Becoming a firefighter is no small task. The grueling 10 to 24-week academy is meant to push its recruits to their physical and mental limits. Some recruit firefighters are shocked when they are let go, unsure what they did that got them cut from the academy and their career as a firefighter. So, how can you fail the fire academy?
You can fail the fire academy and it can happen for a variety of reasons, including: failing physical skills or written exams, resisting authority, not being a team player, injuries, or bad attitudes.
There are many pitfalls that can get someone unceremoniously kicked out of the fire academy. It is my hope that this list will help any prospective firefighters succeed. Likewise, we hope anyone who has failed out of fire academy might learn from these mistakes if they wish to attempt it a second time around.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
What Failing Can Mean?
Note: When I say fire academy, there are two different types. A fire academy is the 10-24 week intensive training program for firefighters. There are Firefighter 1 academies offered at local community colleges that you must meet the requirements and pay to put yourself through.
Then there are fire academies put on by the fire department for newly hired firefighter employees. Even though much of the material that is taught may be the same, there are some obvious differences between the two.
Failing out of the academy does not necessarily mean your career as a firefighter is over forever. If you fail a college academy, you simply reapply and try again to get through the training.
However, if you fail the fire academy after being hired as a firefighter, you are also let go from the job.
This usually means you won’t be able to get hired again by that fire department (why would they take a second chance on you). But there have been cases of people who have been terminated during the academy or probationary period but are rehired as firefighters for different fire departments.
At the end of the day, if your goal is to become a firefighter and you are willing to do whatever it takes, then you can’t give up, even if you fail out. It helps to understand what pitfalls to avoid, whether it’s the first or even the second time around in the program.
How You Can Fail the Academy
1. Physically Out of Shape
Being a firefighter is physically taxing and requires one to be in peak physical condition. You are in charge of saving lives. You must be able to drag a 200-lb man out of a burning building. Therefore, you can’t begin the training having never exercised a day in your life.
Many people think that since they passed the firefighter physical test (CPAT), it means they are fit enough to pass a fire academy and work as a firefighter. This is not always true. The CPAT is the baseline, minimum physical requirement to become a firefighter. The fire academy will usually be much more challenging.
Here is a video of the FDNY Fire Academy and their physical fitness standards:
Not sure where to start? Read: The Fitness Requirements for a Firefighter – Explained and 8 Tips for the Firefighter Physical Test: Passing the CPAT
Tip: One of the best ways to get into firefighter shape is to use a weighted vest while climbing stairs or hills. Here is the vest I use: Cross101 60 pound Weighted Vest
2. Getting Injured
Experiencing any kind of injury during the academy can lead to failure. Injury can cause you to miss out on important training sessions and exams. If you’re lucky, you may have a generous chief who allows you to enter the next academy once you’ve recovered from your injury. However, this is not always the case.
Most fire departments will be more understanding if an injury occurred while training at the academy. However, if you go skiing and break a leg…they will be much less understanding.
Also, once you do ‘get the job’ as a firefighter, you only have a certain amount of sick days and paid leave. If you injure yourself off the job, you are wasting days that you may need over the years. Choose your hobbies wisely, especially while in the academy and on probation, as during this time you’re an at-will employee and can be let go for any reason.
3. Mentally Un-Prepared
Some people become firefighters because they want to be a hero. Being a firefighter is much different than it is depicted on TV. While it is a noble profession and you will get a chance to make a difference in many people’s lives, it isn’t all about running into burning buildings and saving babies. The majority of the job is more routine and less obviously heroic.
Therefore, before getting hired, you need to understand reality from fiction.
Know that your life and the lives of the women and men you work with are always at risk. Know that you will see truly horrible things in this line of work and must process that before you return home to your family. These are all things that are being evaluated about you in the academy.
4. Scoring Poorly on Written Exams
You probably know how physically challenging the fire academy is, but you may not know that it is also academically difficult. There will be a lot of reading, studying, amortization, as well as written and oral board testing.
Most fire academies expect a recruit to receive an 80% or higher on their written exams. That is essentially a B- or higher. These exams are administered (almost) daily. This means that every time you arrive, you need to bring your A-game.
If you are someone who has traditionally performed poorly on written exams, then you should seek some exam tutoring before beginning your training. The written exams are as important as the physical tests, and performing poorly on them will lead to your dismissal.
A good way to help prepare for the academic portion of the fire academy is to get a basic firefighter training textbook before you start. If you start reading and studying the material well before you are tested on it, you have a leg up to make sure you excel when your job is on the line.
Why are these written exams so important? These exams test your knowledge of this field. If you are performing poorly on the exams, it informs your supervisors that you aren’t retaining the vital information they are expecting you to learn to keep yourself and others safe.
Keep in mind, even when you pass, professional firefighters are required to take various exams throughout different points of their careers. Such topics include EMT, HazMat, Rescue, policy changes, or promotional testing.
5. Performing Poorly in Physical Skills Tests
Failing to complete your hands-on skills tests given weekly and monthly will lead to your dismissal. You must be capable of properly throwing a ladder, putting your self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) on (throwing) in under the time limit, executing forcible entry, as well as performing hose drags and ceiling breach and pulls.
This is all very physically demanding. It requires extreme amounts of determination and willingness to practice again and again to get it right. If you are not willing to practice until you master all these skills, you may get the boot.
Here is a video of the Tulsa Fire Department Academy that shows some of the types of manipulative training you will go through in the academy:
6. Background Checks
Sometimes our pasts do come back to haunt us. While it’s usually a rare occasion, sometimes a person’s background check can reveal more information than the person let on during the application process. This can range from listing jobs one did not actually work at, to criminal offenses.
The results of the background check will most likely be reviewed during the hiring process and any unacceptable findings will prevent the candidate from entering the academy in the first place. However, occasionally, more information is revealed about a recruit’s background after they have already begun the academy and they are let go during the academy.
7. Inappropriate Conduct
This is probably the most disappointing reason to be kicked out, mainly because it is entirely avoidable. Whether on or off the job, your personal conduct will inform the department’s decision to keep you or cut you.
Inciting fights, harassment, or abuse of any kind is an automatic fail. You are not in a fraternity. It is a paramilitary career and the academy is meant to put you through your paces so you can save civilian lives. If your personality is a problem to your fellow cadets and the chain of commands, you’ll be shown the door.
This also applies to your behavior outside the academy. There have been plenty of cases where a trainee goes out, has too many drinks, acts a fool, and gets pulled over for a DUI.
The fire department requires you have a valid driver’s license to work as a firefighter. Why? Because they may need you to be the driver on any given emergency run. Any traffic violations or criminal offenses will be reported to your department. This does not reflect well on you and could lead to your termination.
8. Too Many Absences
Poor attendance will also lead to failure. This means taking good care of yourself while going through the program. It is a rigorous process. Thus you will need to get lots of solid sleep, eat a healthy diet, and practice healthy habits. This also includes avoiding getting sick at all costs. Stay away from anyone who is sick. Refrain from partying and showing up at classes with a hangover. These are easy enough tasks to ensure you’re able to show up every day ready to learn and to work.
Other ways to avoid absences? Use common sense when choosing your mode of transport, your choice of hobbies, and your choice of diet/exercise. There have been trainees who have failed out of the academy because they got into a jet-ski accident six weeks into training. Can you imagine how frustrating that is, not just for the trainee, but for the department that hired them? It isn’t easy to find solid recruits. Therefore, when someone fails out due to an accident caused by a hobby they should have avoided, it is a sign they didn’t take the situation seriously.
9. Bad with Authority
As is true with the military, an individual entering the fire academy must respect authority and the chain of command. You will be given a plethora of orders, and the instructors expect that you follow them.
Obviously, if you have a chief who is intentionally putting you at risk in a way that feels out of bounds for the academy, you need to speak up to someone you can trust. However, if it isn’t a safety concern, you need to do what your instructors tell you. This is not so that you can pass, but it is often to protect you as well.
Those instructing you in your fire academy are firefighters and they are passing on as much of their experience to you as possible. It is their job to prepare you for these situations and to keep you from harming yourself and others.
Even when you are assigned a menial task that feels annoying or arbitrary, it is your job as a recruit firefighter to suck it up and do the task at hand. Someone depends on you to follow through. Do your job!
Another reason people fail out of the program is due to inexperience. Individuals with prior military or EMT experience will have a leg up on a civilian who has no military or prior medical training.
Your life experience does help determine whether you’ll be successful when you go to the fire academy. Younger candidates sometimes struggle due to not enough life experience and being more immature. Don’t let that happen to you!
If you have suddenly decided to become a firefighter, with little to no experience, and are lucky enough to get hired quickly, you will likely have to work extra hard to make up for your inexperience.
There is nothing wrong with changing careers, but it does mean you might have a steeper learning curve than your counterparts.
11. Failing to Ask for Help
Asking for help is a very simple concept and yet is no less important. Should you find yourself struggling with any portion of the training or the coursework, you should seek assistance. There is no shame in asking for help from either your fellow trainees or the training staff.
There is strength in acknowledging one’s own deficiencies. Knowing where your personal weaknesses allows you the opportunity to begin making intentional improvements in those areas. The department wants you to pass the academy. They have already invested a lot of time and money into hiring and training you. They want to help you be successful.
If you are performing poorly on written exams, ask for assistance from the trainee who receives the highest written exam scores. If you are struggling with putting your SCBA on for time, grab a friend, and practice in your downtime.
Building comradery with your fellow cadets is crucial in finding success in your career as a firefighter. Asking for help is an excellent way to build that bond and trust. Not only that, but such assistance can turn a weakness into a strength over time.
12. Being a Lone Wolf
If you are a lone wolf who prefers to work alone, you might not survive the fire academy or the fire service in general. The fire service is a grueling job and requires a great amount of trust from one’s team. If you are unapproachable or dislike working in teams, you will not enjoy a career as a firefighter.
Also, no one wants to be on a team with someone who only looks out for themselves. You must look out for your fellow firefighters as much as you would look out for yourself.
If the training staff notices you do not work well with others during your training, you may find yourself being dismissed.
13. Personal Life & Family Responsibilities
One of the toughest parts of the job is not being able to see your family as often as you’d like. When you are a firefighter, you work several days on the job at a time, living those days at the firehouse. You then return home to your family for only a few days before doing your next shift.
This applies to the fire academy as well. Though the schedule will be different, you will be very busy training and you will come home tired. You will have reading and studying to do every night. All of this can put stress on your home life, so you need to make sure you and your family are prepared.
The fire service has a reputation for having one of the highest divorce/separation rates of any given field. Thus, it is crucial you have these real talks with your spouse about what life as a firefighter will be like and what it means for everyone.
A firefighter risks their life every time they leave the firehouse. If your spouse is not okay with this line of work, you are going to experience marital discord often, which leads to a distracted firefighter.
Here is a book with info to help your family understand what the academy and the job of a firefighter is really like, as well as how that will affect them (your family). The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate and Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead
14. Being a Jerk
If you have a bad attitude or are entirely disagreeable, you will probably fail out of the academy. Why? Because no one wants to work with a jerk. If people don’t want to work with you, a captain can’t trust that people will have your back in the field… nor can they trust that you will have their back.
Also, firefighters must live with each other roughly a third of their working life! Administration takes this into consideration when forming their team. If they can’t stand the thought of enduring your presence for 72 hours straight, then you aren’t a good fit and they will let you go.
It is not easy becoming a firefighter. However, there are certain aspects of the training that can improve one’s likelihood of succeeding.
These things include being physically fit before entering the academy, having your family’s consent and approval of this lifestyle, and asking for help and being a team player. If you have a challenging personality, dislike authority, and perform risky hobbies outside of the academy that could potentially lead to you failing.
Certain aspects of the program, like the physical skills tests and the written test, do require stamina and knowledge. Many other aspects of the fire academy simply require common sense and the ability to play nicely with others. If becoming a firefighter is your dream, we hope this list can help you avoid failure and further assist you in achieving your dream.