What Should Firefighters Major In? Firefighter College Degrees


If you’re thinking about taking up firefighting as a career, you’re probably wondering whether you need a college education, and if so, what kind of degree you’re going to need to give yourself the best chance of succeeding in the fire service? Well, the good news is – this is quite straightforward. 

Most firefighters should major in Fire Science, Fire Technology, or Fire Administration programs because they have the greatest relevance to their career, but graduates of other programs can and do work for the fire service.

Also read: How to Become a Firefighter: The Complete GuideOpens in a new tab.

What Are the Advantages of a College Degree to a Firefighter?

There are many advantages of a college degree to a firefighter including:

  • You will learn new skills and techniques that can be used in your job
  • You will probably be granted preference over an applicant without a degree
  • You will find it easier to gain promotion within the fire service with a degree (higher-level positions may require a certain degree)
  • You will probably be paid more than a firefighter without a degree
  • You may find certain aspects of your work easier with a degree

So, there is a clear case for having a degree and thus, even if you eventually decide not to undertake a college education – you should at least consider it. 

Also read: Is it Hard to Become a Firefighter?Opens in a new tab.

Best College Degrees for Firefighters

house on fire/burning

In most cases, the degree that someone gets to become a firefighter will be a qualification in fire science or fire technologyOpens in a new tab.. This is a specialist degree program designed to provide specific types of understanding for firefighters and those in fire service professions.

There are four different levels of degree in this space: certificate programsOpens in a new tab. (pre-degree), associateOpens in a new tab., bachelorOpens in a new tab. and master. There is no national curriculum requirement for degree programs so the precise nature of what’s included on any given course will vary from learning provider to learning provider.

That means if there’s something specific that you want to include on your program, you should check with the college/university prior to committing to any given course. 

With that in mind, we’ve tried to separate out the kinds of learning that you could typically expect to find at each level of degree. It’s not a hard and fast ruleset but it’s a good rule of thumb that may help you narrow down your choice of program before you start to look at the finite detail of individual courses. 

Also read: Fire Academy vs Fire Science Degree – ComparedOpens in a new tab.

What Do You Learn on a Certificate in Fire Science?

The certificate program is the most basic fire science qualificationOpens in a new tab.. It can take a year (or sometimes) less to complete and it’s the ideal starting point if you’re not 100% certain that a career in the fire service is for you. It usually requires 10 – 30 credit hours in core classesOpens in a new tab..

Let’s take a look at some typical content from these programs:

Typical ContentWhat You Should Learn From This
The basics of fire and emergency service provision. That is the history of the service, an outline of the career choices within it and some simple scenarios for working with the public. You should be able to understand the firefighter’s culture. You should know the best practices that are used to define emergency response processes. Get a handle on some of the laws and regulationsOpens in a new tab. that define how firefighters work. 
The laws surrounding fire protection. You should know what you can and can’t do as defined by law. You should know the relevant legal statutes that apply to firefighting. You should understand how to make hard decisions within a legal framework on emergency responses.
The basics of fire investigation techniques and other forms of analysis. So, how fires work in different settings, how flames can spread and what happens when a fire is out. You should be able to predict how flames will move in a given building. You should know how fuel can affect the spread of a fire. You should have a good idea about which methods will work best for which type of fire containment. You will gain an understanding of the financial implications of firefighting.
The fire code and its enforcement. This should touch on building inspection, insurance and finance. You should be able to understand the local building codesOpens in a new tab.. You should be able to carry out an inspection. You should understand how to bring a building up to code. You should know how these codes have an impact on insurance fees. 

What Do You Learn on an Associate Fire Science Degree?

You should see each layer of these programs as building on the last. So, in an associate’s program, you would expect to learn everything at the certificate level plus the additional content laid out below. A typical associate’s degree takes about two years to complete and requires 60 semester hours (1 third general education, 1 third core field classes, and 1 third elective studies).

Let’s take a look at some typical content from these programs:

Typical ContentWhat You Should Learn From This
Managing terrorist responses. This focuses on how terrorists behave and what is expected from the emergency services in return.You should be able to outline how terrorist threats arise and what impact they might have. You should be able to deal with people in the event of such an incident. You should be able to outline how a large scale emergency response is formed.
Awareness of hazardous materials. You should be able to explain how you respond to an incident involving such materials. You should know how to protect the public in such cases. You should be able to survey the scene for hazardous materialsOpens in a new tab.. You should know the SOPs for safe responses to such incidents.
Awareness of vehicle extrication. With firefighters regularly involved in responding to medical incidents including road crashes this is essential to learn how to free trapped individuals.You will learn how to work in the smallest and most confined placesOpens in a new tab.. You will learn which tools to use in an effective response. You will learn how to keep the victim safe and stable during the process of extraction.
Awareness of “urban interfaceOpens in a new tab. operations”. With wildfires, firefighters may need to make big decisions quickly to protect populated areas.You will learn how fire behaves in the natural world. You will be able to remove fuels and identify them. You will learn how to prepare and deploy effective firebreaksOpens in a new tab.

What Do You Learn on a Bachelor’s Fire Science Degree?

Again, a bachelor’s program is meant to build on the associate’s program. You would expect a bachelor’s degree to take 3-4 years to complete and there is additional content as laid out below. It usually requires 120 semester hours/credits of classes.

Once you reach this level of study – you will almost certainly need to undertake a program of general education as part of the degree. This is not something that we cover in the content below because it doesn’t directly relate to your work as a firefighter but you should be aware that it exists because it will take up more of your time than you might realize while studying. 

Let’s take a look at some typical content from these programs:

Typical ContentWhat You Should Learn From This
The administration of emergency work. Basically, the background of how the fire service and a fire department functions effectively as part of a larger whole. You should know how to prepare a budgetOpens in a new tab.. You should know how to write a news release. You should know how policies work and how they can be changed. You should understand the job performance requirements of firefighting. You should be able to call on a wide range of admin tactics when you need to work with others at a higher level.
Human resource management. This focuses specifically on the fire service. So hiring, firing, unions, placement, and the legal aspect of people all come into play.You will learn to delegate authority legally and appropriately. You will learn to welcome and cooperate with union activity and to work with the unionOpens in a new tab.. You’ll learn how to evaluate individual performance.
The principles of cooperative education. That is you get some “hands on” training in the real world.You get coursework that walks you through scenarios that you might face. You learn to work as part of a firefighting team. You learn to act as an effective leader. You start to learn what tools to use in which situations.
Physical fitness and conditioning. You can’t be a firefighter without a high level of physical fitness. You learn to prepare for the tests in this area and develop the stamina for working at incidents.You will gain physical strength and stamina. You will better understand personal protective equipmentOpens in a new tab.. You will better understand how to work with other firefighting equipment. You will learn to handle your gear in low visibility scenarios.

What Do You Learn on a Master’s Fire Science/Fire Administation Degree?

The Master’s degree is an exception to this rule. This is a specialist course that can only be taken if you have either a.) a bachelor’s degree already or b.) that you can demonstrate you have the skills and knowledge equivalent to a bachelor’s degree. That means there is no repeat of the content of the previous degree courses in this kind of program. 

It is also important to realize that at this level of study, there is a huge variation in the content of programs much more so than at certificate, associate’s, or bachelor’s level. In many cases, a master’s degree is taken after several years of work experience so that you can better define your areas of interest and thus it becomes an effective platform to develop your career.

However, in recent years more and more students have progressed straight from a bachelor’s degree onto a master’s program. This can have advantages in terms of career progression but it comes at the risk of over specializing before you have really found out what interests you in the job. 

Let’s take a look at some typical content from these programs:

Typical ContentWhat You Should Learn From This
The issues facing Homeland Security. This will be a very up to date look at the issues and how they are changing and those who carry influence on them.You will learn how the media plays a part in homeland security. You will be able to understand the policies for homeland securityOpens in a new tab. at all levels from federal to local. You will be able to explain the legality of such policies and their associated practices.
The financial management of the fire service.You’ll pick up the fundamentals of financial management.Opens in a new tab. You’ll be able to apply financial analytics to the statements of finance issued by your department. You will learn how to balance payments, grants, contributions, and expenses to deliver a functioning service.
The management of an advanced crisis. This is learning about major incidents such as massive terrorist attacks, natural disasters, etc.You’ll be able to set up the chain of commandOpens in a new tab. for such an incident. You’ll know how to delegate authority to the appropriate level of government. You’ll develop a set of decision-making tools that allow you to respond in a consistent way to a disaster while still allowing for a lot of flexibility in the “how and why” of things.
The management of disputes and negotiation. How to fix labor and or personnel problems. This may between the department and unions and/or legislative bodies.You will understand how collective bargainingOpens in a new tab. works within the fire service. You will have an array of dispute resolution tools that you can call upon and use effectively. You’ll be able to settle disputes. 

Do You Have to Get a College Degree to Become a Firefighter?

No. You don’t have to have a college degree to become a firefighter but, let’s be clear about this, it can really help you to have one. 

At this moment, most fire departments don’t require applicants to have a college degree, but you should understand the advantages that it will bring.

I personally have an Associate’s of Science Degree in Fire Technology. The Majority of the firefighters that I work with have bachelor’s degrees though.

Here is another firefighter’s opinion on firefighters getting college degrees:

Does a Degree Make Me a Qualified Firefighter?

Unfortunately, no. A degree program is not essential to a careerOpens in a new tab. as a firefighter, even though it’s considered a very “nice to have” aspect of serving in the fire service. And remember, many of the other candidates you will be competing against for jobs will have degrees. It is almost an unofficial requirement for firefighters in some areas.

You will need to undertake a wide-range of other qualifications and learning if you want to become a firefighter and even that won’t completely qualify you as a firefighter. 

What Other Qualifications Will I Need as a Firefighter?

So, what other qualificationsOpens in a new tab. will you need to become a firefighter? Well, there’s quite a bit:

  • High school diploma/GED – you probably won’t get on a degree program without one, mind you, but it is the bare minimum level of qualification to join the fire service
  • A basic EMT certificate – there are still a few fire departments out there that will provide this trainingOpens in a new tab. on the job but it’s not hard to obtain this certificate and it will help make the hiring chief’s job easier if you have it
  • A paramedic certificateOpens in a new tab. – this is much harder to obtain than an EMT basic qualification but it’s very much worthwhile, the modern fire service is fighting fewer fires and responding to more and more medical emergencies, the more qualified you are to provide help in these circumstances, the better placed you are to work in the fire service

This isn’t the end of it either. While this the cap on “formal learning” to get in the door of the fire service, there’s some informal learning to be done too and some fire service sponsored learning if you do get hired. 

Also read:

How Else to Prepare Myself to Become a Firefighter?

In addition to the formal learning you should:

  • Have some experience of working as a volunteer – this will demonstrate your commitment to serving the community and help you learn some of the soft skills needed to excel as a firefighter
  • Have some understanding of your local fire department – you don’t have to wait until you have a job, attend open days, network firefighters who already in work, that sort of thing
  • Have the physical attributes – you have to pass a taxing physical test and examination to work in the fire service, so you’ll need to get in shape for it

And once you have a job in the fire service, you will be expected to undertake a few months of training, as part of the department’s fire academy and you may also be required from time to time to attend training sessions at the National Fire AcademyOpens in a new tab..

Also read:

You should also be dedicated to reading up on new techniques and expanding your horizons as much as possible while on the job. Learning never stops in the fire service. 

When Do I Become a Qualified Firefighter? 

You don’t become a qualified firefighter until such a point as you pass through your probationary period as an active firefighter. The probationary process is used to ensure that you can put your learning and skills into practice in a way that makes you an effective team player.

The fire service has no use for mavericks and glory hunters because working on your own will, sooner or later, get you or somebody else killed. They also have no use for those who aren’t willing to give their all to serving the public.

Firefighting is a job that comes with a huge amount of responsibility when compared to many other civilian professions and all the qualifications in the world can’t prove that someone is an effective firefighter. So, during probation, you are assigned an officer to keep watch over you.

Also read: How Long is a Firefighter Probationary Period?Opens in a new tab.

They will observe how you integrate with your team and how you carry out your duties and it will be their decision as to whether or not you become a fully-fledged firefighter. 

However, it’s worth noting that even once you’ve passed your probationary period and joined the service on a permanent basis – your learning isn’t over.

The only way to be a great firefighter is to keep learning. You will undertake many more courses, read a ton of books and probably end up doing some more formal examinations too during your career – the service is constantly changing and evolving and firefighters are expected to change and evolve too.

What’s the Pay Range for Firefighters in the United States?

100 dollars bills

The pay range for firefighters in the United States varies dramatically by state and by the level of skill, time served, etc. 

The lowest-paid firefighters in the country (those in the bottom 10%) can earn just over $20,000 whereas those in the highest pay bracket (those in the top 10%) can earn over $100,000 with median salaries coming in at $50-60,000 in many places.

Here iOpens in a new tab.sOpens in a new tab. a state-by-state breakdownOpens in a new tab. of these figures here. If you’re concerned about what you’ll earn after all this hard work, it’s worth checking the article out. 

You shouldn’t become a firefighter for the money, but everyone has to pay the bills and take care of their families.

Also read: Can Firefighters Make 100k Per Year?Opens in a new tab.

What Are the Career Prospects for a Firefighter with a Degree? 

So, does having a college degree help you earn more money? Yes, it does. While the exact impact of a college degree on a firefighter’s salary is difficult to quantify there’s no doubt that it’s important to rise through the ranks.

In fact, it’s so important that when Ron Rogers, with 29 years of firefighting experience, was promoted to chief of Hillsborough Country Fire and Rescue (it’s based in Florida and is a substantial department) without a degree – there was a large controversy about it.Opens in a new tab.

Hillsborough Country normally requires a bachelor’s degree at a minimum and often demands a master’s degree. 

Rogers is quite right when he says that fire departments should “look at the whole package” but in a highly competitive world – a degree is becoming a basic requirement for serious promotion as a firefighter.

In Florida and in many other parts of the country – there is now a tendency for fire departments to offer pay bumps for having a degree and even more of a bump if you have a master’s degree. This can mean that even if you don’t want a promotion that a degree will affect your take-home pay each month.

Also read: How to Become a Firefighter Driver/EngineerOpens in a new tab.

Does This Make Taking on College Debt Worthwhile when Becoming a Firefighter?

Yes and no. You should always work out what it will cost you to study a degreeOpens in a new tab. (including any interest paid on loans etc.) and then compare it to the value you get back in pay for having it. This will make it very easy to compare the financial benefits of having a degree to not having one.

However, even if the return on your investment isn’t huge – having the extra knowledge that such a qualification provides could be priceless in terms of your ability to fight fires, who knows? It might even save your life or the life of another person. That’s worth keeping in mind. 

Warning! Degree Mills Do Not Provide Value for Money to Firefighters

One thing that we definitely don’t recommend, however, is forking out for a fire science degreeOpens in a new tab. from an “educational institution” which does not require actual study or which requires much less work than a typical degree program.

These institutions are “degree mills” and their qualifications are essentially worthless. While you might get a pay bump for a little while with such a degree, sooner or later the value of these pieces of paper will be discovered and you’re likely to find your pay returning to the normal structure which could leave you out of pocket.

There’s no point in a fire science degree unless it prepares you to do your job in a better way, so cheating the system is only cheating yourself. 

Conclusion

What should/do firefighters major in? Fire science or fire technology. Having a degreeOpens in a new tab. is not mandatory for a firefighter and it might be worth conducting a cost-benefit analysis in some cases before deciding to pursue a college education.

However, in most cases the value of a college degree is significant both in terms of your pay and in terms of your career. A degree alone won’t make you into a firefighter but it can be a very meaningful step in your career journey and a highly rewarding one. And you will be up against other aspiring firefighter who have degrees, and a lot more. So it may be necessary to get hired in some areas.

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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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