How To Become A Volunteer Firefighter: A Guide


Have you ever thought about becoming a firefighter? It’s a very worthwhile thing to do and you can become a volunteer with your local fire department if you feel that this is something that you’d like to dedicate yourself to. This can be great as a way to get involved and give back to the community, as well as a stepping stone to becoming a professional firefighter.

How to become a volunteer firefighter?

  • Commit to the job
  • Ensure you know what you’ll be doing (roles, hours, expectations)
  • Apply for the position
  • Pass the selection process
  • Get trained by the department (fire academy)

Volunteer firefighters play an important role in our nation’s fire departments and it’s a role that you can be very proud of if you get it. However, it’s not an easy option and a volunteer is expected to work just as hard and well as a regular firefighter when they are called upon. So, let’s see how you become one.

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

Important Questions You Should Ask Before You Apply To Become A Volunteer Firefighter

It is important to understand that volunteer firefighting is not an easy option. There are much simpler and easier ways to volunteer your time and you should only apply if you feel that you truly want to be involved with firefighter responsibilities.

You’re going to find yourself doing a lot of different work and in order to be sure you’re cut out for it – you might want to answer these questions for yourself, honestly, before you get too far into the process of trying to become a volunteer firefighter.

  1. Are you OK with working through an entire 24-hour shift and working uncommon hours on a regular basis to help others? You can’t stop in the middle of fighting a fire and go home to bed. 
  2. What are your motivations to become a firefighter? This means do you understand that you should be driven by helping others and not out of an urge to become a “hero”. The fire service is a team that serves the public, it’s not looking to take on mavericks seeking fame.
  3. Can you cope easily with stress and anxiety? No shade meant here but this is a stressful job that involves potential danger to you and contact with people who have been injured or killed. It’s not an occupation for someone who falls to pieces under stress.
  4. Do you want to join a genuine community? Firefighting is almost a family affair with everyone on the team committed to delivering exceptional service in the best way possible to their community. 
  5. Are you ready to become a firefighter? Have you met all the specific and general requirements of the fire department that you want to join and ensured that you meet them all?

If you can’t say “yes” to all of these questions or you lack the right motivation – you might want to rethink your decision. Firefighting is hard dangerous work and it might not be for you.

If you can say “yes” and you have the right motivation, then you might be made of the right stuff that your fire department needs from a volunteer firefighter and you might soon be ready to apply. 

What Are The Duties Of A Volunteer Firefighter?

So, what are the major duties that you might be expected to conduct as a volunteer firefighter? Well, you might be surprised to learn that while firefighting will be part of the job, it’s not the whole of it and sometimes, it won’t even be the majority of the work that you do.

The main areas that fire fighters work in are:

1. Fighting Fires

Fighting fires is definitely still part of the fire service, though today, there are fewer fires to fight because fire safety is more widely practiced in all industries than it once was and technology has provided a lot of fire protection that didn’t use to exist. However, the downside to that is that when fires do occur, they often tend to be more severe than they might once have been.

Volunteers, in many but not all fire departments, are expected to perform all the same firefighting tasks and functions as a professional firefighter would. They are usually trained and equipped to handle fire-related emergencies.

2. Emergency Medical Response (EMS)

It’s becoming more and more part of a firefighter’s core work to respond to medical emergencies. Most firefighters are now qualified EMTs or paramedics to reflect this.

Depending on your qualifications you might be able to offer first aid, CPR, or more on these types of calls and that’s a really rewarding part of a volunteer firefighter’s work time.

Also read:

3. Vehicle Accidents and Road Safety

When called to a traffic accident, firefighters use special tools to free victims trapped in their cars. They also provide emergency medical care to anyone injured.

Here is a video of firefighters performing a vehicle extrication:

Also, the firefighter may need to take part in rerouting traffic to prevent pile-ups, to manage pedestrians, other emergency staff, any drivers, etc. and ensure they are following the right safety protocols. They may also be tasked with setting up perimeters or just to lend a hand where it’s needed most.

Also read: Why Do Firefighters Respond to Car Accidents?

4. Search and Rescue

Depending on where you live, if people go missing, the fire department might be asked to get involved in search and rescue activities – this might take place in caves, mountains, or forests. Volunteers can really make a difference as to how much ground is covered and searched in a small period of time. 

5. Maintenance Work

Volunteer firefighters also help with what’s known as “housekeeping” work around the fire station. They might be tasked to help repair a piece of equipment, to patch up a ripped uniform or just to clear up around the place. 

Because fire fighting is a hard wearing profession, there’s nearly always something that could use a little attention somewhere in the fire station to bring it back up to speed. 

6. Fundraising Work

It would be lovely if there was no need for fundraising but in any fire station, there’s a genuine need to raise more money to improve equipment and services and that means creating and running initiatives to get the funds flowing through the door.

You might be asked to apply for grant funding or to run a bake off. There is a huge range of ways to raise cash if you’re creative. 

7. Office Work

Just as with housekeeping, fire departments don’t run themselves and they generate huge volumes of paperwork. You might be tasked with anything from report writing to filing. Record keeping is vital to protecting the fire department against mischievous lawsuits. 

So, as you can see – a volunteer firefighter does a lot more than “just” fight fires. (Of course, fighting fires is a very important part of the job). That means you will need to be prepared to lend a hand or pitch in with your skills wherever they are needed. 

Before You Apply

Before you send in an application to become a firefighter, there are many things that you can do to give yourself a much better chance of being accepted. Because firefighting is extremely serious work, you won’t automatically get a position as a volunteer firefighter – it takes a specific kind of person to succeed in the role. 

Ensure Your Commitment

Possibly, the first place to start is with an honest soul searching exercise. Nobody will think any less of you if you decide that volunteer firefighting is not for you. 

If you want to become a firefighter, you’re going to have to pour a lot of yourself into the job. You will spend, quite literally, hundreds of hours of your life on training for the job, alone. 

You need to be ready to get involved in your community and deal with the public. You’re going to have to handle stressful situations on a daily basis. 

The shifts are long, and the work is hard. There will be days when you get no sleep at all – and there is always a risk that you might get hurt when working as a firefighter.

Also read: What Schedule Do Firefighters Work? Shift Schedules Examined

Only you can decide whether this life appeals to you or not. Nobody else can do it for you. If you do decide to commit, you need to be 100% all in and you will need to make sacrifices in other parts of your life to succeed. 

Research The Specific Role

If you want to be a firefighter, then the bare minimum you can do is go and find out what they do at your local fire department. They often hold open days and public information events, attend them. Go and meet firefighters in the job. Ask them how they like their work. Find out what are the big challenges.

Some fire departments are all-volunteer, which means that none of the firefighters are getting paid. In these departments, volunteers are tasked with fighting fires and all the other emergency work.

Other fire departments use volunteers to supplement the full-time, paid firefighters. In these departments, the volunteers usually perform more support related functions.

This can vary based on the department, so it is a good idea to ask about the roles of volunteers at each department.

You can ask them what they see are the benefits of volunteer firefighting and what doesn’t look so good about the work. 

This video gives a look into what being a volunteer firefighter is really like:

In addition, you should be reading books, magazines, websites, etc. that help you to better understand the demands of the fire service.

Try to arrange a ride-along too. If you’re at the stage where you feel you’re ready to commit, it’s a good idea to get some time on a shift where you just observe what’s going on. This can help clarify if you really do want to do the job or whether you’d like to change your mind too.

Ensure You Have Enough Time To Give

A volunteer firefighter has to give a certain amount of time each week/month/year in order for the investment that the fire department makes in them to be worthwhile. 

You will be sent on a long and truly tough training and evaluation program which costs a small fortune to the department. They will also provide some (or all) of the gear you need and that isn’t cheap. In fact, you can see our breakdown on the cost of PPE for a firefighter here. 

This means that you have to be certain you can give up that time. You can’t change your mind at a later date. If you don’t have the time, that’s OK, there are other ways to volunteer and give something to the community around you that aren’t so demanding.

How To Apply To Become a Volunteer Firefighter

If you’re sure that you’re ready to become a volunteer firefighter then the next step in the process is to apply. Here’s how you do it. 

Making Contact With Your Local Fire Department

In the United States, you’ll find almost every county/city has its own fire department, though not all of them have volunteer positions. To make things a little confusing, they don’t all have a fantastic online presence. 

So, you may need to Google for an e-mail address or a contact number or you might find some info on the National Volunteer Firefighter Recruitment Center’s website. You may also find that your state’s firefighter’s association can help you work out what to do. 

Then you need to make contact. Writing an e-mail is easy, so is making a call but if you can’t find a contact point – you can always walk into your nearest fire station and ask how to become a volunteer. 

Confirm They Need Volunteers

It sounds obvious but it’s important to determine whether your fire department needs volunteers. A very few won’t take volunteers at all but all fire departments can only accept so many volunteers and volunteer firefighter is a popular job. 

If they don’t have any vacancies right now, you should ask if you can be put on a waitlist or find out when you should phone back to ask again. Don’t let a knock back at this stage put you off becoming a volunteer – everything worth having in life takes some time to achieve.

You can also take this opportunity to ask any questions that you might have regarding the process of becoming a volunteer firefighter.

While the process is, generally, similar everywhere each department has their own quirks when it comes to recruitment of volunteers and it’s much better to get the information “from the horse’s mouth” as it were than rely on things that you’ve read elsewhere.

Some questions you want to ask might include: 

  1. Are there restrictions relating to your residency or location?
  2. What are the requirements to apply?
  3. What will the screening process entail?
  4. How many hours do they expect a volunteer to work?
  5. Will the department provide all personal protective equipment, or will you need to provide it?
  6. What kind of training will you need to do if you are accepted?

Obviously, it’s important to make sure that the person you are speaking to has the time to talk before you deluge them with questions, but assuming they’ve got some time to offer, you should make the most of it – you can treat this as a little pre-networking exercise for your objectives.

The more you know before you apply, the easier it should be to put together a worthwhile and relevant application. 

Meet The Department’s Requirements

This is really important. If a department needs you to have a specific skill, age, qualification, attribute, etc. before you apply – then you really have to have it. They don’t put these requirements in place because they’re trying to be awkward or to test you, they do it because they are essential to the job that you will be doing.

One thing that you need to watch out for is the age limit. While many fire departments can accept volunteers from the age of 14 and above (this is an excellent way for young adults to decide if they want a career in firefighting and is very much encouraged) others, by the nature of the work they do, can only accept those over 18. 

Also read: What is the Age Limit to Become a Firefighter?

If you are still too young to become a firefighter in your area, you may want to look into fire cadet, junior firefighter, or fire explorer programs. You can find more information here.

Educational requirements are normally not as stringent as for professional full-time firefighters, but you will normally need a GED/high school diploma or equivalent. 

You will definitely need to meet the physical standards that are set by the fire department in order to qualify for a volunteer position. 

For more information about firefighter fitness and physical testing, read:

Apply 

job application

Assuming that you made it this far – the next step is to apply. Get the forms, fill them in and get all the supporting documentation together. Check it three times over. If you leave something out or make a mistake it can delay your application or result in a complete rejection. 

Here is some more information on firefighter job applications: 7 Tips for Your Firefighter Application

Pass The Interviews, Background, and Screening Tests

You will then go through a period of screening, interviews, background checks, etc. the fire service doesn’t just take anyone. They want to ensure that you’re a good fit for the kind of work that they do and that you can be trusted with such a large responsibility. 

For more information, read:

Take The Leap Into Volunteering

Assuming that you get through all that then congratulations! You’re ready to jump into your new role as a volunteer firefighter. 

What Happens To New Volunteers?

Just because you got accepted, it doesn’t mean you’re ready to start working as a firefighter. You’ve got some training and other responsibilities to handle before you rush out the door to an incident and it’s designed to help you stay safe and to fit in with the fire service as a whole.

The Training Program (Fire Academy)

You will most likely be put through some type of fire academy training, though the schedule and requirements may be different than some fire academies.

Many fire departments will also train you in basic first aid and CPR and they may require you to attend classes for specific aspects of fire fighting technology that they use in the call of duty too.

If they expect you to be involved in tackling blazes, you’re also going to spend some time training in “live fire” environments so that you’re ready to go out on a call and are safe to do so. 

Here is a look at what a week of fire academy training is like:

For more information on this training, read:

You Need To Be Fit

You have to pass a physical test when you join but that doesn’t mean that you can then start stuffing burgers and napping all day long. You need to stay in shape if you want to serve properly and that means working out. Many departments now have specific fitness requirements for you to meet at all times. 

Engage With The Team 

If you want the biggest benefit of firefighting, it’s working with other firefighters. To get this benefit, you need to introduce yourself to others and work hard to fit in. Remember that you’re the new guy, respect your fellow firefighters and learn from their experience.

Qualifications That Can Help In Your Role As A Volunteer Firefighter

There are various qualifications that will help you as a volunteer firefighter but the main qualifications that firefighters can really use on the job are:

  • Basic EMT or fully qualified paramedic much of firefighting is handling medical emergencies now, if you’re trained to do more, you’ll be more valuable at an incident
  • Fire technology or fire science – these college courses can really help you broaden your understanding of what fire fighting is all about and give you additional practical skills you can bring to the job

Also read:

Volunteer Firefighter Physical Requirements

Also read: Can You Have a Full-Time Job and Be a Volunteer Firefighter?

You will need to contact your local fire department to get the precise requirements for physical fitness, but you can certainly expect to:

  • Be able to lift up to 70lbs of weight
  • Be able to run up a ladder or stairs while wearing full firefighting gear
  • Be able to drag up to 180lbs of weight
  • Be able to crawl through tight spaces

Volunteer Firefighter Benefits

It’s important to realize that while there are some nice benefits to joining the fire service, you should be volunteering for the community benefits that you will bring. Then the benefits are the icing on the cake, as it were.

The Fire Service Camaraderie 

It’s hard to overstate the value of the friendships and professional relationships that you will from as a volunteer firefighter. It’s like gaining a second family and we think that it’s the most powerful case for joining – a sense of belonging.

You will know that together with your team that the work you do is truly important and brings huge benefits to other people. It’s an amazing feeling. 

Training & Development

You will get trained in firefighting practice and first aid and you may be able to get training in other more specialist roles such as EMT training, conferences, local and national firefighter training. These benefits are worth a lot of money. 

Scholarships/Tuition

This isn’t guaranteed but many fire departments have programs which can provide scholarships or, alternatively, reimbursement for studies to help volunteer firefighters gain relevant qualifications to their work. This might even lead to a crossover from volunteer to professional firefighter if that’s what you’d like to do. 

Also read: Do You Get Paid As A Volunteer Firefighter?

Conclusion

How to become a volunteer firefighter? Well, in much the same way as your become a regular firefighter though you may not need quite so many qualifications, to begin with, as a full-time firefighter.

You research the job, you decide to commit to it, you apply for the job and pass through the selection process (which is tough) and then you undertake some training and supervision before you are allowed to work with the team. 

There are many benefits to working as a volunteer firefighter including the satisfaction of serving your community and ensuring people’s safety as well as the chance to bond with other firefighters. There are also material benefits such as free training, will making, retirement benefits, and even potential scholarships. 

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Chase

I have been a Firefighter in Northern California since 2012 and a Paramedic since 2008. My site is dedicated to helping answer questions people have about the fire service. I am passionate about helping to share what I have learned and assisting those who are pursuing a career as a firefighter. Thanks for coming to my site!

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