How to become a firefighter

Getting hired as a firefighter isn't easy, but you can improve your chances by taking specific actions

The position of full-time firefighter is one of the most desirable jobs out there. Competition is stiff, and hundreds of candidates apply for just a few open positions with local fire departments.

If you want to get hired as a firefighter, it’s going to take a lot of time and likely more than a few attempts, but there are specific steps you can take to greatly improve your chances of becoming a successful applicant.

1. Be a good citizen.

Firefighter candidates are run through strict background checks before they are hired by a fire department. It's in your best interest to keep your record as clean as possible throughout the hiring process.

Stay out of legal trouble, donate your time to worthy causes, and do what you can to get involved with your local fire service. You may volunteer for a local fire department, or if that opportunity isn’t available, see if your town has a Citizen’s Fire Academy to participate in.

You can begin looking at fire department openings around you. Some don’t require additional EMS or fire certifications, and only ask that you’re over a certain age (usually 18 or 21) and possess a valid driver’s license. While it’s not impossible to get hired by only meeting the minimum requirements, it’s not likely to happen at this stage.

Instead, it would make sense for you to start looking into some form of education such as an EMT certification or firefighter I certification. See if there’s a community college nearby that offers a fire science program and you can get both within a year.

Now would also be a good time to start working out. You don’t need to be an Olympic-caliber athlete, but doing some cardio, lifting weights, or taking a CrossFit class would be a good investment into your firefighting future. Find something you enjoy and get in shape.

2. Optional: military service.

Since the fire service is considered a paramilitary organization with a distinct chain of command, prospective hires with military experience are desirable candidates.

Military experience automatically bumps you up 5 points in the civil service exam (yes, for a max score of 105), and makes you a more valuable candidate in the interview stage.

If you served as a military medic, the recently-passed H.R. 1818 bill opens the doors for you to get your EMT-B on an accelerated track.

3. Get your EMT certification.

Why start with the EMT certification? Over 70 percent of today’s calls to the fire department are EMS-related, and only about 10 percent are for fighting actual fires. If you want to become a firefighter, you must get used to the idea of working on an ambulance. Working as an EMT, or even just getting the certification, will give you valuable experience as a medical care provider.

You can expect EMT training to take between two weeks to six months, depending on what kind of course you take.

You can also get your EMT certification if you pursue an associate’s degree in fire science. It’s built into the first semester’s course load. Finishing the two-year program will make you eligible to be promoted to fire officer if you don’t already have college credits under your belt.

4. Start applying to fire department openings

After you have the EMT-B, you become a much more viable candidate for the fire service. If you did well in the EMT program, you can ask your instructors if they’d be comfortable giving you a reference for the department.

Keep an eye out for firefighter job openings. Many departments only hire once or twice a year -- some less than that.

Stay ahead of openings, and don’t be afraid to apply for work outside of your normal commute. We’ve heard of firefighters who drove six or seven hours just to take the civil service exam and physical.

5. Further your firefighter education: get your paramedic or firefighter I certification

Earning a paramedic certification is one of the most valuable things you can do as a prospective firefighter. Many departments have started requiring a paramedic certification before you’re eligible for hire.

It’s a pretty long investment, ranging from at least six months to a year and a half, but will definitely give you an edge over hundreds of other candidates.

If you’d like to put off getting your paramedic, receiving training in fire science may also make you a valuable candidate. Going through a semester-long fire academy will get you a firefighter I (basic firefighter) certification.

Associate’s Degrees in Fire Science are offered at technical and community colleges across the country. No matter what profession you work in, additional schooling in a related field will almost always improve your chances of getting hired.

6. Keep applying to fire department openings

We told you when you started that getting onto a fire department wouldn’t be an easy task. Some people have applied for literally years before getting hired.

Stay out of trouble, keep abreast of any department openings, and keep working to make yourself a viable candidate for hire.

Want to get hired as a firefighter? Here’s what NOT to do.

As part of the hiring process, aspiring firefighters must undergo a rigorous background investigation to determine whether they’re the best candidate for the job.

Before their final hire, any serious candidate considered for hire may have to pass checks like:

  • Credit check
  • Work history
  • Interviews with personal references and co-workers
  • Criminal background check
  • Drug test
  • Polygraph examination
  • Interview with fire department leaders

Knowing this, it’s in your best interest to keep your nose clean, be a good citizen, and avoid anything that could harm your chances of getting hired. This means maintaining a clean driving record, a good relationship with your employers, and generally following the letter of the law.

No one is perfect, so there’s a chance that your record has one of these things on it. Depending on their regulations, a fire department may ask you to reapply in several years to put some distance between you and the decisions you’ve made.

You can apply to other departments in the meantime, but don’t lie about your past. It’s better to come clean about something you’re not proud of rather than have it found out later.

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