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Firefighter

Overview  

Long hours? That's the easy part

Many jobs require 60-hour workweeks. Many companies require their employees to work on holidays. However, very few employers ask their employees to run headfirst into flaming buildings to rescue children and pets.

Firefighters respond to medical emergencies like car accidents as well as to fires. They rescue cats from trees, and when your little brother gets his head stuck in between the iron bars of the front gate, the fire department is usually called to pry him out. Because they are often the first to arrive at the scene of accidents, many firefighters hold additional certification as emergency medical technicians (EMTs).

Get in shape

Being in tip-top shape is a must for firefighters. For starters, the protective gear that firefighers wear weighs about 40 pounds (the equipment that they use has become increasingly sophisticated in recent years). Next, consider the physical activity involved in firefighting. In the few seconds that they have when they arrive at a fire, fighters set up ladders, connect their hose lines to hydrants, operate a pump, and, in some cases, climb many flights of stairs before reaching trapped victims. While they are testing their limits of physical exertion, firefighters must contend with toxic gases and smoke inhalation. Because of these physical demands, and also because of the responsibility they hold, firefighters undergo occasional polygraphs and periodic drug testing to ensure their enduring integrity and health.

At the station

Firefighters spend most of their workday at fire stations, where they eat and sleep when they are on 24-hour shifts. Between alarms, they have classroom training, and spend hours cleaning and maintaining equipment. This maintenance can take up to four hours and must be done after every call.

The hours of a firefighter vary. In some cities, firefighters are on 24-hour duty, then are off for 48 hours; in other cities, they work a day shift of 10 hours for three or four days, a night shift of 14 hours for three or four nights, have three or four days off, and then repeat the cycle. These irregular hours are an additional source of stress in a firefighter's life and often impacts family life. The fact that they work in close quarters for many hours a month means that firefighters tend to bond strongly. This camaraderie is more than just a convenience, as firefighters have to rely on their peers when they go into a fire, usually in teams.

Career Path  

Once they have passed the required stamina, coordination, agility, medical and reading exams, firefighters are trained for several weeks at their department's training center. Through classroom instruction and practical training, the recruits study firefighting techniques, fire prevention, hazardous materials, local building codes, and emergency medical procedures, including first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. They learn how to use axes, saws, chemical extinguishers, ladders, and rescue equipment. If they pass this training, they are put on a probation period, which can vary from six to 18 months. Many fire departments have apprentice programs where applicants can spend three or four months "shadowing" firefighters to gain on-the-job training, where they do everything except actually fight fires. Firefighters are now encouraged and, in some cities required, to hold up to 45 hours of college credit or courses in fire engineering and fire science, as well as training as emergency medical technicians. Many fire departments offer firefighters incentives such as tuition reimbursement or higher pay for completing advanced training. As firefighters gain experience, they may advance to higher ranks, such as lieutenant, captain, and chief. Advancement generally depends upon written examination scores, job performance, and seniority. Some departments require chiefs to have a master's degree. Firefighters can also become part of a department's fire prevention team, which includes a fire marshall and fire inspectors who visit buildings to make sure they are fire code-compliant.

Firefighters are almost exclusively male, although women are seen more and more often riding the big red trucks. Competition for jobs is intense; the civic duty aspect of being a firefighter attracts many applicants and nepotism runs rampant in many towns.

Uppers  

Camaraderie;Flexible schedules;Respect in neighborhoods

Downers  

Danger;Long,irregular hours;Work on holidays

Personality Match  

Courageous;Confident;Compassionate;Diligent;Resourceful;Good cook

Personality Miss  

Sensitive;Disorganized;Introverted

Hours  

Average about 50 per week

Salary  

Average salary: $658/week + overtime pay;Median salary:$31,170 + overtime pay;Supervisors and fire-prevention earn more

Skills  

Academic qualifications vary between cities: some require only a GED, others require at least two years of college;Successful completion of civil service exam;Physical aptitude test;Drug test;Polygraph test

Our Survey Says  

There are many benefits to being a firefighter, such as "working three days and being off for four" and "relaxation at the firehouse." As one firefighter puts it, "If you can handle going into a structure where the temperature is in excess of 3,000 degrees and looking at people who have been severely injured in a car wreck that could have been prevented, then this is the job for you."

Firefighters are immensely proud of the work they do and cite "professionalism, camaraderie, love for people, compassion, and emotion" as the primary qualities of their peers and themselves. The camaraderie that develops among firefighters stems from the fact that their lives "are in each other's hands." Firefighters are "constantly faced with death." Though this is "emotionally exhausting," to "save a person or an animal is a huge payback for the hardship." One firefighter says that he has seen enough death to "last two lifetimes and saved enough lives to last four lifetimes." Firefighters are also invariably well-liked by communities. As one contact explains, "people call for firefighters because they want them there," and there is "rarely any hostility" directed towards them.

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