What is a Firefighter?

A firefighter, also known as a fireman, is a highly skilled man or woman who works to combat and extinguish fires. They also take steps to prevent fires, act as emergency medical technicians (EMT), and investigate the causes of fires.

A firefighter is almost always the first official "on the scene" of fires, car accidents, or other emergencies, which is why they are also sometimes called "first responders." Some firefighters are career professionals, while others volunteer for duty within their communities.

What does a Firefighter do?

There are four primary responsibilities and duties - putting out fires, rescuing and caring for the sick and injured, working to prevent future fires, and investigating the sources of fires, especially in the case of potential arson.

A firefighter fighting a raging fire.

Fighting fires is a firefighter's primary duty. After receiving notification that a fire is in progress, a firefighter will suit up in the appropriate safety gear before climbing aboard or driving one of several different types of fire trucks. Some of the trucks carry or pump water, some are "aerial ladder" trucks that raise ladders to the upper floors of buildings, and some are rescue trucks that transport fire victims to emergency medical centres.

After reaching the site, each firefighter works under a commanding officer and has a specific task to perform. Hose operators, for instance, connect hoses to fire hydrants and then direct the flow of water towards the fire while a pump operator controls the water flow. Those who guide the aerial ladders are known as tillers. Others are responsible for entering burning buildings to rescue potential victims. While all firefighters must have EMT certifications, some specialize in the task of stabilizing victims once they are brought out of the burning structure.

In the case of an automotive accident that does not involve a fire, a firefighter will use their EMT training to care for the injured and secure the scene before ambulances and police arrive. They also act as rescuers in the case of natural disasters such as tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Firefighters treat victims of these disasters or search for the missing.

A firefighter also educates the public and works as an inspector to prevent fires. Inspectors ensure that local businesses meet fire codes and make sure fire escapes, alarms, and sprinkler systems are in place and are in good working order. Some firefighters are trained as investigators to locate the source of fires and find evidence if arson is suspected.

In addition to firefighting responsibilities, a firefighter must maintain fire apparatus and engage in regular drilling or training. They must also stay in excellent physical shape in order to endure the physical demands of their job.

Firefighters constantly find themselves rushing into completely unknown situations where they might be injured or killed. They don't know what's on fire, they don't know the layout of the building, they don't know who is in the building, they don't know whether the roof is about to collapse, they don't know if their equipment will fail or if they'll will run out of air at the wrong time. It's a huge list of unknowns, but they go in anyway because they are trained to save lives.

Another aspect of firefighting that many people are unaware of is the fact that it engages all five senses. Because there is so much adrenaline pulsing through a firefighter's veins, time slows down and they become even more acutely aware of their surroundings. Here are just a few examples:

In a typical house fire you can't see anything when you first enter the building; the smoke is simply too thick. The face mask and breathing apparatus just keeps the smoke out of your eyes and lungs, it doesn't really help you see. As you get closer to the fire you can start to see a faint orange glow through the smoke, and as you get closer its gets brighter. As soon as you put water on that fire, the water instantly converts to steam and the colour goes from grey to white. You still can't see very much, if anything at all.

Being in a fire is super hot, as you might expect. It is possible to get first degree burns on your skin because your sweat can turn to steam and can scald you. Your clear face mask can bubble and warp from the extreme heat. Your overall sense of touch is dramatically diminished because you are wearing gloves and heavy protective equipment.

Think of a campfire crackling and popping. Now imagine those sounds coming at you from above, below, in front of you and behind, and to the sides. Everything that's on fire is making noise; the floors, the walls, the ceiling, everything. Light bulbs are popping, walls are creaking, glass is breaking, mattress springs are letting loose, things are falling over. Another unmistakable sound is the water turning into steam as it's sprayed onto the hot ceiling, which is quickly followed by a stillness as the fire starts to go out. The ever-present sound of your breathing in the breathing apparatus sounds like a scuba diver, and means you're still alive and breathing. One sound you'll never want to hear in your breathing apparatus, however, is the warning bell on your air tank telling you that you have less than five minutes of air left.

You can often catch a whiff of the fire before you get to the site, and it can tell you a lot about what is burning (whether it is oil, wood, furniture etc). Once you put your mask on and enter the fire, however, you can't smell much of anything except the rubber smell of your mask, your own sweat, and a smokey smell that is still clinging onto your equipment from previous fires. When you finally take your mask off, you'll experience a whole new range of smells depending on what had been burning (wood, plastic, carpet, gas, paper, etc).

You can sometimes taste a fire if you inhale a lot of smoke or get some soot in your mouth. This might not happen during the fire but later when you are doing the clean up. This smokey taste in your mouth can stay with you for awhile.

These are the physical sensations of firefighting. However, the overwhelming feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that comes from saving someone's life is as real, powerful, and memorable as any of the physical sensations.

Are you suited to be a firefighter?

Firefighters have distinct personalities. They tend to be realistic individuals, which means they’re independent, stable, persistent, genuine, practical, and thrifty. They like tasks that are tactile, physical, athletic, or mechanical. Some of them are also social, meaning they’re kind, generous, cooperative, patient, caring, helpful, empathetic, tactful, and friendly.

Does this sound like you? Take our free career test to find out if firefighter is one of your top career matches.

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What is the workplace of a Firefighter like?

With the exception of part-time volunteer firefighters, most first responders live and work in fire stations for extended periods of time. Shifts typically last for 24 hours, so that a full team is always present in the event of a fire. Monthly, a firefighter works between 9 and 11 total shifts. In addition, they work during holidays and weekends to ensure their community is safe from fire.

In the event of a natural disaster, a firefighter may work even longer hours in order to keep the public safe and rescue victims. Many of the situations they encounter are life-threatening; numerous firefighters have lost their lives while on the job. A volunteer firefighter will undergo the same risks, but typically will not live at the fire station and will only be called out when an emergency situation arises.

Frequently Asked Questions

Steps to becoming a Firefighter

A firefighter must be a high school graduate or obtain an equivalent diploma. There has been a recent trend towards requiring prospective firefighters to obtain an Associate Degree in Fire Science, or even a four-year bachelor's degree. In addition to the required education, a firefighter must take and pass a fire exam - though requirements will vary by state, region, or country.

A medical examination and drug screening test must also be passed before a firefighter is admitted into a formal training program at a fire station or academy. Sometimes candidates will work in an apprenticeship program for three to four years before being granted a position.

An experienced firefighter will continue to go through practice drills to maintain their skills and knowledge. Some take fire science classes in order to gain a promotion, specialize in fire investigation, or obtain another job requiring advanced training.

In addition to being knowledgeable and competent, a firefighter must be physically and mentally capable of performing the demanding work of fighting fires and handling emergency situations. Because of the critical nature of their jobs and the amount of disasters and tragic situations they witness, firefighters must exhibit continued and stable mental focus. They must make split-second decisions that may affect the lives of others around them.

Physically, a firefighter must be able to move heavy objects, operate unruly equipment, and carry victims from burning buildings while wearing cumbersome safety gear. Being in top physical and mental shape is absolutely essential for those pursuing this career.

Are Firefighters happy?

Firefighters rank in the 87th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.

Tom W. Smith, director of the General Social Survey at the National Opinion Research Center, said the most satisfying jobs tend to involve caring for, teaching and protecting others. Additionally, previous studies have shown that people’s job satisfaction rises with how well their jobs are respected by society. Therefore, based on these two factors, it makes sense that firefighters would experience such high levels of happiness with their positions.

Should I become a Firefighter?

It is extremely important that individuals wanting to become firefighters understand the difference between, "want" and "should". Just because someone wants to be something doesn't mean he or she is cut out for it or will be good at it.

"Should I become a firefighter?" is a much tougher question to answer. Here are a few things to seriously consider while pondering that question:

Am I naturally suited for the job?
We all have certain areas in life where we excel due to our natural talents and predispositions. We also have certain areas in our life where we are naturally weak and we struggle with them. There are those who have attributes that are suited for being a firefighter, and those who lack them. Those who have the ability to maintain their composure while dealing with extreme mental, physical and psychological conditions make the best firefighters. If you are someone who overreacts and doesn't handle stress well, this is certainly not the career for you. However, if you thrive under pressure and stress and can get things done while in the midst of a life and death situation, this career may be right up your alley.

Am I an introvert or an extrovert?
Being a firefighter requires a lot of public and personal contact, therefore introverts or those that prefer to avoid interacting with others may find some parts of the job uncomfortable and not a good fit for their personality type. Also, firefighters are part of a close knit team that works and lives together for days at a time. If you prefer to work alone or do not work well in a group setting, this job may not be suitable for you.

Can I maintain the physical strength and fitness required?
Firefighting is a physical job, and the aerobic and anaerobic capacities as well as the strength required for the job should not be taken lightly. There has to be a certain amount of dedication and energy devoted to fitness. Not just to initially get the job, but throughout the duration of the career. If maintaining a high level of fitness is challenging for you, then you may want to consider an alternate career.

Will I be able to handle family/relationship strain?
Spending at least one third of your days and nights away from home and working shift work (24 or 48 hour shifts) can strain any relationship. In addition, having to rest when off duty, having to work holidays, needing to attend fundraisers and political activities, training, and dedicating extra hours for department events can become very time consuming and ultimately overwhelming for your partner. All these factors can be deal-breakers for many people, as not everyone is cut out to be married to a firefighter.

Am I just drawn to the excitement of the job?
Being a firefighter is like working between the extremes of monotony and uncertainty. Time spent fighting fires will make up a very small fraction of the time spent on duty. Even in the busiest of firehouses, there are many other tasks and assignments that need to be performed much more frequently than fighting fires. These tasks may include apparatus and equipment checks, sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, cleaning the bathrooms, and mowing the lawns. There are scheduled meetings, paperwork, training, business inspections, campfire permits to be handed out, and hydrants to be painted.

Being aware of all aspects of this career and being willing to perform them all with equal amounts of attention to detail is key. If you are only drawn to one part of the job (eg. fighting fires), you may want to seriously consider the long list of job duties that will be expected of you.

In conclusion, it's important to separate the want from the should when considering this career. Once you have decided that you want and should be a firefighter, go after your dream as aggressively as possible. It is one of the most rewarding jobs out there.

Firefighters are also known as:
Fireman Fire Fighter