If you’re looking to change your career path, you want to make sure that you’re choosing a career that meets all of your needs. You want a job that pays the bills, but also a job that you genuinely enjoy doing. Is firefighting a good job to consider?
Firefighting is a rewarding career that offers a very high level of job satisfaction. Being a firefighter is a great job if you enjoy helping people and serving your community, but be aware that it can be demanding, stressful, and even dangerous at times.
We will discuss the benefits and drawbacks of being a career firefighter in this article. That can help you to figure out whether it’s a suitable career or that you would rather be a volunteer firefighter.
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.
Table of Contents
- Is Being a Firefighter a Good Career? Is it Worth it?
- 1. Helping People
- 2. Pay & Salary: Do They Get Paid Well?
- 3. Typical Benefits of Full-Timers (Not Volunteers)
- 4. Requirements
- 5. Health & Injury Risks
- 6. Time Requirements
Is Being a Firefighter a Good Career? Is it Worth it?
Overall, yes, being a firefighter is an amazing profession. It provides frequent opportunities to help those in need in a real, meaningful way in dynamic environments. There is nothing like riding on a fire truck.
Every day is different. You get to work as part of a cohesive team (family) to solve all different types of problems. You use your mind and your body.
That being said, it is not for everyone.
It can be stressful and challenging. Your sleep patterns will get messed with. You will be away from your family for long periods. You won’t be the next Elon Musk on a firefighter salary.
Here is a video that talks about the pros and cons of being a firefighter:
Are Firefighters Happy?
Firefighters are generally happy and content with their profession. In fact, firefighters consistently have some of the highest job satisfaction ratings of all career fields.
This study in Chicago found that 80% of firefighters were very satisfied with their job choice, compared to the average for all jobs surveyed of 47%. They were number two in the list, only behind clergy members.
This survey found that firefighters rated their job happiness on a 1 to 10 scale at a 9. Again, one of the higher-rated professions.
Though you won’t be happy in a job as a firefighter if it is not the right career for you.
So, let’s take a look at some of the benefits and drawbacks of being a firefighter.
1. Helping People
This is what the fire service is all about. It is customer service. Protecting and helping citizens in the community and responding to mitigate emergencies.
This is what makes it so rewarding. Helping people when they need help the most. Whether you are a wildland firefighter or structural, this is what it is all about.
From the fire chief to the experienced firefighter to the prospective firefighters; helping the community is everyone’s job.
You get to work with your friends (co-workers) in a dynamic environment that forces you to find solutions to challenging situations, using your tools and training, with potentially life-saving or changing outcomes.
Working for the fire department can be stressful but it is like no other job.
Being a firefighter means being able to give back to the community. You’ll play a very important role in the protection of your neighbors and others in your town. It’s an incredible way to “pay it forward” and help those who really need it!
What You’ll Get Out of It
Here is a video showing a day in the life of a firefighter and why he thinks it’s the best job ever:
You’re probably not becoming a firefighter for you, but there are a lot of benefits that you might experience once you spend some time in the field.
For one, being a firefighter is incredibly rewarding. Not only do you get to save lives and rescue people from dangerous situations, but you also get to provide people with hope and courage.
Being a firefighter means preventing excess damage to a home when a fire occurs, performing life-saving medical techniques to help injured people and keeping families safe and healthy.
And, you’re doing it all for other people.
The words I would use to describe being a firefighter are:
- Making a difference
Paying it Forward
We’ve all heard of paying it forward, but being a firefighter truly takes that phrase to a whole new level!
As a firefighter, you’re able to give back to the community in plenty of ways. In addition to saving lives and extinguishing fires, you’ll also be a fixture in the community.
For a community that’s done so much for you as you were growing up or settling in with your new family, you might feel as if it’s your place to give a little bit back. Even if you don’t end up working in the same community that you grew up in, you can pay back your service to another community.
2. Pay & Salary: Do They Get Paid Well?
If you are looking for a job that will make you rich, firefighting is not the answer.
That being said, you still need to pay the bills.
With the number of hours you’ll be putting in over the course of a week and the month, you want to guarantee that the time and effort you’re putting in can allow you to take care of your family.
In addition to a base salary and salary increases as you spend more time with a department, there can be plenty of opportunities for overtime as well. That means you’ll have a little more control over what you’re bringing home at the end of every week.
Also read: Can Firefighters Make 100k Per Year?
The average pay you’ll be earning as a firefighter really depends on which state you live in and how much experience you have.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average firefighter earned about $49,620 in 2018. That’s about $23.85 an hour.
For reference, the average pay for all Americans in 2018 was about $52,145, meaning being a firefighter will earn you a salary a little below average.
But these numbers are just the national average and salaries usually correspond with the cost of living in the area. Some firefighters will make significantly more or less than these numbers, so check the departments in the area you’d like to work.
For example, the average salary for a firefighter in the San Jose, California area is $115,170, though the cost of living in this part of the country is very high.
Overtime and Additional Pay
Though you’ll start out with a lower than average salary, there’s always room for improvement.
As a firefighter, you’ll typically be given the opportunity to earn step raises over time as you gain time and experience with the department, as well as opportunities for overtime (my department calls it “Callback”).
That means you can supplement your current entry-level salary by:
- Putting in more hours at the station (when available)
- Working towards promotion to driver/engineer, captain and beyond
- Staying with one department for a longer period of time (step and longevity raises)
You can also improve your salary by getting additional training. The more versatile your training is, the more useful you will be to your department.
3. Typical Benefits of Full-Timers (Not Volunteers)
Like most full-time government positions, being a firefighter comes with tons of useful benefit programs. If you’re one of the providers for your family, you’ll appreciate the health insurance programs that you can enroll your entire family in.
With such a dangerous job, there are also opportunities to enroll in life insurance programs and retirement plans. That makes firefighting not just a great career for you, but for your entire family in the long run.
Health & Medical
The exact type of health and medical benefits that you’ll get as a firefighter depends on your department and state. Here’s a look at some of the benefits you might be entitled to.
- Regular health insurance
- Emergency medical care
Keep in mind that these benefits aren’t only for you. As a full-time state employee, you’ll be able to extend these benefits to your loved ones as well. That means your spouse and any children you might have.
If you happen to be married, it gives both you and your spouse a choice when it comes to whose health insurance you’ll be using for the family.
Pension / Retirement Plans
Pensions are not as common as they used to be and the benefits are not quite as lucrative as they once were. However, as government employees, most firefighters will get a pension better than many other industries.
In California, CalPers is the main pension fund that is used, but there are many others that are similar in other states.
The basics of how a pension works is that you and your employer pay into the fund at predetermined percentages of your salary. You can then collect payments once you reach the eligible retirement age based on your years of service.
Example: Your pension is 2.7% at 57 years old. You get hired at 27 years old. You retire at 57, after working for 30 years. (30 x 2.7% = 81%) So, your pension will be 81% of your salary. This is just an example, not a real payment. There are a lot more factors like maximum payments, etc.
This can be a huge benefit to your financial security in retirement.
Fire Service Unions
As a full-time firefighter in the United States, you’ll be given the chance to join the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF). This union was developed to ensure safe job conditions, competitive pay, and benefits for all firefighter members.
There are quite a few benefits of being associated with the firefighter union. These include:
- Legal assistance & advice
- Pension-related resources
- Workplace dispute support
- Additional training opportunities
- Access to discounts & scholarships
If you do decide to pursue a career as a firefighter, it’s highly recommended that you join your local union as well. You might not need it now, but they’ll be there to support you when you need it down the line.
As if the health and medical benefits weren’t enough, there are some other perks associated with working for the fire department. The extra perks all depend on the state and department that you’re working with.
Here are some examples of extra benefits New York State firefighters have access to.
- Life insurance benefits (accidental death & dismemberment)
- Full or partial tuition reimbursement
- Additional loan opportunities
- Job security (no guarantees, but overall quite good)
Based on these available perks, you may have access to additional opportunities you didn’t have before. Though these shouldn’t be the only reason that you’re deciding to become a firefighter, but they are a major plus.
The first challenge of being a firefighter is getting a firefighter job, as it can be a very competitive career field. As an aspiring firefighter, you need to know what you are getting yourself into.
Many careers require a college degree or intense training to even qualify for an entry-level position. What’s great about firefighting is that the requirements are pretty minimal and easy to pass if you’re considered healthy and physically fit.
(Though an associate degree in something like fire science can be helpful).
There are basic age, health, and education requirements. You’ll also have to demonstrate your competency and pass written and physical exams to prove you’d be a great firefighter. After passing a few extra evaluations, you’ll be good to go and ready to start your career!
To be able to apply for a position at your local fire station or attend the fire academy, there are a couple of criteria that you have to meet.
For the most part, your state will require you to:
- Be at least 18 years of age or older
- Pass a background check
- Have a valid driver’s license in your state
- Be in decent health (no major medical conditions)
- Possess a high school diploma or equivalent (GED)
- Have an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) certification (you may even need some experience as an EMT or sometimes a paramedic certification)
If you said “yes,” to all of these, you’re already well on your way to being qualified to be a firefighter. There are a few other things you’ll have to do though.
Written & Physical Exams
As a firefighter, you’ll have to pass both a written and a physical exam to prove that you’re a good candidate for the position. You need good physical fitness to get through these tests.
Here’s what you should expect from each.
- Written exam. The written exam usually lasts less than three hours and consists of between 100 and 150 questions. The questions will test your reasoning and comprehension skills math, memory, spatial awareness, and social aptitude. You’ll usually need at least an 80% to pass the test, but higher scores will give you a higher placement on the eligibility list within your state.
- Physical exam. The physical exam usually lasts 10 minutes and 20 seconds exactly. During the test, you’ll be put through a series of eight rigorous events similar to situations you might find yourself in as a firefighter. As long as you finish all events in the given time limit, you’ll pass the exam. A common physical test is called the CPAT.
After you pass all the hiring steps and get a job offer, comes the fire academy. The fire academy typically lasts between 10 and 24 weeks (depending on your state) and trains you all about being a firefighter.
Once you pass the fire academy, you will be a probationary firefighter.
There are a few extra things you must prove to show you’re fit to be a firefighter. At the end of the day, fire chiefs just want to make sure that they have an intelligent and physically able workforce that can perform all of its duties.
Take a look at some other evaluations you might have to pass in order to be offered a full-time job as a firefighter.
5. Health & Injury Risks
Being a firefighter comes with some risks, though the fire service continues to make improvements in safety.
Most of the risks associated with a firefighting career are related to health and injury. Running into dangerous structures for fire suppression can be life-threatening, so there’s always a risk of getting hurt or sick while on a call.
There are risks associated with being on a specific emergency call, such as experiencing smoke inhalation or getting physically injured while at a fire scene. But, there are also long-term consequences you’ll be more susceptible to.
But most injuries occur during the routine, non-emergency situations.
This is viewed as the “silent killer” when it comes to being a firefighter. Though firefighters are required to wear protective air tanks for breathing (SCBAs), there’s always a chance of exposing your respiratory system to the smoke in a burning building.
When you’re exposed to smoke for too long, you might experience the following symptoms:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of consciousness
- Difficulty or pain when breathing
But with improvements in technology, if you wear all your Personal Protective Equipment (SCBA, Helmet, Turnout Coat and Pants, Boots, Gloves, Flash Hood, etc.) when you are supposed to, your risk of exposure is much lower.
When you enter into a burning structure, you have no idea what you’re walking into. The fire may have started a few minutes ago, but it could have been active for a while.
With a weakened physical structure of the building, you’re more likely to trip and fall, fall through flooring or stairs, or be injured by falling debris.
Or you could be exposed to an infectious disease while treating someone on an emergency medical call.
There’s always a risk that comes along with responding to a call. You need to keep that in mind, especially if you have a family at home that you’re currently supporting.
However, the modern fire service is always continuing to evolve and change. They are working to find safer, more efficient ways to do the job. It is a collaborative effort to keep firefighters and the public as safe as possible.
Long-Term Smoke & Fire Exposure Risks
With so much exposure to smoke, chemicals, and other gases, it’s no surprise that firefighters are more likely to develop long-term illnesses and diseases as a result of their job.
As the years spent on the job accumulates slowly, you’ll be more at risk for developing the following conditions.
- Heart disease
- Hearing loss
Most of these are preventable by following proper protocol, but there’s no way to prevent absolutely everything.
6. Time Requirements
You’ll enjoy the extra money in your bank account and the feeling you get when you give back to the community, but it does require a lot of time. And that means a lot of time away from your friends and your family.
Typical firefighter shifts can be 24 or 48 hours on with a few days rest in between. That means spending long periods of time away from your loved ones. Also, being a firefighter could possibly mean that you’re always “on-call.”
Time On the Job
Being a firefighter isn’t like your average 9 to 5 job. In fact, you’ll probably spend more time away from your family than most other jobs.
Firefighter shifts are usually 24 hours on, 48 hours off, or 48 hours on, 96 hours off, or something similar. (though some departments use less common schedules like day and night shifts).
That means entire days spent away from your family and several days in a row that you’ll be on duty.
During each shift, you’ll obviously be allowed time to eat and sleep. But, there is no guarantee for either as you need to be ready to respond at all times while on duty.
Depending on staffing, you may be subject to mandatory overtime.
This means you may have to stay at work for an extra shift or come in on your day off. Depending on the area and the economy, this could mean working a lot more than your normal hours. While this is great for finances, it can make home/family life and childcare difficult.
Even when you’re off the clock, you’re never really off the clock.
When a huge emergency is called in and your department doesn’t exactly have the manpower to cover it, you might be required to come in on your day off. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or where you’re currently located. If a call comes in, the department will likely expect you to be able to respond.
This usually isn’t a frequent occurrence, but it is something to be prepared for.
Firefighting is an incredibly rewarding job that’s truly worth it if you’re willing to put in the time and effort. Though you will have to give up some much-valued time with your friends and family and put yourself at risk in dangerous situations, being a firefighter has plenty of benefits.