How to Become a Firefighter in California [Expert Advice]

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If you’re wanting to become a firefighter in California, there is an extensive process you must complete in order to prove that you’re a good candidate for the job. You should know that becoming a professional firefighter is a competitive field, especially in California, and you have to make sure that you’re ready for the commitment to the process and the career.

Here’s a step-by-step list of what you need to do to become a firefighter in California:

  • Meet all of the basic standards set by the Fire Department (age, physical abilities, vision, driver’s license, high school diploma, EMT and other certifications, etc.) and submit your application.
  • Pass the written and physical (CPAT or Biddle test) portions of the firefighter exam.
  • Perform well in your panel interviews and be placed on the eligibility list.
  • Complete your Chief’s interview and be given a conditional job offer.
  • Pass the conditional hiring steps (medical, psychological, drug test, and background investigation).
  • Accept a job offer and complete the department’s fire academy.
  • Complete your probationary period and pass all the accompanying tests and evaluations.

Once you’ve met the basic requirements, you can begin the testing process to prove your expertise and ensure you’re a good fit to be a firefighter. But don’t expect to get hired on your first test with nothing more than the minimum qualifications, as this rarely happens.

The most important thing you need to do before you begin your career as a firefighter is to meet the minimum standards set by the state of California. This is also perhaps the easiest step of the process, as you either meet these standards already or you don’t.

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.

Also read: How to Become a Firefighter: The Complete Guide

Before You Apply

Being a firefighter in California is an admirable dream and is a position that most people wouldn’t qualify for without commitment and dedication. 

While you might currently feel as if you’re ready for the job and ready for your first emergency call, there are thousands of people seeking these jobs and it can be quite challenging to become a firefighter.

The first thing you need to do as a firefighter applicant is to meet the basic requirements set by the department. Depending on if you want to fight more wildland fire or structural fire, as well as based on location, these standards can vary.

Also read: Can You Become a Firefighter with No Experience? Here’s How

Basic Firefighter Requirements

For most jurisdictions in California, you need to be 18 years or older with a high school degree or equivalent education (GED, etc.). In addition to being a legal adult, you must possess a valid California Driver’s License and be legally able to work in the United States.

Some of the other requirements you must meet will relate to your health and physical condition. You will also need to be extraordinarily fit and physically prepared for the demands of the job.

Here is a list of the basic requirements you need to become a firefighter in California.

  • 18 years or older
  • High school diploma or equivalent (GED)
  • Legally able to work in the United States
  • California driver’s license
  • Excellent physical fitness (Able to pass the CPAT and Fire Academy)
  • Emergency Medical Technician Certification (EMT)
  • Clean Background (Criminal, Credit, Driving, etc.)

Also read: What Do/Should Firefighters Major In? Firefighter College Degrees


2 EMT's unloading patient on gurney from the ambulance

When you envision your future as a firefighter, you’re probably thinking about running into burning buildings, extinguishing fires, and saving lives. However, a striking majority of emergency calls that you’ll be dispatched to do not involve fire at all, but rather medical emergencies.

Though not every department in the state of California will require you to have an EMT certification before you apply, a majority of the fire departments in California require their firefighters to maintain this certification throughout their careers.

Earning your EMT certification will not only be helpful when you respond to a medical emergency, but it’ll also help you qualify for more firefighter jobs in California, and it is really one of the bare minimum requirements to become a firefighter these days.

The process of getting your EMT certification is simple but requires a lot of time and dedication:

  • Enroll in an accredited program that meets the standards of National EMS Education.
  • Complete over 160 hours of relevant coursework, including lectures, labs, and clinical experience.
  • Pass the physical and cognitive portions of the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) exam.
  • Officially obtain your State and County EMT certification.

If you were hoping to bypass this step and skip right to getting experience, that’s very unlikely to happen. Because a majority of fire departments require EMT certifications, this is also usually a requirement for volunteer firefighters as well. So getting your EMT certification is a great first step to becoming a firefighter.

Also Read:

Volunteer Firefighting

Prior to pursuing a full-time career as a firefighter, you might want to consider getting field experience as a volunteer firefighter. This will allow you to get a better idea of what the job of a firefighter is actually like.

It will also give you the opportunity to learn about basic firefighting academy skills, firefighter life around the station, learning about the apparatus (engines and trucks) and equipment involved, and of course, responding to emergency calls.

Spending some time as a volunteer firefighter will also give you the chance to evaluate the position and determine whether or not it’s something you’d like to do full-time. If you find that you don’t enjoy being a volunteer firefighter or you’re incapable of performing some of the tasks, you can end the process of becoming a career firefighter without spending any more time or money on the process.

Note: Experience as a volunteer firefighter will help to show the department that you want to work for that you are capable of doing the job and may mean a better score in the testing process.

While these are great steps to prepare yourself to become a firefighter, there are many more things you can do to set yourself apart from the other firefighter candidates. You must continue to find ways to improve as you are testing to become a firefighter.

You may also be able to get some experience as a reserve firefighter or wildland firefighter, possibly with Cal Fire or the US Forest Service, as the firefighter recruitment process for these positions can be less competitive.

Also read: How to Become a Volunteer Firefighter: A Guide and Do You Get Paid As A Volunteer Firefighter? Compensation

The Hiring Process

Once you’ve met the requirements, you are eligible to apply for the open firefighter position. During the hiring/testing process, you’ll be required to show that you are both cognitively and physically prepared to take on a career position as a firefighter.

For more information on the firefighter job application, read: 7 Tips For Your Firefighter Application: Get the First Step Right

As part of this step, you’ll be required to pass the written firefighter exam and prove your athletic ability through the completion of the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) and/or Biddle Ability Test, make it through one or more panel interviews (oral boards) and a chief’s interview. You must perform well on all these steps to continue in the process and have a shot at being hired as a firefighter.

Also read: How Much Does It Cost To Become A Firefighter? Firefighter Answers

Written Firefighter Exam

written math test questions

The written firefighter exam is a comprehensive examination that determines your cognitive abilities and potential to succeed as a firefighter. In the two-and-a-half-hour, 100-150 multiple-choice question test, you’ll be quizzed on a wide range of topics and concepts, most unrelated to firefighting.

To help you prepare for the content and concepts of the written exam, you can refer to a firefighter exam preparation book to overview how to study for the exam and what to expect when you actually take the exam.

Here is the best online firefighter written test study material: Job Test Prep Firefighter Test Preparation. They even have some free study questions here.

This is the written test prep book that I recommend:

What’s actually on the test varies based on the department and the type of test. Here are the exam sections and types of questions you might encounter on your test.

  • Personality
  • Reading comprehension
  • Reasoning and judgment
  • Spatial orientation
  • Observation and memory
  • Mechanical reasoning

Some departments are moving away from doing their own written test as well. FCTC is a company that puts on written tests for firefighters. Once you pass this test, you are scored on a list that fire departments can then use to choose candidates for interviews.

Once you’ve passed the written portion of the firefighter exam with a passing score (usually above 70% or 80%), you will be given the opportunity for a panel interview.

Some areas have even moved to some video-based tests, such as the FireTeam Test, used in California (and possibly other states). Here is a study prep specific to the FireTeam Test.

To learn more about the firefighter written test and how to prepare for it, Read:

Physical Ability Test

For more details and tips for passing the CPAT, Read: 8 Tips for the Firefighter Physical Test: Passing the CPAT 

Fire Departments used to hold their own specific physical tests, but that is not very common anymore. Most departments will require that you pass your physical test and show proof before you apply for firefighter jobs.

Depending on which department you’re applying to, you’ll either have to pass the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) (Most Common) or the Biddle Ability Test (Less Common).

Both tests will demonstrate your physical fitness and ability to perform specific tasks you might encounter while on an emergency call. You should figure out which departments you’re applying to and which test they require before scheduling a test.

The Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) is a national physical test for firefighters that lasts a total of 10 minutes and 20 seconds. You are required to pass each of the eight events of the CPAT and earn a “passing” score on the exam (the test is pass/fail).

Here are brief overviews of each event.

  • Stair Climb: Wearing two 12.5-pound weights, complete three minutes on a stair machine set to 60 steps per minute.
  • Hose Drag: Drag a 1.75-inch hose from its nozzle 75 feet, circle a drum, and then travel another 25 feet. From a stationary one knee position, pull the hose another 50 feet.
  • Equipment Carry: One by one, remove two saws from the cabinet. Carry them 75 feet, circle a drum, return to the cabinet, and replace the saws one by one.
  • Ladder Raise and Extension: Lift a 24-foot ladder against a wall and, rung by rung, extend the ladder to full extension. Once fully extended, lower the ladder in the same fashion.
  • Forcible Entry: Use a 10-pound sledgehammer on the designated device until the buzzer is activated.
  • Search: Crawl through a 64-foot tunnel while maneuvering turns, obstacles, and decreases in tunnel width.
  • Rescue: Drag a 165-pound dummy 35 feet, circle the drum, and return to the starting line.
  • Ceiling Breach and Pull: Remove a pike pole, use the pike pole to push up on the ceiling three times, hook the pike pole on the ceiling and pull five times, and repeat this cycle four times.

Also read: CPAT Weighted Vest Stair Climb: How To Train

Here is a video explaining the details of the CPAT test:

The Biddle Test is available to take at Rio Hondo College, Santa Ana College, and Mt. San Antonio College. Over the course of 9 minutes and 34 seconds, you’ll have to complete 11 events following the guidelines set for you. Here are brief overviews of each event.

  • Dry Hose Deployment: Holding the nozzle of a 1.75-inch dry hose, walk 150 feet while traversing two obstacles.
  • Charged Hose Deployment: Holding the nozzle of a 1.75-inch dry hose, walk 70 feet, crawling for 32 feet of the 70 feet through a narrow hallway.
  • Halyard Raise: Raise and lower a 35-foot aluminum ladder once.
  • Roof Walk: Climb and descend a 14-foot ladder with a chainsaw in one hand.
  • Attic Crawl: Crawl 20 feet while carrying a flashlight in one hand.
  • Roof Ventilation: Strike a padded region 30 times while using an 8-pound sledgehammer.
  • Victim Removal: Drag a 154-pound dummy around two obstacles that are separated by 13 feet.
  • Ladder Removal/Carry: Remove a 24-foot ladder from a bracket, carry it around a 54-foot course, and then return it to the bracket.
  • Stair Climb with Hose Pack: Go up to the fourth floor using the stairs while carrying a 49-pound hose pack. Drop the hose pack and continue right on to the next event.
  • Attic Crawl: Crawl 60 feet and then pick up the hose pack (from the previous event) and descend back to the ground level.
  • Hose Hoist: Go up to the third floor using the stairs while carrying two air bottles totaling 29 pounds. Drop off the air bottles. Hoist 100 feet of a 1.75-inch hose through the window of the third floor. Pick up the air bottles and return to the ground floor.

Here is a video explaining the Biddle Test:

For more information about fitness requirements for firefighters, read: The Fitness Requirements for a Firefighter – Explained

Firefighter Interviews

After you pass the written exam, you’ll have to complete an oral interview to evaluate your interpersonal skills and explain why they should hire you as a firefighter.

The firefighter interview is one of the more difficult steps of the hiring process, for many. This is something that you absolutely must prepare for!

This article goes into much more detail about how to prepare yourself for this part of the hiring process, check it out: 15 Tips for Firefighter Interviews

Also read: What to Wear to a Firefighter Interview: Attire for Getting Hired

During the interview process, you’ll be interviewed by a panel to determine your skills and interpersonal abilities, and if you’d make a decent fit at the department.

During the interviews, you’ll be asked questions about your personal strengths and weaknesses, how to respond in scenarios (situational questions), previous employment history, and your goals as a firefighter, why you want to be a firefighter, what you know about their particular department, as well as what you have done to prepare yourself for the position.

This is where other experience can be helpful, even if it is not required to apply.

You can talk about your fire science or fire technology degree, seasonal firefighter experience, EMT or Paramedic work, fire prevention knowledge, how you handled yourself in an emergency situation, California State Fire Training certifications, or any other life experiences that prove to them that you are an ideal firefighter candidate.

Here is a list of topics or concepts you should be able to speak about thoroughly during your oral interviews:

  • Strengths and weaknesses
  • Future career and life goals
  • Interest in the field
  • How you respond to emergency situations
  • Working with others
  • Morality and integrity

The interview process is difficult for most.

It is a hard balance between selling yourself as a great candidate while remaining humble. It can be nerve-racking and stressful. Spending some time practicing before you sit in front of the panel can make a huge difference in your performance.

If you are really serious about becoming a firefighter, I recommend you work to master the firefighter interview. This is the best use of your time to get hired.

To make this easier, I recommend the TopScore Firefighter Interview Course. It is far better than any other course or coaching and it will prepare you to ace any firefighter interview (provided you put in the work.)

Following the panel interview/s, you may be placed on the eligibility list based on your performance so far. This list is usually used to schedule the chief’s oral interview, (which is just another interview for you to prove your knowledge and competency to the chief/s) based on how many open firefighter positions there are.

If you ace the interviews and impress the fire chief, you will be given a conditional job offer. These are conditional offers that are only valid if you complete the remainder of the department’s requirements (seen below).

Also read: Most Common Firefighter Interview Questions: Insider Info

Conditional Job Offer

With a conditional job offer in hand, you’re now faced with passing a background investigation and a medical evaluation; including psychological screening and a drug test. At this point, your job is conditional on you passing these final steps.

Background Check

criminal background check form

During the background investigation, your employment history, criminal background, credit score, driving record, and other criteria will be analyzed to reaffirm your morals, as you’ll eventually be an employee representing the fire department.

The background check can be very thorough and time-intensive, depending on the standards of the department. When I went through a background I remember it being quite involved.

I was required to fill out a huge packet of paperwork with all kinds of things about my past. Huge lists of references. Contacts for all my past girlfriends. Coworkers’ contact info. Detailed info about education, work history, etc.

All of this info was checked. They called most of the references looking for inside info on who I was. They wanted as much information as possible to make sure I was the type of person they were looking for.

For information on the firefighter background investigation, read:

Medical Evaluation

Though you’ve already passed your physical ability test, the fire department medical exam is to confirm that you have no pre-existing health conditions that could affect or prevent you from performing your fire protection duties. During the medical exam, the following may be tested:

  • Vision
  • Blood draw for labs
  • Urine test
  • Heart functioning
  • Chest x-ray

The doctor will also require you to complete a physical exam (not another physical ability exam) to determine your physical readiness when it comes to being a firefighter. Here are some of the aspects of your abilities that may be tested:

  • Aerobic capacity
  • Body composition
  • Strength
  • Muscular endurance
  • Flexibility

There is a good chance you’ll have to pass a psychological examination as well to prove that you are psychologically fit to perform your duties as a firefighter while maintaining the safety of yourself, your peers, and the general public.

These tests are performed to ensure that you don’t have any debilitating conditions that might endanger you or your peers when you’re working a fire. While getting these tests done might be annoying, all firefighters must be in excellent health and physical shape to perform their duties. 

For more information about NFPA 1582 and the firefighter medical exam, read:

If you’ve successfully passed all of the medical exams and all parts of the background investigation, then you will be given an official job offer as a firefighter. Congratulations! You are now a fire recruit! Now the hard part begins…

Also read: How Much Do Firefighters Make? Average Salaries By State 2022

The Fire Academy

For more detailed information about the fire academy, read:

In California, the fire academy usually lasts anywhere between 10 and 24 weeks, but this may vary depending on the academy you attend. While at the academy, you’ll be educated in the classroom and on the drill grounds on the basics of how to be a firefighter.

Even if you already have been through a firefighter 1 academy, most departments will put you through their academy. This is to ensure you know how to be a firefighter exactly the way this particular department expects. Here is a quick look at what you should expect from each portion of the fire academy.

Note: This refers to a fire academy as put on by the department you are hired by as part of your initial training. There are also fire academies that you can pay to go through on your own (usually hosted by local colleges). The training may be very similar in these college academies and they are a great way to prepare yourself, but they are not the same as a fire academy once you are hired.

Classroom Education

While in the classroom, you’ll follow along with a set curriculum that’ll teach you the basics of being a firefighter, how to respond to emergencies, and tools you may use while on the job. During this section, you will be required to pass written tests to demonstrate your cognitive knowledge.

They will use firefighter basic textbooks for much of the curriculum. The two most common books used are:

These books will be provided for you during your academy, however, many people make the investment into their future career ahead of time and purchase these books to prepare themselves well before they are hired.

People often overlook the academic portion of the fire academy. While it will be challenging physically, it can also be a lot of work to get through the classroom portions. They usually have high standards for passing your tests and evaluations.

Also read: Do You Need a College Degree to Be a Firefighter? Real Answer

Drill Grounds

During this portion of the fire academy, it’s all about learning the physical skills of firefighting. You will be expected to be able to do this while wearing full firefighter gear, which really adds to the challenge.

All the skills that you will learn and be tested on are in the firefighter textbooks mentioned above. Expect to learn things like:

  • Pulling hose lines
  • Throwing ladders
  • How to don (put on) your protective equipment
  • Tying knots and hoisting tools

These and a ton of other skills will be used in constant drills to make sure you are proficient in all different types of scenarios that are encountered as a firefighter.

Physical Fitness Training

man in army doing pushups

You might be fit, but there’s still work that needs to be done when it comes to physical fitness. During each day at the fire academy, you should expect to be doing some form of physical fitness, in addition to all the other physical firefighting drills. Being a firefighter means being exceptionally fit, and the fire academy is a way to better prepare you for the physical demands of the job.

Just because you passed the CPAT or Biddle test before getting hired, don’t assume that you are in good enough shape for the academy. The fire academy often requires a much higher level of fitness. You should continue to improve your fitness even after passing the pre-hiring physical test.

One of the best techniques I’ve found for improving firefighter-specific fitness is wearing a weighted vest. This can be used when climbing stairs or even just hills. This is an underutilized technique that transfers well to the physical demands of being a firefighter.

Here is the weight vest that I have and use (i have the 60-pound version). It’s comfortable (as comfortable as that much weight can be) and will last for years. It is worth it to spend a little more on this as the cheaper ones seem to fall apart really quickly.

For more information about fitness requirements for firefighters, read: The Fitness Requirements for a Firefighter – Explained

If you’ve passed every portion of the fire academy, including written tests, physical fitness testing, and firefighter drills, you’ll officially graduate from the fire academy and begin your career as a probationary firefighter. This is a big accomplishment!

Firefighter Probation

For more information about probation, read: How Long is a Firefighter Probationary Period?

Upon graduation from the fire academy, you’re officially a firefighter! You will be on probation for the first while. This just means you still need to prove yourself and they can easily let you go if they decide you aren’t cut out for it. This is where you also learn about good habits around the fire station.

As a probationary firefighter, you will have to make it through the probationary period, which can be from 6 months to 2 years. Though you’ve been through the academy and proved your physical abilities and cognitive knowledge, you now need to prove that you can do the job of a firefighter in the real world, alongside other fire crews, as opposed to the controlled environment of a fire academy.

As a probationary firefighter, you will be under the microscope. Everyone is watching to make sure you are right for the job. In this position, you’ll be sent out on emergency calls and perform all the other duties that firefighters perform. You will also be frequently tested. Expect to continue the learning process that you started in the academy.

You’re officially a firefighter, but you need to learn the ropes and the ins and outs of the career. It is also the time to go out of your way to exceed everyone’s expectations of you. Prove that you want and deserve to be there over all the other candidates who would love to be in your spot.

As a probationary firefighter, you may be expected to do the following:

  • Wake up early, go to bed late
  • Station cleanup
  • Always be working to learn and improve your firefighter knowledge and skills
  • Basic station tasks (getting the newspaper, running the dishwasher, etc.)
  • Practice drills
  • Checking equipment

You should be attempting to make your crew (coworkers) jobs as easy as possible. It can require a lot of extra work to help train a new firefighter and you should try to show your appreciation by taking on as much of the extra workload as possible.

As a new firefighter, you get to decide what personal tools you want to carry. Here is more information to help you decide what to put in your pockets: The 11 Best Firefighter Personal Tools

Career Goals

After your probationary firefighter period, you’ll advance to a position as a “regular” firefighter. You have officially made it!

Whether or not you’d like to spend your career as a firefighter or if you have aspirations to promote through the ranks of the fire department will be up to you. But you should always be looking for ways to learn and improve your abilities. And obviously, a promotion can give you a nice bump up from a firefighter salary.

If you enjoy your career as a firefighter but want to further increase your rank, here are some options:

Another option for career improvement is seeking out special training and certifications in a variety of categories, like:

  • EMS (Paramedic)
  • Hazardous Materials (Technician or Specialist)
  • Technical Rescue (Low angle, High angle, Trench, Confined space)
  • Wildland
  • Fire Instructor
  • Fire Investigation

There are a ton of different other career specialties, depending on where you work. For more information on the available classes, see the California State Fire Marshal Website.

Continuing your education isn’t just important because it can help you advance your career. It’s also beneficial to be in the know and have the most updated information relating to your career. You should always be learning as a firefighter.

Like any career field, protocols and tactics may change from year to year, and it’s necessary to stay on top of the changes to better help the community.


To become a firefighter in California, you need to commit yourself to the process and understand the roles and responsibilities that you’ll have as a firefighter. It can be a long journey, but well worth it.

“Nothing worth doing is ever easy.” Once you’re set on the idea and ready to put in the time and effort, it’s time to take the first step to begin your career. 

To recap, here’s what you need to do.

  • Meet all of the basic standards set by the Fire Department (age, physical abilities, vision, driver’s license, high school diploma, EMT and other certifications, etc.) and submit your application.
  • Pass the written and physical (CPAT or Biddle test) portions of the firefighter exam.
  • Perform well in your panel interviews and be placed on the eligibility list.
  • Complete your Chief’s interview and be given a conditional job offer.
  • Pass the conditional hiring steps (medical, psychological, drug test, and background investigation).
  • Accept a job offer and complete the department’s fire academy.
  • Complete your probationary period and pass all the accompanying tests and evaluations.

And to get through all this faster and get the firefighter position you really want, I recommend you invest in yourself and get some help with the TopScore Course and the Job Test Prep study materials.

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