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What does a firefighter actually do?

There are more than 40 different professions a firefighter is expected to perform outside of running calls


Many firefighters possess a background in labor and hard work or a specific trade-type skill.

Photo/Chad Costa

Before you make the commitment to put countless hours of preparation, energy, money and effort into becoming a firefighter, realize what you are getting yourself into. Whether you are just getting started or far along in the process, you may still have a few things to learn about the career you are pursuing.

What a firefighter does in one fire department may slightly, or drastically, differ from what a firefighter does in another fire department, whether nearby or across the country.

And if you watch TV shows that depict firefighters, it is common to see crews sitting around the kitchen table, joking and having fun, and maybe even watching TV or sleeping during the daytime.

Rarely do you see firefighters portrayed as doing busy work or productive work, such as actual preplanning exercises – and that does not mean going shopping; it means actually walking through existing occupancies or buildings under construction to learn how they are constructed and analyze how they would mitigate an emergency.

Rarely do you see TV firefighters performing company fire prevention inspections, engaging in fire/rescue training, doing physical fitness training or even just maintaining their fire station, apparatus, tools and equipment.

It would open a lot of people’s eyes, including the eyes of future firefighters, if they realized that firefighters do far more things than just run calls and sit around the kitchen table waiting for the next run. It would certainly prevent the shock of new firefighters who have to run medical calls or handle public education details or company inspections, or whatever it might be that they didn’t expect.

We have all heard some form of complaint (after someone got off probation, of course) where a firefighter is not fond of doing a certain task, or even worse, pleads ignorant or states, “I didn’t sign up to do [fill in the blank],” or “That is not in my job description.”

Before any future firefighter determines this is the career for them, they must realize that they may be called upon on any given shift to do a number of different things, and even possess the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to accomplish the following things at some point during their fire department career.

The department will formally teach you how to accomplish some of these things. However, for many of these things, you will be expected to know from life experience or learn on the job from other firefighters.

what are the Requirements to be a firefighter ... and the job types?

Someone once said that a firefighter needs to know about 42 different trades and careers to be a good firefighter. At first, that sounds unrealistic. But when you think about it, it is highly possible a firefighter can be called upon at a moment’s notice to do any of the following trades, professions, jobs or careers as part of their daily routine on duty.

Here are those 42 skills a firefighter might be called upon to perform:

  1. Plumber
  2. Electrician
  3. Carpenter
  4. Social worker
  5. Psychologist
  6. Auto detailer
  7. Auto repair person
  8. Maid
  9. Mechanic
  10. Teacher
  11. Chef/cook
  12. Administrative assistant (secretary)
  13. Dishwasher
  14. Janitor/custodian
  15. Landscaper
  16. Painter
  17. Police Officer
  18. Service station attendant
  19. Accountant
  20. Financial advisor
  21. Truck driver
  22. Facilities manager
  23. Food server
  24. Waiter/waitress
  25. Recreational coordinator
  26. Career planner/advisor
  27. Maintenance person (handyman)
  28. Dietician
  29. Appliance repairperson
  30. Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning repairperson
  31. Tow truck driver
  32. Customer service representative
  33. Public educator
  34. Public information provider
  35. Computer technician
  36. TV repair person
  37. Fire prevention inspector
  38. Fire investigator
  39. Medical professional (first responder, EMT, paramedic)
  40. Hazardous materials first responder
  41. Rescue technician (basic or advanced)
  42. Firefighter (oh, yes, on occasion, we are still asked to put out fires!)

Feel free to add your own to the list to educate others about what a firefighter really does. Take a deep look at what a firefighter does from the time they arrive at the firehouse to the time they leave the firehouse.

Whether or not they respond to a single call, they may still do many of the above items while on duty at the firehouse. Talk to most senior firefighters; they can provide examples of having to do a good majority (If not more) of those above-mentioned items at some point in their career, obviously some more than others.

Firefighters: Jacks of all trades

Some people forget that we are the folks people call when they cannot figure out what to do, or more commonly, cannot afford to call a repair person, especially at 3 a.m. on a holiday.

While they may not want to pay triple time for a plumber to come to their house to stop the water flowing from a burst pipe, they have no problem calling 911, knowing we will come and at least stop the problem, and with some thinking, we may solve the problem. If nothing else, we will probably stop the immediate problem, and then direct them to who they need to contact to fully solve the problem.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, we don’t just save lives and property anymore; we are truly jacks of all trades. And we must be masters at our profession and the core expectations of what we are here for: serving our community, protecting lives and property, and making a positive difference every day we are on duty.

If you do not embrace the challenges a firefighter faces every day (not the life-threatening or life-saving challenges, those are usually far and few), you will be frustrated and unhappy. Instead of getting angry with the folks who call 911 for our assistance, do your best to have patience, tolerance and, most of all, compassion for their current situation.

To you, it may be an unnecessary call; to them, it may be the emergency of a lifetime. More importantly, though, we need to educate our future firefighters and let them know we don’t just save lives and property; instead, we are here to help the people who pay our salaries, solve the problems they are faced with in a courteous and professional way, to ensure we leave them with the impression that they cannot live without us.

[Read next: Why did we stop hiring and promoting the ‘workers’ among us?]

This article was updated in June 2020.

Steve Prziborowski is a former deputy chief for the Santa Clara County (California) Fire Department, where he worked since 1995. Prziborowski is a state-certified chief officer and master instructor, has earned a master’s degree in emergency services administration, has completed the EFO Program at the National Fire Academy and has received Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer designation through the Commission on Professional Credentialing (CPC). He is the author of three books: “How To Excel At Fire Department Promotional Exams,” “Reach for the Firefighter Badge!” and “The Future Firefighter’s Preparation Guide: Be the Best Firefighter Candidate You Can Be!” Prziborowski was honored with the CPC Ronny Jack Coleman Leadership Legacy Award in 2020. Connect with Prziborowski on his websites, and, or on LinkedIn.