The Fire Protection Occupational Field

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If you ask the average person to describe what a firefighter does, he or she will probably describe the job of the municipal firefighter. A common image for the fire service is that of a fire truck with a red light flashing, siren wailing, as it rolls down the street. That is the public perception of fire protection. Television enhanced that image a few years ago with its very popular program, Emergency. But the fire service is much more complex than that.

The fire service is an occupation that is rich in heritage and tradition, but it is also complex and sophisticated. In this chapter, we will explore both traditional and non-traditional jobs in fire service. We will look at a wide range of careers that may or may not ever involve the task of physically fighting fire. The fire service has career opportunities for men and women, for the physically fit and the handicapped, for those of normal intelligence and the engineering genius. The only prerequisite is a desire to serve humankind by dedicating one's life to the protection of life and property. There are hundreds of different ways in which that can be accomplished.

The jobs we will discuss in this chapter are typical of the different opportunities that exist within the framework of the four basic fire service career paths: fire suppression, fire prevention, fire engineering, and fire insurance. An added element will be the discussion of these job opportunities as they exist within the public (or governmental) and private sectors.

Basically, we will identify only the entry level occupations that are typical of these areas. The jobs we will describe are not all-inclusive, but rather a sampling of the types of job descriptions that a person might find were in reviewing job flyers or announcements.

Public Or Private-A Changing Profession

Most entry level jobs available in fire protection are found in the different levels of the government: local, regional, state, or federal. A smaller number of jobs are available in the private sector. That may change in the future. Most of the positions described here are civil service jobs. Actual job titles, hiring requirements, and specific details will be established by city, county, state, or federal government personnel systems. Descriptions covered in this chapter are general in nature, have been obtained from a variety of sources, and are a combination of actual descriptions.

You will have to do some follow-up on the descriptions in order to get a complete picture of the jobs described. There is another reason you should read as much specific information as possible on the jobs: they are changing as society and technology change. The information given here is as correct as it can be for now, but the evolutionary process described in the first chapter is still in motion, and the fire service is changing, even as this chapter is being written.

Many different jobs that may be available are described here but they are not all equally available. Openings in some jobs are frequent, with high turnover rates; other jobs are very stable and do not grow very rapidly. If a particular job interests you, it is important that you carry out research to gather specific details.

But don't be discouraged. Absolute numbers of fire protection jobs will continually increase through the next few decades. What may change is the mix of private versus public fire protection opportunities and the ratio of positions at the local, regional, state, and federal levels. The educational and minimum qualifications for the various positions are also likely to change. They will probably become more rigid in some areas and relax in others.


Another factor that bears serious consideration in the evaluation of fire service jobs is the competition factor. The number of candidates for many of these jobs is very high, and the number of entry level positions is very low. Preparation is the key to success in obtaining any of these jobs. As you read through the various jobs you will note a wide range of skills, aptitudes, knowledge, and educational requirements.

We should caution that the fairly low entry level requirements are no indication of requirements for promotion in the various fields. A good example is the firefighter job. While entry level requirements of this position are not nearly as high as some others, the requirements for promotion become more extensive each day.

The characteristics that would make a person a good candidate for each of these jobs are called worker traits. In as many cases as possible we mention the worker traits of these jobs as a guide for you to explore further. This information can be of assistance in discussion with a counselor or with a person in a fire service job you are looking into. Don't ignore clues that these worker traits provide. They are very important in predicting potential success, especially as it relates to entry level jobs. These traits are derived from studies that have been conducted to determine the minimum performance required on a job.

It helps to start with the obvious because it is the most familiar. So we will start off with the basic entry level position for the field called public fire protection. Typically, this job is called: firefighter.

Local Fire Departments

Most of the fire protection services provided in the United States are supplied by local government. Most communities have a fire department that provides the basic resources used to protect the community from fire. Typically this consists of fire stations, fire apparatus, and personnel assigned to respond on that equipment. If you are going to be looking at the fire service as a possible career this may be the place to start to evaluate the job opportunities.

The entry level job most common to fire departments is the "probationary" (or"rookie") firefighter. When anyone becomes a member of a fire department, he or she is usually required to go through extensive training for the first six months, to see if he or she has the characteristics and ability to do the job of firefighting. Probationary firefighters are typically required to complete a combination of classroom and field training, to demonstrate their ability to learn the range of topics required of a firefighter and to prove that they can perform the physical labor of the job.

Entry Requirements

Most fire departments do not have pre-training requirements for the entry level fire fighter. In the majority of the cities, counties, and regional governments that provide fire protection, the only educational requirement is a high school diploma. In some areas community colleges are providing pre-entry training, and it is definitely a plus to have completed the training, but it is not required. This does not imply that the knowledge level tested for is low. On the contrary, most fire examinations cannot be successfully passed unless the individual has a good basic education in math and English.

Individuals selected for entry into fire departments at this level are carefully screened to see if they possess the mental capacity to understand such things as fire chemistry and behavior, fluid hydraulics, electricity, and building construction. The physical demands include such things as being able to carry heavy weight, agility to move about with equipment, the absence of fear of heights or enclosures, and personal ability to get along in a teamwork atmosphere.


Because fire departments are usually organized in a paramilitary structure, probationary firefighters are not usually treated with a great deal of sensitivity. They are expected to prove themselves in a variety of conditions from the classroom to action under emergency conditions.

Entry level in the fire department focuses a great deal on two very important areas of firefighting: discipline and knowledge of tools and equipment. The latter is required to put the equipment into service during emergencies.

The former is required to allow command and control of personnel when they are involved in serious emergencies.

Probation periods can be as short as 6 months or as long as 18 months depending upon the needs and type of fire department. Generally, the probation period is about 12 months in length. Completion of the probation period often requires a combination of time on the job, completion of examinations, and a satisfactory grade from the supervisor.

At the end of the probationary period, the firefighter is eligible to continue up the career ladder of the department. Depending upon the size and complexity of the department; this can range from a few simple promotional opportunities, to a veritable kaleidoscope of occupational specialties.

Promotion Possibilities

If one chooses to remain in the combat arm of the fire service, the promotions are based on different levels of responsibility. A firefighter can become an apparatus operator (the driver of the fire apparatus), then a company commander, then a chief officer. Or one may move into such fields of specialization as Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) or paramedic, aircraft crash rescue, harbor or waterfront firefighting, training, maintenance and fire inspection, or arson investigation.

Each of these specializations have educational and experience requirements that are somewhat unique to the field of specialization. The knowledge that is required to make a good training officer in a fire department is very different from the knowledge required of a good arson investigator.

Generally, however, the entry level firefighter does not have to worry about that. The decision to select one or more of the fields of specialization is not made until the entry level firefighter has completed probation. In actual practice, few people make the choice until they have been on the job for several years. After one has completed the basic training for the field, the rest of the education and training requirements for the fields of specialization become self apparent.

In a subsequent chapter we will examine promotional opportunities and discuss the various career ladders that you might pursue.

Other Entry-Level Opportunities

Another very important factor not to be ignored is that many fire departments are beginning to "civilianize" many functions formerly filled with uniformed firefighters. The field of fire prevention, for instance, used to be staffed only by people who had served in suppression roles and were transferred because of injury or some other problem. That is no longer the case.

Fire Inspector

Fire prevention inspector is not the same type of job as the firefighter. In a fire prevention bureau, people perform such tasks as plan checks of buildings before they are constructed and technical inspections of hazardous materials installations. The job entails going out to places of business and public assemblage to check on code requirements. It often involves issuing violation notices to property owners in order to get them to bring their property up to the fire code requirements. The job of the fire inspector is not physically demanding; it is mentally demanding.

Because fire inspectors are dealing with a very specific field of knowledge, they need different skills. Among these skills is the ability to work with the public, to perform in-depth analysis and to write well. Knowledge of the law, hazardous materials, and inspection techniques are also important to an inspector. Actual firefighting experience is not a necessity for this type of work.

For that reason, many fire departments are now opening up entry level positions in the fire prevention bureaus. Unlike entry level firefighting jobs, entry level inspector positions often require some pre-training. Typically, these jobs require a college education, usually in the field of fire sciences.

Public Fire Educator

Another area in which the fire service seems to be changing is the field of public education. This field of specialization stems from the fire prevention area. It involves working with individuals and groups to inform them of fire safety practices in the home and at work.

This job does not require physical strength either. It is a job that uses public speaking skills, knowledge of instructional techniques, audio-visual materials, and an ability to plan, organize, and deliver programs to all age groups.

Educational requirements for public education are not clearly defined at this time because the job is relatively new to fire service. Generally, people working in this area have backgrounds in either education or public relations. Some have a background in journalism or the media. In almost all cases, the jobs require some form of college education accompanied by experience in working with people.

Fire Mechanic

In the larger cities, fire departments also have positions in the field of apparatus maintenance, but these are rarely filled from the entry level. Most of apparatus mechanics have developed their skills in another area and transferred into fire department openings. These technicians have usually received training in trade or technical schools.

Dispatcher and Communications

Another position available at the entry level in most fire agencies is the dispatcher or communications job. This job entails answering the emergency telephone and dispatching fire apparatus to the scene of an emergency. It often involves the use of a wide variety of electronic devices, including radio, alarm devices, computers, and testing equipment.

The dispatcher’s position is not physically demanding, but it is among the most difficult mentally. The job requires remembering complex dispatch procedures, memorizing radio procedures, and making decisions involving the nature of emergencies and the proper equipment to be dispatched. In addition, a great deal of emphasis is placed on the accuracy of information relayed to the fire units in the field. A lot of the time is taken up with paperwork and report writing.

One of the problems with the dispatch position is that it seldom has a career ladder associated with it. An individual often has to go out of the communications field in order to achieve promotion and pay raises of any magnitude. On the other hand many a young firefighter has gotten a foot in the door by putting in time as a dispatcher. As a matter of fact a lot of departments use the dispatch position as an internship to the position of probationary firefighter.

Clerical and Secretarial Jobs

The last entry level job that might be available on a local fire department would be as a clerk or secretary. Almost all fire departments have positions that serve the administration, the fire prevention bureaus, the training staff, and the fire chiefs office. On the surface, these positions do not appear any different from similar jobs in other fields. There is a subtle difference, however. Clerical and secretarial personnel in the fire service have a greater than average contact with the public they serve, and the jobs usually involve a lot of personal responsibility. Frequently, the clerical staff get involved in the same programs that the fire personnel are involved in managing.

Of course, typing is typing and filing is filing. But the nature of the fire service is such that the typing may be a training manual one minute and an arson investigation report the next. Many people who started as clerical staff have gone on to positions in the fire prevention bureaus and public education staffs.

State Forestry Job Opportunities

Few local fire departments have extensive forestry fire fighting positions because the rural fire problem is usually considered a state or federal responsibility. In some states, especially in the western and southeastern part of the United States, forestry is also a problem of the county governments.

By the nature of the seasons, forestry firefighting is not normally a year-round job. In most cases, all of the entry level positions are seasonal-the positions are only open when the "fire" season is in effect. The fire season is normally from the beginning of summer through Labor Day. In some areas, it may continue until the first rains of the winter.

Seasonal firefighting is one of the best ways of learning the basics of fire control and getting a look at the nature of firefighting. A seasonal firefighter will find that most of the work is simple, hard, manual labor. Most forest fires are fought with axes and shovels to cut down brush and timber from the path of the fire. The job often involves using saws and sometimes heavy equipment like bulldozers.
In some areas, the forestry firefighter gets the opportunity to respond on fire apparatus designed especially for off-the-road operations. Working on these pumpers often means laying long hose up hills or down ridges to get to a fire. Even being assigned to the pumper does not relieve the forestry firefighter of the duty of cutting fire breaks, overhauling burned-over areas, and engaging in the manual labor aspect of the job.

The job usually has very low entrance requirements because its wages are low and its turnover rate high. The most common requirements are to be physically fit, be of the age of majority, and possess a good work record. The emphasis is on the physical conditioning.

The number of professional firefighters that got their start in this fashion is very high, especially in the states with severe forestry fire problems. The author spent his first three years as a firefighter in this type of work while he was in college. It is a good job for the student considering a fire service profession-it is seasonal, which fits the usual academic calendar; it is intense, which gives a person a sense of whether he or she likes firefighting; and it is rewarding.

But the job of forestry firefighting is not all glamour. When forestry fire personnel are not on fires they spend a great deal of their time working on mundane jobs like trail and building maintenance and preparing equipment for the time when fire does strike.

Promotional opportunities in the forest fire area are directly dependent on success over several seasons as a seasonal firefighter. In most of the states and in the federal fire service, a person can get into a permanent full time job only by competing against others with seasonal experience. Full time jobs in the forestry are more difficult to obtain than full time positions in urban fire departments. In addition, these full time jobs are very demanding on one's family and social life.

After permanent appointment in these jobs, one must be willing to accept the fact that transfers from one area to another may occur and that there will be long periods away from the family. Much of the work of the forestry firefighter is in remote areas, and the fires they are involved in often take many days, even weeks, to control.

Federal Fire Departments

The United States Government is one of the largest employers of individuals in the business of fire protection. Job opportunities there fall into several categories: military fire protection, forestry fire protection (an extension of the previous paragraphs, but on a federal level), fire protection for special facilities, fire protection engineering, and specialized fire protection programs.

Military Fire Protection

The United States Air Force operates a very large fire protection program that includes everything from aircraft fire rescue to structural fire protection for bases all around the world. Many young people interested in entering the fire protection field have gotten their basic training by joining the military and going to the Air Force Academy in Chanute, Illinois.

The Navy has firefighting specialists too. Most of the training in the Navy concentrates on the problem of controlling fire aboard ships. It is often referred to as damage control instead of firefighting, but the training is similar. One can also get training in aircraft fire rescue in the military.

Most entry level jobs in military fire protection are designed for the initial enlistment trainee and do not provide much promotional opportunity. Many military bases have fire departments with both military and civilian fire personnel.

The requirements for military fire service are very similar to the entry level requirements for a municipal fire department. The job is both physically and mentally demanding, so the criteria are very close to the same as for any fire department. This is good for the trainee because success at completing military training indicates possible success in a civilian job upon completion of the enlistment.

Many military bases have fire departments that closely resemble their neighboring cities. Because the military organizations have a high turnover, the structural protection for most bases is left in the hands of a fire department that does not have to be transferred with a specific unit. Customarily, these departments are commanded by a civilian fire officer, but he reports to a military commander.

Federal Forestry Fire Protection

The United States Government maintains a very large contingent of forestry firefighters. The three largest agencies are the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Park Service, and the Bureau of Land Management. These three agencies employ a large number of both seasonal and permanent employees.

The U.S. Forest Service protects the areas of the country that are called National Forests. These are primarily areas that have been set aside to protect national resources like timber, mining, and watershed. There are National Forests in almost all of the fifty states. The agency is part of the Department of Agriculture; it is charged with protecting the nation's natural resources from fire. During any given year, the U.S. Forest Service may fight hundreds of thousands of fires that are caused by either man or the natural elements, such as lightning.

The U.S. Park Service is a division of the Department of the Interior, it is charged with the task of protecting the National Parks. These are primarily areas that have been set aside for recreational purposes. One of the interesting aspects of the Park Service responsibilities is that the entry level positions often get involved in very complex mountain rescues and some law enforcement activities.

The Bureau of Land Management is also part of the Department of the Interior. It is charged with the responsibility to protect the large land areas that are under federal ownership but not classified as parks or forests. These areas are primarily wide open range land or areas where property is still available for homesteading. BLM is an interesting firefighting agency in that it has an extremely diverse inventory of firefighting equipment. As a result of their involvement in range fires, for example, they have developed very specialized apparatus.

The Department of Interior also has fire personnel involved in the Bureau of Indian Affairs. These firefighters are responsible to provide protection on reservations. This involves both structural and watershed fire protection.

All of the agencies mentioned in the last section have standards for employment that emphasize physical and mental capabilities. The type of work varies according to the area that the agency protects, but much of it is simply plain hard manual labor. The tools and equipment used by most forestry agencies are based on taking the fight directly to the seat of the fire. The work often involves long hours of cutting brush with hand tools.

Miscellaneous Agencies

There are several other federal agencies with jobs related to fire protection, but the positions vary from time to time depending upon budgetary decisions of the current federal administration. For example, the State Department has several people involved in the field; the Department of Commerce has people employed in the field, and so does the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The number of positions and the level of entry requirements vary considerably.


While the firefighter is the most visible fire service person, there are many other functions in a modern fire department. The spectrum of job opportunities is sufficiently diverse to offer something for anyone who aspires to enter the field. Interest and effort on the part of an interested person is paramount. You can almost always locate one or more positions in the fire service, regardless of personal skills and physical capabilities. It takes a lot of work, but the rewards are great. There are few occupations with a public image as good which at the same time offer exciting and challenging careers.
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Madison Currin - Greenville, NC
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