What are the firefighter ranks?
Understanding the difference between firefighter ranks
This article, originally published in December 2011, has been updated
The fire service was developed as a paramilitary organization, which means that its ranks and chain of command were taken from the military.
In order to get promoted, firefighters are required to serve a certain amount of time at each level of the department. They must also take written exams and interview with their superior officers before advancing to the next firefighter rank.
Here is an outline of the firefighter ranks in order:
- Probationary firefighter
- Driver engineer
- Battalion chief
- Assistant chief
- Fire chief
Organizational divisions in the fire department
A fire department is separated into several parts according to their function.
An engine or truck company consists of a major vehicle and its firefighting or EMS personnel. Companies are led by a lieutenant or captain.
A unit within the fire department may be dedicated to special tasks such as EMS or special rescue from dangerous environments. Personnel with these units receive additional training for their particular specialty.
A battalion is composed of several fire stations and the companies that are assigned to them.
Here’s a general outline of the rankings for metropolitan departments:
Probationary firefighters (“probies”) are fire recruits who have just been hired by the fire department as an “at will,” entry-level employee. They are the lowest-ranking members of the fire service.
As a probationary firefighter, candidates undergo training and evaluation for the first six to twelve months of their employment to make sure that their character and skills meet the high standards of the fire service.
Upon completion of the probationary period, probies are sworn in as full-time members of the department.
Any one member of the department can be called a “firefighter,” but it’s also a rank of its own.
Firefighters are responsible for the hands-on actions of fire suppression and search and rescue. There are usually one to two firefighters in each company.
The firefighter may drive the apparatus in the absence of the driver engineer.
Firefighter salaries change depending on where you work, but start from about $30,000 to $50,000 for many moderate-to-large metropolitan areas.
Irving (Texas) Fire Department firefighters start at $54,744 per year and receive pay raises at regular intervals. A firefighter may finish their career making a salary of $83,136 per year without a promotion. This is comparable to other departments in the Dallas/Ft-Worth area.
The driver engineer is responsible for driving the apparatus.
They are also responsible for maintaining and operating the fire pump and aerial ladder.
This is a very technical position that comes with a lot of responsibility. A driver engineer must make frequent checks on the vehicle to make sure it remains in working order. All equipment must be cleaned and maintained after every call, and at the very least reviewed each morning before the shift.
The driver engineer is expected to be the fire company’s resident expert on the fire apparatus, and must know the vehicle forward and backward. This is especially important at the scene of an emergency, when a driver engineer may be required to address a problem with the pump or other crucial piece of equipment.
In the absence of the lieutenant, the driver engineer may work as “acting lieutenant.” This is the first time in a firefighter’s career where they will step up to an officer’s position, so driver engineers must possess some management and leadership qualities.
The driver engineer may also be known as “chauffeur”, “apparatus operator (AO),” “fire equipment operator” (FEO) and other terms.
Since the position requires a lot of responsibility, firefighters receive a huge pay bump when they advance to driver engineer. In the city of Irving, Texas, firefighters start out making $54,744 per year, but receive a salary of $85,860 when promoted to equipment operator.
The lieutenant is responsible for the emergency response of a specific company, including the management of resources and personnel.
When they’re not at the scene of an emergency, a lieutenant may be responsible for supervising daily operations at a fire company and spearheading firefighter training. Firefighter training may include learning new EMS skills, or even how to create maps of local buildings and landmarks to use in the event of a fire.
Because of their important role in directing firefighters, lieutenants must possess knowledge of scene operations and try to be more educated than their subordinates.
In the absence of the captain, the lieutenant may assume the role of “acting captain.”
FDNY starts its lieutenant salaries at $94,300 per year, with a possibility of making up to $125,848 when considering overtime and holiday pay.
The captain is usually the highest-ranking officer at the scene of an emergency and will direct operations as needed. The captain may also speak on behalf of the company to the media or public.
At the station, the captain oversees the day-to-day operations and training of the fire company. They receive reports from any lieutenants working at the station, and must make administrative decisions for the good of the team. Because of their increased responsibilities, fire captains must possess an exceptional level of management ability.
A captain may also be in charge of a special function such as training or EMS. They might also speak for their company to the media or public.
The base salary of a fire captain in the FDNY is listed at $130,437.
After promoting to captain, firefighters may be selected for a fire chief position.
Fire chiefs are the highest ranking officers in the fire service, and usually assume command at the scene of an emergency. They may arrive to the scene in separate vehicles, commonly a kind of marked SUV, which can serve as a mobile incident command post.
The battalion chief is usually the highest-ranking officer on duty. They are also tasked with creating work schedules and managing personnel for the fire stations under their command.
Before each shift ends and the next one starts, the battalion chief must make sure that there are enough people on duty. The BCs are responsible for scheduling each role in the fire department, including managing vacation time and sick days for dozens of firefighters.
Vacations and specific assignments for specialized personnel must be factored into the scheduling. This means that sometimes, firefighters may be moved between stations and creatively staffed.
There are usually about three rotating chiefs per department to make sure that the position can be staffed 24 hours a day.
A battalion chief for Seattle’s King County Fire Department starts at $134,376.
Assistant fire chiefs manage and control the activities of personnel assigned to the operations division. The operations division is responsible for fire suppression and disaster relief. Depending on the department, operations may also include EMS.
Assistant chiefs are also responsible for creating programs to maintain and improve the fire service. They assist the fire chief by preparing budgets and planning the expansion of the fire service.
The highest-paid assistant fire chief in San Francisco made $321,073 in 2019.
The fire chief is the highest-ranking officer in the fire department.
He or she is directly responsible for the efficient operation of the fire department and has control of all of its personnel and activities.
The fire chief has a say in various department functions such as:
- Fire safety education
- Fire protection
- Disaster preparedness
- Department administration
The fire chief may also provide technical assistance to the city manager or mayor, and represents the interests of the fire service when it comes to planning fire coverage.
While all firefighters start as probies, they have the opportunity to work their way up the ranks to fire chief.
As firefighters advance their careers, they likely to assume more responsibility in managerial or administrative roles. It becomes their duty to train and assist the next generation of hands-on firefighters, and to promote the interests of the fire service in their area of coverage.