Fire Fighters Job Description and Salary Outlook

Fire fighters are responsible for locating, rescuing and giving emergency medical attention to people who are caught in fires, accidents and other emergencies.

By Alma Abreu
Posted 2012

Working to protect individuals from fires and other emergencies, fire fighters play an important role in ensuring public safety. When accidents or medical emergencies occur, fire fighters are usually the first to respond and arrive at the scene. They perform specific tasks delegated by a superior officer.

When a fire occurs, they send water through high pressure hoses by connecting them to hydrants to put out fires. In some cases, they utilize different tools to get through walls, doors and debris, sometimes using information about the floor plan of the site. Some fire fighters locate and rescue people who are unable to escape from the building safely without help. Their duties can change several times. They may be required to give emergency medical attention, salvage building contents and ventilate areas cloudy with smoke. They may even need to stay at a disaster site for a number of days in order to rescue people who are trapped.

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  • Although most fire fighters hold a high school diploma, taking courses in a community college or earning an associate’s degree in fire science can increase job prospects.
  • Most departments require that fire fighters have emergency medical technician certification.
  • Many fire fighters work long hours, usually 50 hours per week.
  • According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment in this field is expected to grow faster than the average, as many volunteer positions will be converted to paid fire fighter positions.

Work Environment for Fire Fighters

Many fire fighters work 50 hours per week, sometimes even longer. They spend a lot of time at fire stations, which are similar to dormitories. When an alarm goes off, they respond quickly, regardless of the time or weather conditions.

Their work involves a high risk of injury and death, which is typically attributed to incidents involving floors that cave in, traffic accidents, walls that topple over and exposure to smoke and flames. They may also encounter flammable, poisonous chemicals or explosive gas and radioactive materials that can have both long- and short-term effects on their health. This is why they need to wear protective clothing and gear that can become very heavy and hot.

Education, Training and Licensing

Although most fire fighters hold a high school diploma, completing courses in a community college or earning an associate’s degree in fire science can increase job opportunities. Many colleges and universities have courses that lead to a two- or four-year degree in fire science or fire engineering. Recently, an increasing amount of new fire fighters have obtained education beyond high school.

Large fire departments train entry-level fire fighters for several weeks at the department’s academy or training center. These new hires study fire prevention, fire fighting techniques, hazardous materials control, local building codes, emergency medical procedures that include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and first aid. This is done through practical training and classroom instruction. After the successful completion of a training program, new hires are assigned to a fire company and go through a probationary period. Accredited apprenticeship programs usually take four years to complete and are offered through many departments. These programs include formal instruction combined with supervised on-the-job training by experienced fire fighters.

Fire fighters are required to be certified as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) in most departments. Most departments require only that fire fighters have Emergency Medical Technician Basic (EMT-Basic), which is the lowest level of this type of certification. Large departments in urban areas are increasingly requiring that fire fighters have paramedic certification. Sometimes this training is included in the fire academy of a department. Other times, departments prefer that new hires obtain EMT certification independently.

Some fire fighters obtain training through sessions sponsored by the U.S. National Fire Academy, which covers subjects such as disaster preparedness, public fire safety and education, anti-arson techniques and hazardous materials control. Certain states have voluntary or mandatory certification and training programs. Incentives are provided through many departments, including higher pay or tuition reimbursement for the completion of advanced training programs.

Employment Figures, Projections, Outlook and Earnings for Fire Fighters

According to research published by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fire fighters held approximately 308,790 jobs in May 2014. Most of these jobs were for local government, federal executive branch and other support services. Other jobs were for state government and facilities support services.

Employment in this field is forecasted by the BLS to grow faster than the average. Most of this growth will come from volunteer fire fighting positions that are converted into paid positions.

BLS records for May 2014 indicate that the average annual wage for fire fighters was $48,750. The middle 50% earned between $31,340 and $61,950. While the lowest 10% had a yearly salary of $22,130 or less, the highest 10% earned upwards of $81,450 annually.

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