Private Fire Protection Careers

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Most individuals interested in getting into the fire profession start by pursuing one or more of the jobs discussed in Chapter three. There are a variety of reasons a person may fail to achieve a job in public fire protection. First and foremost is competition. For every job in the firefighting profession, there may be hundreds of candidates. This may force an interested person to seek an alternative fire protection career.

The second reason that a person looks at the private sector is the physical demands placed on the firefighter. There are thousands of candidates who are equal to the mental challenge of fire protection but who cannot meet the physical demands of strength and agility. Very small physical flaws, such as a minor spinal defect or color blindness, can cause a person to be eliminated from competition.

A third reason that one might look at private sector fire protection is the intellectual challenge of private enterprise fire protection engineering. Very few firefighting agencies employ fire protection engineers, but almost all of the major industries do. This aspect of fire protection is often more challenging and financially rewarding than municipal fire protection.



A final reason that a person might look at the private sector in fire protection is the future. Over the past few decades, more and more emphasis has been placed on private fire protection. It is anticipated that this trend will continue well into the future.

One should not consider private fire protection "second best." Private fire protection contains some of the greatest challenges in the profession. The reason we discuss it after the public fire departments is the public perception that firefighting is fire protection. Many of the jobs we will discuss in this chapter require a great deal of education and experience.

There are probably more people involved in fire protection in the private sector than in the public sector. The jobs are not obvious, and most of them do not deal with handling emergencies at all. They focus on either prevention or preparation for emergencies.

Private Fire Departments

There are actually private fire departments, ones not financed or managed by any level of the government. Most of these are in the petrochemical, aircraft, or aerospace industries. These fire departments protect very specific facilities. A classic example of such a private fire department can be seen at such companies as Boeing and McDonnell Douglas. Some very large security firms like Wackenhut also provide private fire protection services as a part of a total security system.

Probably one of the most famous firefighters in the world is a private firefighter Red Adair. A film starring John Wayne was once made about his life and the tremendous challenges he faced while fighting oil fires. But, one does not become a free lance firefighter. A private fire department is structured much like a public one. The point of entry is at the "rookie" level, they are paramilitary in nature, and the actual jobs performed are very similar.

The biggest distinction is that they usually serve only one very specific area and are highly specialized. Some private fire departments protect facilities that cost millions of dollars more than the surrounding communities served by the municipal fire departments. Often these jobs require a great deal of time on fire inspection, to make sure that all precautions are taken to prevent a catastrophe from occurring.

One private fire department, the Rural Metro Fire Department, is located near Phoenix, Arizona. It is the possible origin of many fire agencies that are organized and managed on a profit basis. To date, there are over a half dozen communities with private fire departments. There is an organization called American Emergency Services in Wheaton, Illinois, and Valley Fire Services in Grants Pass, Oregon. In Chapter Nine, a special section identifies an organization dedicated to this type of fire agency.

Another unique private fire protection firm is Emergency Scene Consultants. This is a group of professional firefighters who are hired to protect stunt people at locations where movies are made. This highly specialized group of firefighters is responsible to make sure that the explosions and wrecks you see on television do not turn into real disasters. Working in close coordination with the stunt coordinator, this team responds instantly after the shot has been taken.

In addition, the team is used when the scene calls for fire personnel to be involved in the action. All of the personnel used by Emergency Scene Consultants are professional fire personnel, and this type of work is done while they are in an off duty status.

Fire Alarm Companies

The fire alarm industry is closely related to the burglar alarm industry, but is definitely a part of the fire protection field. Fire alarm companies install, maintain, and repair such things as smoke detectors, heat alarms, and automatic notification devices. They work in the field of electronics and mechanical equipment. It is not uncommon for fire alarm companies to maintain computers and extensive digital communications equipment.

People who work in this field have to be qualified to work on sophisticated equipment. They may need experience in building construction also. Because fire alarm companies have such free access to property, their employees must be bonded (insured against improper acts while on duty).

Fire Extinguisher Companies

Many members of the fire service got their first jobs in the field of fire extinguisher maintenance. Almost every community has a need for a company to distribute, maintain, and repair fire extinguishers and fixed fire protection equipment. This job is somewhat technical in nature and requires that an individual carefully follows instructions and comply with laws and regulations.

In most states, fire extinguisher maintenance people are licensed or certified to perform their function. You can imagine what would happen if someone needed to use a fire extinguisher and it had not been properly maintained. This job has a lot of responsibility and carries with it a degree of liability.

Fire Sprinkler Companies

Related to the fire extinguisher field, but more complex is the field of automatic fire protection equipment. Most communities now require automatic fire sprinklers in high rise buildings and industrial structures. A very large industry also involves installing fire extinguisher systems in hoods and ducts in the restaurants. Some companies specialize in installing built in fire equipment for such occupancies as aircraft hangars or warehouses.

On the surface, these jobs no more resemble a conventional fire department than the Wright Brothers' aircraft looks like a DC 10. But don't be misled. Modern fire protection increasingly depends on the installation and use of built in fire protection. Most people do not want to spend an entire lifetime filling fire extinguishers or installing automatic sprinkler systems. But, an entry level job in one of these related occupations one may gather valuable experience toward becoming competitive for the jobs in fire departments.

Most entry level jobs in this area of fire protection are mechanical. They are also very technical in nature. They require an ability to use one's hands in conjunction with following somewhat complicated diagrams and plans. The work is often dirty and the hours long. Depending on the particular craft involved, the pay varies from low to very high. Promotions and the variety of work are often limited unless the firm has a broad array of clients.

Fire Equipment Manufacturing Or Sales

One of the most financially rewarding fields related to fire protection is the sales field. Many companies, such as Akron Brass and Western Fire Equipment, maintain sales staff to service the needs of fire departments. In this field, a person is responsible to cover a certain area of the country to sell everything from fire trucks to fire hose. Most sales positions are given to people who are experienced in the field. Many of them are retired from the professional fire service.

On the other hand, many small fire equipment companies are staffed by people who have a working knowledge of the fire service, but who have not necessarily been in service fire personnel. This is especially true in the field of manufacturing. Companies which make fire equipment often hire skilled labor to produce the various pieces of fire equipment. In this area, the hiring needs are very similar to those in the sprinkler industry: the emphasis is on technical competency.

Insurance Rating Offices

In many states, the insurance industries maintain staffs to work strictly on fire related problems. Most of the places which have moved in this direction do not utilize individuals who lack experience or education. Jobs in these rating bureaus (as in many arson investigations) usually go to retired professionals from the fire service or to registered fire protection engineers.

Fire insurance firms also have jobs in the fields of plan checking or arson investigation. Many of the larger companies have staffs to perform these highly technical tasks. Most of these positions are filled by experienced fire officers. Some are filled by graduates from recognized fire protection schools.

While there are few entry level jobs in the insurance industry, it still deserves a few moments of consideration. The reason is that it appears that the continued emphasis on fire prevention and the transfer of fire protection to the private sector may create a resurgence of jobs in this area for those with the proper education.

Fire Protection Engineers

If there is an unsung element of the fire service it is the fire protection engineers. These are people who fight fire with slide rules, codes, and ordinances instead of nozzles and ladders. Fire protection engineering is a discipline, a field of specialization of engineering. It focuses on building into structures and installations the proper design so that fires will not occur or their effects will be minimized.

This job involves a great deal of planning and research. It also involves a lot of paperwork and compliance with complex rules and regulations. Much of the design work also demands use of special tools like computers, slide rules, calculators, and drafting equipment. Most of the work is mentally demanding, but it sometimes involves physical requirements as well. For example, a fire protection engineer may have to inspect the installations he or she has designed.

Depending upon the nature of the firm that employs a fire protection engineer, the work can be limited or diverse. Some of the types of firms that use fire protection engineers are architectural firms, large hotel and motel chains, automatic fire protection companies, chemical companies, aerospace organizations, and testing laboratories. Some people in this area of fire protection travel world wide in the pursuit of their projects.

The fire protection engineer has one of the most demanding of educations. Very few schools offer the discipline of fire protection engineering and the competition is very keen. Because the curriculum involves some very difficult subjects like chemistry and physics, it is not the type of education that one enters unless one has thoroughly explored the goal of the program.

Graduates of fire protection engineering programs never have to wait too long for job opportunities. With the continued emphasis on built in fire protection and the increased complexity of fire codes, the fire protection engineer seems assured of a strong job market. Many progressive fire departments are now beginning to employ graduates of these programs in their fire prevention bureaus before they enter private practice. Fire protection engineers are also employed by the insurance industry, the automatic sprinkler industry, state Fire Marshal's offices, building departments, federal fire agencies, the military, and educational institutions.

As modern technology develops at an unprecedented rate, the fire protection engineer has an almost unlimited potential in the future. The varieties of problems that need her or his engineering expertise are inexhaustible.

Summary

While the public sector is where most of the entry level fire protection jobs are currently, the private sector may well be a future job market. A combination of individual needs, increased costs of government, and taxpayers' rejection of higher taxes may well force the issue. A person looking into fire protection careers should always keep the options open to apply for private sector positions.
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