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Fire Fighters - What They Do


How to Advance (Advancement)
Most experienced fire fighters continue studying to improve their job performance and prepare for promotion examinations. To progress to higher level positions, they acquire expertise in advanced fire fighting equipment and techniques, building construction, emergency medical technology, writing, public speaking, management and budgeting procedures, and public relations.

Opportunities for promotion depend upon the results of written examinations, as well as job performance, interviews, and seniority. Hands-on tests that simulate real-world job situations also are used by some fire departments.

Usually, fire fighters are first promoted to engineer, then lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and, finally, chief. For promotion to positions higher than battalion chief, many fire departments now require a bachelor's degree, preferably in fire science, public administration, or a related field. An associate’s degree is required for executive fire officer certification from the National Fire Academy.

Employment
In 2008, total paid employment in fire fighting occupations was about 365,600. Fire fighters held about 310,400 jobs, and first-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers held about 55,200. These employment figures include only paid career fire fighters—they do not cover volunteer fire fighters, who perform the same duties and may constitute the majority of fire fighters in a residential area. According to the U.S. Fire Administration, about 70 percent of fire companies were staffed entirely by volunteer fire fighters in 2007.

About 91 percent of fire fighting workers were employed by local governments. Some local and regional fire departments are being consolidated into countywide establishments to reduce administrative staffs, cut costs, and establish consistent training standards and work procedures. Some large cities have thousands of career fire fighters, while many small towns have only a few. Most of the fire fighters not employed by local governments worked in fire departments on Federal and State installations, including airports. Private fire fighting companies employ a small number of fire fighters.

Job Outlook
Although employment is expected to grow faster than the average for all jobs, candidates for these positions are expected to face keen competition because these positions are highly attractive and sought after.

Job Growth
Employment of fire fighters is expected to grow by 19 percent over the 2008–18 decade, which is faster than the average for all occupations. Most job growth will stem from volunteer fire fighting positions being converted to paid positions. In recent years, it has become more difficult for volunteer fire departments to recruit and retain volunteers, perhaps because of the considerable amount of training and time commitment required. Furthermore, a trend toward more people living in and around cities has increased the demand for fire fighters. When areas develop and become more densely populated, emergencies and fires affect more buildings and more people and, therefore, require more fire fighters.

Prospective fire fighters are expected to face keen competition for available job openings. Many people are attracted to fire fighting because (1) it is challenging and provides the opportunity to perform an essential public service, (2) a high school education is usually sufficient for entry, and (3) a pension is usually guaranteed after 25 years of service. Consequently, the number of qualified applicants in most areas far exceeds the number of job openings, even though the written examination and physical requirements eliminate many applicants. This situation is expected to persist in coming years. Applicants with the best chances are those who are physically fit and score the highest on physical-conditioning and mechanical aptitude exams. Those who have completed some fire fighter education at a community college and have EMT or paramedic certification will have an additional advantage.

Earnings
Median annual wages of fire fighters were $44,260 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $31,180 and $58,440. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $22,440, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $72,210. Median annual wages were $44,800 in local government, $45,610 in the Federal Government, $25,300 in other support services, and $37,870 in State governments.

Median annual wages of first-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers were $67,440 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $53,820 and $86,330. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $40,850, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $108,930. First-line supervisors/managers of fire fighting and prevention workers employed in local government earned a median of about $69,000 a year.

Fire fighters who average more than a certain number of work hours per week are required to be paid overtime. The threshold is determined by the department. Fire fighters often work extra shifts to maintain minimum staffing levels and during special emergencies.

In 2008, 66 percent of all fire fighters were union members or covered by a union contract. Fire fighters receive benefits that usually include medical and liability insurance, vacation and sick leave, and some paid holidays. Almost all fire departments provide protective clothing (helmets, boots, and coats) and breathing apparatus, and many also provide dress uniforms. Fire fighters generally are covered by pension plans, often offering retirement at half pay after 25 years of service or if the individual is disabled in the line of duty.

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