings.

Work schedules for municipal departments can vary greatly, but the most common schedule in the country is a 56-hour work week, working 10 to 24 shifts per month in various cycles. The most common cycle is 24 hours on 48 hours off.

In the West a new trend of 48-hour shifts followed by 96 hours off is rapidly gaining popularity. This schedule is starting to replace the other common West Coast schedule of 24 hours on, 24 off, 24 on, 24 off, 24 on followed by 96 hours off. Both schedules equate to a 56-hour work week.

Municipalities vary greatly in their size, from departments with only one paid person, to departments with thousands of career firefighters. Working conditions also vary greatly amongst departments. All these differences make it virtually impossible to make generalizations about working for a municipal agency.

Municipal departments tend to be the most sought-after jobs due to the job security, work schedule, pay and benefits. However, each municipal department will offer its own unique compensation and benefits package, with a wide range of variance from department to department.

The Private Fire Department
Private agencies and companies can employ firefighters as well. They come in three basic types.

  • Companies that have the need for on-site or "industrial" firefighters, such as Chevron oil refineries, cruise lines, or companies like George Lucas' "Skywalker Ranch"
  • Private companies that contract with cities or other jurisdictions for fire suppression service, such as Rural Metro Corporation
  • Private companies that have contracts to provide Fire/Rescue services during times of need, or government contracts in other regions such as Guam, Atoll Islands, Kuwait, Iraq and even Antarctica. Contract positions can be full-time, or on-call. Many government contract positions often have the benefit of a tax-free salary and paid housing, but may relocate you to a less then desirable or very remote area for contracted time periods, usually one year.

In general, one of the drawbacks to working for a private fire department is less job security and often atypical firefighter work conditions. Often due to the very specific nature of the private fire department or its service area the job duties tend to be more highly specialized and more narrowly focused than municipal departments, which are very often "Jacks of many trades."

Work schedules will vary for private fire departments as well and, just as with municipal departments, the pay and benefits packages will differ greatly within the various private departments.

You will often see newspaper ads seeking firefighters for companies such as "Wackenhut," who have contractual "firefighting" positions throughout the country and abroad. Many of these jobs are not true fire service positions. They use the word firefighter in the job title to make it sound more appealing.

Often they are security officer positions with little to no firefighting duties other than having access to the fire alarm panel and an extinguisher. By calling the position "Security Guard/Firefighter," these companies may be simply trying to attract more candidates.

Always read the job description carefully and inquire about the firefighting capabilities of the site where you will be working. FireRecruit.com does not post such jobs. We do our best to only post true fire service positions. We do not like to clutter our site with non-fire service jobs in disguise.

If you have any questions regarding this article, or any related topic, always feel free to contact me directly via e-mail at cfs@firerecruit.com.

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