What Is a Firefighter Endorsement? Do You Need One?

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A firefighter endorsement sounds like a reference to financing a local firefighter department, or a reference to support for a politician from a local firefighter department. However, while these definitions sound accurate, they aren’t. So, what is a firefighter endorsement?

A Firefighter endorsement is a driver’s license endorsement issued by the DMV in some states. The endorsement allows both career and volunteer firefighters to drive a fire engine or truck, even if they have a class C non-commercial driver’s license. 

The rest of this article will discuss all you need to know about firefighter endorsements and help you decide if you need to get one. To learn more, read on. 

Also read: Firefighter or Cop: Which Is a Better Job?

What Is a Firefighter Endorsement?

In order for firefighters to be legally allowed to drive the large fire engines and trucks, they must be properly trained and licensed to do so. The firefighter endorsement is the newer standard of certifying firefighters to drive fire apparatus, in most states in the U.S.

In a nutshell, firefighter endorsements are important because they allow firefighters and fire engineers to drive and operate fire department apparatus without getting a Class A or B driver’s license. This also makes it easier for fire departments to complete the necessary training for their drivers. This can be especially helpful in small counties with mostly volunteer firefighters.

The importance of firefighter endorsements can be seen by looking at one particular state’s fire situation. 

The state of California has suffered some of the most catastrophic wildfire seasons in the last few years, to the point where their wildfires have received global recognition.

Although 2018 was the year that recorded the most destruction (almost 1.9 million aces, 97 civilians & 6 firefighters killed, $3.5 billion in damages), 2019 was just as devastating.

With 260,000 destroyed acres of land, five fatalities, and $163 million in suppression efforts, it was clear to the state of California that having the best-skilled fire departments possible was necessary. Especially with the fire in Northern California’s Plumas National Forest, which had destroyed almost 44,000 acres by early September.

We can see that California has a continuing need for trained firefighters. In these types of smaller areas, served by volunteer firefighters, the simplicity of attaining a firefighter endorsement (compared with the old requirement of a Class A or B license) is especially beneficial.

Driver / Engineers

historical old red fire engine

A Driver / Engineer, Fire Engineer or Driver / Operator are all different terms for the same position; the firefighter who drives and operates the engine or truck. In larger departments, this is a position that is promoted to after being a firefighter. However, many departments, depending on staffing, will have even brand new firefighters driving the apparatus.

The DMV used to require anyone driving a fire engine or truck to have Class A or B driver’s license (some states still do require a Class A or B license, but most have switched this requirement for firefighters).

The exact description of these types of drivers license vary by state, but here are the definitions for California off the DMV website.

Class A: Any combination of vehicles, if any vehicle being towed has a GVW (Gross Vehicle Weight) rating of more than 10,000 lbs.; any vehicle towing more than 1 vehicle; any trailer bus; any vehicle under Class B or Class C.

Class B: Any single vehicle with a GVW rating of more than 26,000 lbs.; any single vehicle with 3 or more axles, except any single 3-axle vehicle weighing less than 6,000 lbs.; any bus except a trailer bus; any farm labor vehicle; any 3 or more axle vehicle or vehicle with a GVW rating of more 26,000 lbs. towing another vehicle with a GVW rating of 10,000 lbs. or less; any motor home over 40 feet in length; any vehicle covered under Class C.

The firefighter endorsement is just an add on to a normal Class C driver’s license. The process for getting a Class A or B license is much more involved than a firefighter endorsement, so this change makes the training and certification process easier and faster for firefighters. This is particularly beneficial in small counties with volunteer departments.

For example, Plumas County is a small county in the Sierra Nevada of California, with a population estimated at just over 20,000 as of 2010. This small size makes Plumas County an easy location for the fire department to cover, but it’s also become an easy victim to the wildfires that have spread in the last few years.

In early September of 2019, this weakness became evident, given that the fire in Plumas National Forest had been one of the state’s largest fires so far that year.

As of 2010, Plumas County was another one of the small communities that still required firefighters to have a Class A or B driver’s license to drive the fire engines. A Class B license lets you drive two and three-axle trucks over 26 tons, and Class A covers anything bigger than those trucks. Both of these classes of licenses require additional testing, medical exams, and other requirements.

Engineers (drivers) were required by law to have at the very least a Class B commercial driver’s license with a “FireFighter Restricted” endorsement, and this endorsement was not offered in local DMV’s. 

This meant that sometimes firefighters would have to travel a long distance to a DMV that was equipped to administer the proper tests. In some cases, firefighters would have to complete driving testing across the state, because their local DMV lacked a testing program, which really complicated the process of qualifying engineers.

You may also be interested in reading: Do All Firefighters Have to Drive the Truck? and How to Become a Firefighter Driver/Engineer

2011 & the New Driver’s License Endorsement

In 2011 there was finally a change for driver license requirements for engineers in California. Their requirements changed from needing a Class B license with the “FireFighter Restricted” endorsement, to be able to get a “Firefighter” endorsement on a Class C driver’s license after meeting the proper requirements.

When Ed Ward, the president of the Plumas County Fire Chiefs Association, attended a seminar on the DMV changes, he was surprised to learn that there was no exemption for a regular firefighter to drive an engine to an emergency. This lack of an exemption made it much harder to find qualified drivers – especially in volunteer squads. 

New Endorsement Requirements

Driving a fire engine to an emergency isn’t an easy task and requires proper training. You can’t just hand the keys to anyone with questionable experience driving heavy vehicles. And when the time came to implement the change, proper requirements were set in place.

To apply, you now need “Original Firefighter Employment and Training Verification” letter complete with:

  1. Certification of employment as a firefighter or proof of your registration as a volunteer firefighter
  2. Certification of completion of a fire equipment operator training program (usually State Fire Marshal – Driver 1A Class)
  3. Official signature of their fire chief

They also need to have fire department driver training which meets the following requirements:

  1. Meets the standards outlined in the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1002, Chapter 4 (2008 version) or the Fire Apparatus Driver/Operator 1A course adopted by the Office of the State Fire Marshal
  2. Prepares the applicant to safely operate the fire department’s equipment that the applicant will be authorized to operate.
  3. Includes 16 hours of classroom training
  4. 14 hours behind the wheel, officially supervised training

The above is quoted in the California DMV website. Currently, a lot of fire departments are requesting trainees in volunteer programs to include an endorsement for their driver’s license as a requirement to graduate. 

So the process for a firefighter to become certified to drive apparatus is:

  • Complete the necessary training with their department
  • Take proof of employment and proof of the driver training completed to the DMV
  • Pass a DMV written test
  • The firefighter endorsement will then be added to their regular Class C license and a commercial Class A or B license is not needed

Here is a resource to help those who are getting ready to take the firefighter endorsement test at the DMV: Firefighter Endorsement Test Study Guide.

Fire Departments, in general, are being allowed to run their training programs for engineers in-house. They can do this as long as they use the state-issued program or one that meets the minimum requirements.

Back to our example: in Plumas County, firefighters are taking a 40-hour training program in Quincy, which is required by their local DMV. This is something that brings great relief to a county where 20% to 25% of yearly firefighter deaths came from accidents driving to and from emergencies, and the training initiative faces this concern directly. But the details of this process can vary by location.

Currently, Nevada is issuing the same driver’s license endorsement as an exemption of a commercial driver’s license. The exemption is valid whenever operating a vehicle for emergency response, including anything from an ambulance to SWAT team vehicles. 

Georgia uses a similar multi-purpose use for the endorsement but separates the process between regular firefighters and volunteers. The result is still an F label on your Class C driver’s license, allowing you to drive apparatus for the fire department.

There are still, however, several states that still require a commercial Class B driver’s license for engineers. These requirements are concerning if you consider the increasing need for emergency response in today’s world. Having better-qualified firefighters out there can definitely help in any emergency situation.

As the saying goes “it’s better to have it and not need one than to need it and not have it.”

Note: If you are required to have a Class A or B commercial driver’s license (CDL) to drive a fire truck in your area, this is a great resource to help you prepare for and pass the tests.

Conclusion

A firefighter’s endorsement is more than just a training passed by a firefighter to operate a heavy vehicle in a very sensitive situation. This endorsement is an open door to better-prepared fire departments, and it’s also a way to enable a faster and more accurate response to emergencies in our communities.

Furthermore, it’s also a sign of a community that understands how to take care of itself. By making it easier for firefighters to become qualified to drive engines, departments won’t have to work as hard for qualified drivers. 

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