Promotional Opportunities

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Once persons have gotten employed in the fire service they are on the bottom rung of the career ladder. From that position, an individual has many options and opportunities in her or his adult working life. One of the most predictable aspects of the fire service is that it is a function of population. As the population grows, so does opportunity. Because it is a service that is becoming increasingly complex and specialized, it presents many alternatives. If you become employed in this profession, you will have the opportunity to be promoted several times, if you want to be promoted and if you possess the skills and abilities demanded of the different promotional situations. Your first limitation is your own motivation and desire.

Of course, other factors influence the opportunity for promotion, too. The two leading factors that contribute to your chances of getting promoted are growth in the fire agency and turnover in the upper ranks. Growth can result from the geographical area of a department being expanded, it can result from increased population in a department's response area, or it can result from a change from part time or volunteer firefighters to full time paid personnel.

Some of the things which could limit promotional opportunity are increased reliance upon built-in fire protection such as automatic fire sprinklers or a shift in population away from the industrialized centers resulting in less tax revenues to support a department's manpower requirement.


In this chapter, we explore the different career ladders that you might have available to you. The fire service has several different tracks to the career ladders because there is a definite need for two different classes of personnel-the generalist and the specialist.

The generalist develops all-around skills in the basic areas of all elements of fire protection. Typical of these positions are "line" personnel; these are the people who man the individual fire companies-the tailboard firefighters, the apparatus drivers, and the company and battalion chief officers.

A specialist focuses on developing expertise in one area of fire protection. Typical of these positions are staff positions- the fire inspectors, training officers, public education specialists, fire protection analysts, and fire investigators.


Once a person has completed probation and been accepted into the position of firefighter, he or she can reasonably expect to spend from three to seven years in that rank. Thousands of firefighters never leave that level and are quite happy about it. While a firefighter, a person may have numerous opportunities to gain special knowledge and skill-to become an Emergency Medical Technician or Paramedic while in the firefighter ranks. Some of these training and education opportunities offer great challenges.

Most generalists aspire to one of the following two ranks sometime within their first ten years on the job.

The Apparatus Operator

The first rank above firefighter, in most departments, is the apparatus operator. This person drives and operates the pumps or aerial ladders on the fire apparatus. In some departments, they are called engineers or chauffeurs. They are paid a slightly higher wage than the firefighter because of the added responsibility of driving the apparatus under emergency conditions.

The driver is also responsible for maintaining the truck and performing minor repairs on it. He or she has to be familiar with the operation and design of diesel engines, heavy duty truck driving techniques, and the design and operation of hydraulic systems and heavy duty pumps. The driver is also responsible to calculate and set the pump pressures on hose lines during a firefighting situation.

The Company Officer

The second rank above the firefighter is company officer. In some departments the rank is called captain. In others it is called lieutenant. This career position is the supervisor of the respective fire companies. This person is responsible to manage the time of the others assigned to that company and to issue orders and commands at the scene of emergencies. The company officer is a working foreman. While he or she commands a crew, he or she is also responsible to perform many of the firefighting tasks.

The salary of the company officer is often as much as twenty-five percent higher than the apparatus operator's salary. This varies according to area, but a company officer can expect to earn close to $30,000 per year. The company officer has to be familiar with a wide range of knowledge and skills, and must be able to train subordinates in the tasks they must perform. He or she must be able to evaluate and discipline the crew and so must be skilled in personnel techniques. He or she must be able to handle a wide range of emergency conditions. This requires the knowledge of a wide range of potential solutions to very complex problems.

All of these ranks, the firefighter, the apparatus operator, and the company officer make up the organization of the fire company. A fire company normally consists of three to four people. Each fire company is assigned to a specific piece of apparatus-an engine company, a truck company, or a rescue company. Most communities have a fire company assigned to each fire station in a given area. In some very densely populated areas, several fire companies are located in one station. Usually there are at least three shifts of fire crews assigned to each fire company. A shift consists of the basic positions that are assigned to the apparatus for one twenty four hour period.

What this means to entry level candidates is that promotional opportunities at the company level are vertically-oriented. For every one or two firefighters in the line there is an apparatus operator and a company officer directly above. In order for promotions to occur, the department must expand, adding new fire companies, or a person must retire. The ratio of firefighters in the fire company to other positions is about even, so promotion can be slow if the department does not grow.

The Chief Officer

In most departments, the next position in the promotional ladder is called the chief officer. Depending upon the number of fire companies in a community, there may be a chief officer assigned. The chief officer is the supervisor and leader of the company officers. They are responsible for the activities of an entire shift of fire companies. This job consists of a blend of management and administrative details plus responsibility to issue commands on emergencies.

Typically, the chief officer is responsible for manpower scheduling, issuing purchase orders, enforcing rules and regulations, and making sure that the various departmental programs are functioning correctly. Most chief officers are also responsible to assist the fire chief with the budgeting and general management of the department. Most chief officers do not obtain this rank until they have a minimum of five or six years as a company officer.

Salaries for chief officers are usually ten to fifteen percent above the highest paid company officer. Depending on the number of chief officer levels in a department, a person can expect to earn as high as $45,000 per year as a chief officer.

Because one chief officer can supervise as many as five or six fire companies, the ratio of chief officers to the fire companies is low. This means that only the most qualified and competent of the company officers achieve this rank.

Depending on the size of the department, there may be several different levels of chief officer in the line function. For example, in departments with several different battalions, there may be a deputy or assistant chief position to supervise the battalion chiefs.


If an individual decides to stay in the line or remain as a general firefighter, the number of promotions can take some time. Some fire personnel opt to learn special skills and therefore increase their job knowledge and chances of promotion at the same time.

The specialist in the fire service has the option of several different career ladders-fire prevention (which includes a sub-category of arson investigator) training, and administration. All of these specializations require combinations of knowledge, skills, and motivation. None of them can be accomplished unless the person makes a conscious effort to get the proper education and experience.

Most of these areas of specialization have the various rank structures we have already discussed. For instance, in the larger fire departments there are personnel assigned in the fire prevention bureaus with each of the ranks of firefighter, apparatus operator, company and chief officer. The difference is that they do not perform the manual firefighting functions at all. They are paid to perform different levels of fire inspection or investigation work. Generally, a person can be promoted faster in these jobs because there are fewer people qualified for or interested in these positions. Also, because the specialist has more education, he or she is typically paid five to seven percent more for any respective rank.

The first and most obvious reason most entry level people are not interested in these jobs is that they are not on the twenty-four-hour shift. Typically specialists work an eight hour a day job, forty hours per week. These positions work a schedule very much like everyone else does. The second reason is that these positions do not face the daily experience of fire combat. And firefighting is the main reason many enter this occupation.
However, inasmuch as you are exploring the concept of career development, perhaps you can gain a different perspective here. If you are planning a fire service career, do not overlook the contributions that staff or specialized jobs do for your chances of promotion. Performing in staff jobs gives you both insight and perspective on the community's fire problem that shift personnel often miss. Additionally, staff personnel are often given the opportunity to really change the nature of the community's fire problem through their day-to-day work. Eliminating a fire problem that saves both lives and property can be the most satisfying part of the fire profession.


Positions in the fire prevention bureaus consist of inspectors, public education officers, and arson investigators. The inspector is responsible to conduct visits to businesses and industries to see if they comply with all of the codes and ordinances. This job often involves detailed understanding of several different sets of laws, a good understanding of human nature, and a comprehensive understanding of such things as building construction and hazardous materials.

Typically, fire prevention bureaus in the smaller fire departments are headed by a person with the rank of captain or company officer. In the larger departments, this person is often the same rank as a battalion chief. In the metropolitan fire departments, the bureaus may have as many as two or three company officer grades and several chief officers in the structure. The top position in most fire prevention bureaus is the Fire Marshal.
Public education specialists are usually assigned to work under the direction of the Fire Marshal. These are the people who work directly with the public to increase the community's knowledge of basic fire prevention practices. They often work with educational programs in the schools or with civic groups. These people have to be very skilled at making public presentations. They are often involved in preparing audiovisual aids and working with media representatives. Almost all of these positions are civilianized. They seldom have any rank. The one exception to that is the Public Information Officers.

PIOs are usually found only in the largest fire departments. They are ranking officers assigned to work with the members of the various media. They specialize in dealing with serious emergencies and controversies that arise from time to time. A PIO may be involved in releasing information to the television and newspapers after a major fire has occurred. He or she could be involved in dealing with press releases on the subject of fire code enforcement in high-rise structures. These people are usually assigned this task because they have good verbal or written skills and have the ability to communicate effectively.

The arson investigator is another position found in fire prevention bureaus. It is normally a promotion from the inspector position or some other prevention assignment. Arson investigators are responsible to conduct in depth investigations of fires and explosions to determine if a crime has been committed. They must be very familiar with laws and court procedures. They often have to work in close cooperation with the law enforcement agencies. Arson investigators must have analytical skills and the ability to write comprehensive reports.


Another specialization with promise for upward promotion is the training or operations field. The training officer in most fire departments is reserved for a person who has the ability to impart both knowledge and technique to the entire department. Often the training officer is involved in the hiring and training of the recruit-level firefighters. He or she is also involved in the setting up of programs for the respective ranks of apparatus operator and company officer.

In the smaller departments, the training officer is normally the rank of at least captain. In the larger departments, the position is held by a chief officer. Depending upon the size of the department, some training divisions have several ranking officers from captains to the assistant chief level.

Training officers can best be compared to teachers. They teach firefighting. This job is most often given to a person who already reached the rank of company officer, but who also has the skills and ability to teach or organize training programs. Because training is so important to the safety and effectiveness of the entire department, this job is not treated lightly. It usually is assigned to a person who exhibits the ability to be promoted in the near future.


In the larger departments there are often positions which cannot be classified into any of the other categories already discussed. One such category of ranking positions is administrative. Typically, administrative positions are of the chief officer level. Many departments are creating civilianized administrative positions, but the pay is in the same salary range of the chief officer.

One of the best examples of this type of position can be observed in the San Diego and Montgomery County Fire Departments. They have created several administrative positions that are filled by personnel who have been promoted upward in the organization but who have not served in the combat arm.

Administrative positions concentrate on the completion of tasks that are neither combat nor specialty oriented. Typically, these jobs involve high level management or financial skills. They involve such things as budget control, personnel matters, and completing staff reports for the chief of the department.

While administrative jobs don't sound very exciting on the surface, they are often among the most difficult in the field. The reason they are so difficult is that the administration of any governmental agency requires a rare blend of technical expertise in management with the strong negotiating skills. In the modern fire service, administrative positions are often the key to adequate funding and resources for a fire department. These positions are often the ones that have the facts to support justification of the department's different programs.


Probably every child has fantasized at one time or another about being the fire chief. Every Christmas, hundreds of thousands of red plastic fire helmets appear under Christmas trees. Yet, less than one out of every one-thousand people who ever enter the fire service will ever be promoted to the rank of fire chief. The reasons are many. The primary one is that it takes a combination of knowledge, experience, motivation, and personal sacrifice to become a fire chief. Not everyone who enters the fire service has that combination. Not everyone who has that combination is in the position to utilize their talents. And competition for the position can often be very strong.

In the past few years, there has been a noticeable shift in the selection of fire chiefs. At one time, most fire chiefs were merely the oldest, most experienced firefighters. That is not true today. Most of the individuals selected today are well-educated, well-rounded, and professionally-mobile people. Most of the current chief officer candidates are people who have served in many different capacities ranging from combat to the specialist roles. It is not uncommon for the fire chief candidate to have a minimum of a bachelor's degree, with many having master's degrees.

Most of the individuals who achieve the rank of fire chief are well-versed in both technology and good management techniques, with the emphasis on management. The average time in the service to achieve this position is hard to assess. It varies from one part of the country to the other, but it is probably in the area of twenty-five years of service.

The salary range of the fire chiefs is very wide. In the smaller communities, it may be as little as ten percent over the next highest ranking officer. In the large cities, the fire chief can earn as much as $80,000 per year. The national average is probably about $50,000 per year.

The job of the fire chief is diverse. He or she must manage the resources of the department, to reduce the loss of life and property from a wide range of emergencies. He or she is required to be reasonably familiar with all of the areas of both general and special fire protection knowledge used by their subordinates.


The future of the fire service is somewhat difficult to project. On the one hand, we can expect to see an increase in the number of professional firefighters in the future. Fire protection is a product of growth and as communities grows so will the fire service. Yet the growth will not be directly proportionate. We can predict that there will be an increased emphasis on education for promotion in the fire service. Cities and towns will probably have fewer firefighters per thousand populations than there were over the past few decades. But, government will probably pay the firefighters better and place more emphasis on professionalism. We can expect to see improved techniques developed for future fire protection personnel, which may influence both entry and promotional opportunities.

As a potential candidate for a career in the fire service, you will be well advised to study the direction that the fire service in your area seems to be heading. Talk to the ranking officers in the local fire department, and get their opinions on the growth potential of the department. Study the courses of instruction that are being attended by the in-service fire personnel to get some idea of the areas of expertise that are being developed.

In the final analysis, a person's career is a combination of two different factors-preparation and potential for promotability. Preparation is up to the individual. Potential for promotability is often a factor of being prepared at the right time. As you enter your career, you may not be able to set your goals too high. But don't fail to eventually set your goals somewhere. The future of the fire service belongs to those who have a career plan. Someone has to be in charge of every fire department. It might as well be the person best prepared for that role.
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