Know the 3 firefighting employer types

There are distinct differences between municipal, federal and private firefighting jobs; understanding them will help you choose the best path

Editor’s Note:

Updated Jan. 4, 2016

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 these entities, there is often some mystery surrounding the different types of agencies and the jobs associated with them.

Here's an explanation of some of the basics regarding these three types of fire service employers.

Federal fire department
Employees of a federal fire department 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 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, 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 for federal wildland firefighter and federal structural firefighter. For these reasons the federal jobs tend to be stepping-stone opportunities for many.

Many individuals often seek employment in municipal departments as experienced or lateral applicants after working as a federal firefighter. However, there are many who make a career in the federal fire service and find great reward doing so.

These federal jobs 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 to 34 and by a toll free number. That toll free number will connect you with a recruitment office.

The federal jobs posted on 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. 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 am sometimes asked if the military is a good place to get fire training. 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.

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.

Municipal fire department
Municipal agencies are either cities, districts, counties or state agencies.

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 that employ full-time personnel during the day and rely on their volunteers in the evenings.

In the West, 48-hour shifts followed by 96 hours off gained popularity in recent years. This schedule replaces 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 Corp.
  • Private companies that have contracts to provide fire and rescue services overseas 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.

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.

It is common to 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. 

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