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8 fire service careers that don’t involve running into burning buildings

There are several opportunities to engage the skills of non-firefighting personnel or members who are past their front-line days


While most people who seek to join the fire service want to serve as a firefighter, there are countless individuals who, for any number of reasons, will never have the opportunity at this career path. Fortunately, there are several opportunities for these individuals who want to be a part of a fire department without having to run into the burning building.

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The fire service is a dynamic and diverse profession. It offers a wide array of opportunities throughout one’s career, not only through promotions but also the variety of services offered.

While most people who seek to join the fire service want to serve as a firefighter, there are countless individuals who, for any number of reasons, will never have the opportunity at this career path. Fortunately, there are several opportunities for these individuals who want to be a part of a fire department without having to run into the burning building. Further, such opportunities help organizations diversify their services by hiring individuals who are skilled in areas that don’t typically align with firefighters’ core skill sets.

One example includes the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department. The Friendship Fire Association is a group of volunteers who operate the canteen unit, which responds to major events to provide refreshments to personnel for extended operations. Additionally, some of the individuals operate and curate at the DCFD museum above 3 Engine. Like most other large metropolitan departments, they have a variety of sworn and civilian personnel who serve in several positions we will discuss.

But these positions should not just be limited to large departments. Smaller departments should also consider looking for subject-matter experts in all areas to better serve their communities. In many cases, people are looking to use their talents and skills in a variety of capacities, even if that means working for a nominal wage or as a volunteer. The challenge for fire chiefs is to be creative in identifying and recruiting these individuals.

For example, at a former department, we had an individual who wanted to rejoin the organization as a part-time member but did not want to be a line firefighter anymore. He possessed great photography, videography and graphic design skills in his full-time job. So, we brought him on to help with marketing. He created department-branded graphics, photos and videos that promoted our organization at a level that helped make our agency stand out in our community and abroad.

With that, let us explore eight opportunities for non-firefighting positions within the department.

1. Explorers

Every fire chief should identify potential resources and opportunities in their community. If a high school, technical school or college is within reach, see what programs are offered. Explorer programs are a great opportunity to develop, recruit and hire those who want to serve the fire service. Further, many students with skills in social media, graphic design, or photography and videography are looking for projects or volunteer opportunities to complete assignments. This is an opportunity to partner with schools, accomplish a project, and have minimal impact on budgetary resources.

2. Fire photographers/videographers

Fire scene photography/videography is essential during investigations, specifically as evidence related to incidents that may result in litigation. Further, capturing professional images and live action is useful for marketing efforts. Maintaining an inventory that can be used for publications, social media, websites, after-action reports, training PowerPoints and other reports only enhances the department’s professionalism, image and reputation.

There are multiple associations of fire department photographers that you can reach out to locate individuals who may possess the skills and knowledge to assist.

3. Fire investigators

Some line firefighters are interested in going beyond operations by pursuing fire investigations. Having worked fire scene salvage and overhaul, firefighters understand the importance of scene and evidence preservation. That creates curiosity and an interest in which they pursue training and certifications. However, many will retire and move into the private sector, or join a larger organization that hires civilian investigators once their physical abilities are no longer feasible for firefighting.

This option is great for members who are not interested or no longer able to serve in operations but still want to be involved in the department. It’s important to note, however, that because of the requirement of legal coverage, certification standards and continuing education, there is a cost associated that can be restrictive. It will be challenging to find individuals who may just want to volunteer their time. In many cases, departments will defer to their local police or state investigators. Nonetheless, it is a special service position that departments need to prepare for.

Most states have investigator associations, but two of the most common are the International Association of Arson Investigators and the National Association of Fire Investigators. They have large memberships, training opportunities, and resources that departments can access.

4. Fire inspectors

At some point in their career, most firefighters conduct company inspections or draft preplans, but few aspire to leave operations to become a fire inspector or serve in the fire marshal’s division. For some, it may be a “light-duty” assignment, and as quickly as they come, they leave. Like that of fire investigations, serving as an inspection can be a great opportunity to extend a member’s career until they are ready to retire.

Like investigators, inspectors also require training and certifications, especially when it comes to plan review. While maybe not as financially challenging as an investigator, it may present a hurdle if looking for someone to volunteer.

Most states have a fire inspector association that departments can reach to access training and resources.

5. Public education/CRR specialist

Most firefighters will give a station tour or fire/injury prevention presentation at some point in their career. However, it is not a position that most firefighters strive to hold or would willingly leave operations for a full-time fire and life safety educator. While it is always a responsibility of every firefighter to be proficient in recognizing code violations or having educational/teachable moments, like everything, there are specific skills and traits that one should possess to be effective in this position. Let’s face it, not everyone desires to be a public speaker.

Bottom line: Public education and community risk reduction is a crucial position in every department. In many larger organizations, educators have a background in education. If departments do not have a designated individual, this is an opportunity to partner with the school system to recruit an active or retired educator to assist in program design and delivery. Regardless of who steps into the position, training and certification should be provided.

There are many state associations for public fire and life safety educators, plus several national conferences. However, for educators, inspectors and investigators alike, the NFPA always serves as an excellent resource for those involved in community risk reduction.

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6. Public information officer (PIO)

Every department will inevitably have a media experience involving an emergency incident. However, the best departments are proactive in their media efforts and work to market the organization long before an incident ever occurs. Having an individual who is skilled in public speaking, relationship development, and accessibility is critical. In many cases, the fire chief will be the primary spokesperson for the department but having someone to coordinate media or marketing efforts is extremely useful.

As is the case in many large departments, individuals in the PIO role may have a background in media and/or journalism. They are accustomed to being on camera, familiar with laws related to information dissemination, and understand how to communicate effectively. However, these positions can also be combined with public educators who have public speaking experience and understand message delivery.

The National Information Officers Association offers many resources, conferences and training opportunities that can assist departments in the development of the public information program.

7. Safety officers

Everyone on a fireground should be a safety officer. However, many departments have a designated safety officer that responds to larger events and serves in the incident command system. Often, it may be a dual role of the training officer(s), but it may also be an individual whose sole focus is health and safety. This also serves as an opportunity for those looking to move off the firefighting front line but remain connected to operations.

While many states do not offer specific safety officer training and/or certification, the Fire Department Safety Officers Association (FDSOA) is a fantastic national resource, offering training, certifications, resources and conferences.

8. Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member

Having a CERT is an excellent way to engage the community to be a part of an organization. Whether it be an emergency/disaster or a special event that needs volunteers to, a CERT is a valuable resource for any department. The key to success is to communicate, train, involve volunteers and value their time. Plan on having an individual designated to lead the CERT team to keep them informed and motivated.

Get creative

There are many other positions – mechanics/fleet services, administrative support, trainers, nutritionists and more – that create the opportunity to be involved in the fire and emergency services. Getting creative with staffing will only make the organization more valuable to the community and the members. Take the time to identify your core mission and values, and seek every opportunity to connect stakeholders and resources to be the best.

Be safe!

Editor’s note: What other careers are great for individuals interested in the fire service but unable or not interested in serving in operational positions? Share your thoughts in the form and we may add it to the article.

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Billy D. Hayes retired as fire chief for the City of Onalaska, Wisconsin, in 2020. He previously served as the fire marshal for the University of South Alabama, vice president of university relations for Columbia Southern University, the director of community affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the fire chief and emergency management coordinator for the City of Riverdale, Georgia. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the NFA’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a certificate in local government management from the University of Georgia. Hayes is a past president of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and past chairman of the board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. He authored the Public Fire and Life Safety Education chapter of “The Fire Chief’s Handbook” (7th Edition). Hayes is a member of the Fire Chief/FireRescue1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with Hayes on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.