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Firefighter training and certifications: Understanding the many levels

A snapshot of the national, state and local requirements needed to advance in the fire service


Photo/El Paso Fire Department

Much has changed for firefighters since the first brigades took to the streets in ancient Rome. Today, modern fire departments are staffed by well-trained and qualified fire professionals. This level of professionalism, however, requires that members complete many educational benchmarks to be certified to minimum standards. On top of that, there are the testing elements of accreditation and, finally, promotion.

While the process of training and advancement may seem complicated and convoluted, the reasons for it are straightforward: to meet the fire service’s mission to protect life, property and the environment, all the while protecting the fire department against legal liability. We are ultimately responsible to the public through detailed, measurable and task-appropriate training programs.


It is your task as an aspiring firefighter to determine the level of competency you want to achieve relative to career and personal expectations.

Photo/El Paso Fire Department

For fire service newcomers or even existing members unsure of their next step, let’s navigate the various types of training requirements for a career in the fire service:

Regulations and requirements

But first, where did this all begin? After the historic and tragic conflagrations in New York (1835), Chicago (1871) and San Francisco (1906), the U.S. government and the greater public recognized the need to protect both our communities and the fire departments that serve them. Codes, regulations and standards filtered down from the federal government to state governments and finally to town, city and district fire departments. Training and documentation have since become critical components to keep up with the increasing demands of these local, state and federal requirements, while at the same time ensuring that equipment is used effectively, firefighters remain safe, and proven fire suppression tactics and strategy lessons are employed.

Firefighter requirements are defined as the requisite knowledge and skill for a firefighter to do their job efficiently, correctly and with minimal risk. As such, Job Performance Requirements (JPRs), Medical Qualifications and Training Certificates move a firefighter from basic fireground operations to positions of advanced leadership and commanding conflagration-level emergencies.

The framework for these programs involves procedures for completing tasks and tactics, as well as evaluating strategies. The bulk of these procedures are contained in the programs associated with the NFPA and IFSTA.


By the end of the 19th century, increased power demands and new technologies required updated manufacturing standards and safety codes. The NFPA was formed during the early 1900s to regulate sprinkler use and protect against electrical hazards. It has since grown to include programs related to firefighter training, public education and fire science and materials research, as well as various outreach programs, including Fire Prevention Week and Learn Not to Burn.

NFPA’s overall mission as it applies to firefighters is to “minimize the risk and effects of fire by establishing criteria for building, processing, design, service and installation around the world.”

The specific NFPA codes and standards dealing with firefighter qualifications were formed in 1972. The first edition addressed firefighters, fire officers, fire instructors, fire inspectors and fire investigators.

All told, the NFPA revises and publishes over 300 codes and standards based on scientific research and accepted only by consensus. Its organizational power lies not in its enforcement, but in national and international agreement. Agencies such as the American Insurance Association, Underwriters Laboratories and numerous state and local fire underwriters, as well as the International Association of Fire Chiefs and IFSTA, support the work of the NFPA.

NFPA 1001: Standard for Fire Fighter Professional Qualifications identifies the minimum Job Performance Requirements (JPRs) for career and volunteer firefighters whose duties are primarily structural in nature. This standard for the job of firefighter is divided into two classifications: Fire Fighter I and Fire Fighter II. Each area of the job has its own section, and each section serves to define the knowledge and skills needed to be a qualified firefighter.

While well-defined and universally accepted, it is clear in NFPA 1001 that these are minimum standards and can be superseded by a higher level of local and state requirements. This charge gives states and local fire departments the freedom to design their own training appropriate to their region, while maintaining a standard recognized by the NFPA and taught by IFSTA.

Of particular importance, aside from the actual training requirements, are the definitions used throughout firefighter training. Described at the beginning of NFPA 1001, these definitions are used throughout many of the other JPR standards and trainings appropriate to firefighters.


If the NFPA defines what is needed to be a firefighter in its codes and standards, then IFSTA describes how that will be accomplished. Established in 1934 to aid firefighters in their training and progression through the fire service, IFSTA was formed as a “nonprofit educational association of firefighting personnel who are dedicated to upgrading firefighting techniques and safety through training.”

IFSTA Publishes the “Essentials of Fire Fighting” and an accompanying Skills Book, through which it has developed a modular system of training allowing for each firefighting function to be covered and evaluated in detail. These JPRs are the testing frameworks that allow firefighters to demonstrate and document exactly what is defined by, for example, “throwing a ladder” or “donning an SCBA.” Accomplish the task correctly, safely and promptly to achieve each JPR. Together the JPRs define a successful candidate for firefighter at all levels. A set of JPR modules for Fire Officer I can take up to 13 months for skill demonstration and written testing.

State standards

IFSTA is the main reference source for states to comply with NFPA’s minimum standards and beyond. Through IFSTA’s template and the appropriate documentation, states are provided with a uniform system of training and evaluation capable of being molded to their individual needs.

States then provide their system of training and evaluation appropriate to their challenges, whether coming out of a state’s Department of Fire Safety or the Fire Marshal’s Office. By creating individual modules suitable to their region, states increase focus on certain aspects of firefighter training without sacrificing the minimum standards as required. Imagine the state of Hawaii emphasizing ice rescues, or the upper Midwest states not focusing on lake or swift water rescue. While federal minimum requirements must be fulfilled for each module, more time and resources can be spent on training specific to a regional situation.

The formalization of training criteria from the federal to state level allows local fire departments and individual firefighters to increase their education and skills development while protecting themselves and the public with recognized certifications. These certifications are not determined by the number of different modules or specific testing procedures, but rather by the organizational policies of the authority having jurisdiction.

Local standard operating procedures/guidelines

States allow their training requirements to fit into modular systems appropriate to individual fire departments. These local fire department trainings follow a set of standard operating procedures or guidelines (SOPs/SOGs) to document what is expected by their personnel and equipment during any operation-emergency, administrative or otherwise.

SOPs in turn determine the training modules specific to their fire departments requirements. It is the responsibility of each member of the department and their training division, crew or shift officer to learn the necessary measurable skills, test written qualifications and then recognize successful completion of each skill, regardless of a department’s size or location.

All fire department trainings in line with state requirements and meeting or exceeding federal minimum standards are recognized as officially valid and suitable for qualifying as Firefighter I and II certification, as well as all other JPRs defined by NFPA standards and as taught by IFSTA. The same criteria are used for officership, administrative services and specific specializations such as heavy rescue, hazmat and PIO.

It is your task as an aspiring firefighter to determine the level of competency you want to achieve relative to career and personal expectations.


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Jim Spell spent 33 years as a professional firefighter with Vail (Colorado) Fire & Emergency Services, the last 20 years as a captain. He helped create the first student/resident fire science program west of the continental divide, formed the first countywide hazmat response unit and was on the original Colorado Governor’s Safety Committee. As founder of HAZPRO Consulting, LLC, Spell advised businesses on subjects ranging from hazard analysis and safety response to personnel development and organization. His writing won six IAFF Media Awards. Many of Spell’s articles are available by podcast at His last book was titled “Boot Basics: A Firefighter’s Guide to the Service.” Spell passed away in April 2024 after a short battle with cancer. His last four articles detailed his cancer journey.