Firefighting is a job like no other job in the world. It runs from one extreme to the other. On the one hand, it offers the pulse-racing excitement of responding to a fire, the tight bond of camaraderie that can develop among crew members, and the pride in knowing you provide a critical service to your community. On the other hand, there are long hours of “down” time between calls, the high risk of injury or even death, and the simple reality that even in the 21st century, women are not always completely accepted into what was once exclusively a “brotherhood.”
With all of its risks and challenges, firefighting has drawn thousands of women into successful, fulfilling careers. Since the mid-1970’s, women have worked as professional firefighters, paving the way for wider opportunities for today’s young women to join fire departments on an equal footing with men. What we offer in these pages is a quick introduction to jobs in the firefighting field: what to look for, where to look, and how to prepare yourself. We welcome you to consider a career in what most of us truly believe is the best job in the world.
Firefighting isn’t for everyone. People who are seriously afraid of heights or confined spaces, who don’t function well in a crisis, or who in general would rather not introduce elements of danger into their lives, are unlikely to be attracted to the job. Some people prefer a typical business schedule to working 24-hour or other overnight shifts. Other people may view the physical, manual-labor aspects of the job with distaste.
But for those who do not see these aspects of the job as deterrents, firefighting is an exciting, ever-changing, highly rewarding occupation. Most firefighters enjoy the warmth of camaraderie among the crew, the challenge of bringing physical skills and mental abilities to play in what for others is an emergency, and the opportunity to provide critical, life-saving services in a moment of need. Many also appreciate the 24-hour work schedule, the job security in times of downsizing, and — in most fire departments — good pay and benefits.
What Does It Take to be a Good Firefighter?
Women considering the fire service may be discouraged if all the firefighters they know or see are men. It may seem that, even if the door isn’t officially closed to women, no woman could ever be enough like a male firefighter to be really good at the job. If you are considering becoming a firefighter, be aware that there are many ways to be a good firefighter, and they don’t necessarily require you to be male or just like a man. What are some of the attributes of a good firefighter?
- Honest and dependable
- Learns quickly; can remember & use what’s learned when the pressure is on
- Physically fit: is committed to a healthy lifestyle and to maintaining fitness
- Functions well as part of a team
- Cares about and respects co-workers and members of the community
- Communicates and listens well
- Is dedicated to her/his work
- Is emotionally stable & deals with stress appropriately
- Has a sense of humor
- Is open-minded & flexible, willing to try new things and listen to new ideas
No one person has all of these attributes. If all firefighters were the same, as a group their strengths would be redundant and their weaknesses would be magnified. But everyone is different. Each firefighter brings individual strengths to the team, and it is this variety of strengths that gives the team multiple options and balances out any individual weaknesses.
It is also important to note that these traits are not specific to men or women. Women have been functioning successfully as career firefighters and officers for more than 25 years, and as volunteers for much longer. Even if you’re the first woman on your department, you’re part of a strong tradition of women who are dedicated to the fire service and who have found their place in it.
You may already know what fire department you want to work for. Perhaps you already own a home and don’t want to move, or you have friends on a particular department, or you simply have wanted to work for the XYZ Fire Department since you were little.
But choosing where you want to work as a firefighter may be a decision you’ll live with for the next twenty or thirty years. It’s worth making carefully. All fire departments and firefighting agencies are not the same, and they can differ in many ways. Some obvious factors include the number of firefighters on the department, the size and location of the town or city, and the type of area protected.
All sizes of fire departments offer advantages and disadvantages. On a small fire department, you quickly come to know everyone on the job, as well as their families and friends. Departmental policies and the overall feel of station life are often less formal and militaristic than on larger departments. The department is more likely to be an integral part of the community, so the people whose houses you go to on fire or EMS calls are often friends or relatives of firefighters. You can often follow up on the condition of patients you’ve treated, even after they leave the hospital, which is more difficult if not impossible in a big city. People you’ve dealt with on emergency calls may stop by the station later to visit or to thank you for helping them, bring you cookies at Christmas, and generally treat you as a person and not as just someone doing a job.
Fire departments in smaller towns are usually “slower,” meaning they have fewer fires and other emergency calls. Whether this is a plus or a minus depends on what you want from your career. If you’re itching to work at a station with lots of fire or EMS action, you will probably be disappointed on a small department. On the other hand, if you want a firefighting job that allows you an opportunity to be involved in many different kinds of activities, and to have your individual talents recognized and used, your chances may be better on a small department.
Promotional opportunities can be few and far between when a department has only a few officers; if your goal is to become a lieutenant or captain in the next few years, you may be better off on a department with more personnel. Keep in mind, though, that the best career opportunities are often found on fire departments in towns or suburbs where the population is growing rapidly. The department will have to grow to keep up with the population, and those who are in it now will be prime candidates for promotion when it does.
Large fire departments, and particularly their busy stations, have status and glamour in the eyes of many firefighters who want as much action as possible. If this type of assignment is attractive to you, you’ll only find it in a large department. Just keep in mind that every department has slow stations as well, and you won’t necessarily be assigned to the busiest station just because you want to be.
Larger departments are more likely to have more professional management, regular promotions and set promotional processes, more formalized training and better training facilities. They are also more likely to have specialized teams such as hazmat, SCUBA, and technical rescue.
The disadvantage to a larger department is that employees often to get less individual recognition, just like employees of a big corporation. The status of working for a big-city department can be diminished if you end up feeling like just a small fish in a big pond. Bureaucracy and a many-layered hierarchy can make firefighters feel very remote from decision-making, which can be frustrating for some people. Also, depending on how station assignments are made, you can end up with a long commute across town to get to and from work each shift. As a recruit, you may find yourself “carrying your boots” — that is, detailed to work at other stations than the one you’re normally assigned to — quite often, which can disrupt the process of getting to know your crew members.
If you want to settle down where you’re now living, this question will be easy to answer. There may be only one fire department serving your area, or you may have a few to choose from. If you plan to move, you probably have some idea where you’d like to live: in the mountains, nearer to your family, in a warmer climate, by the ocean, etc. If you see yourself in a remote, rural setting, choosing a large metropolitan fire department may not make sense unless you don’t mind a long commute in all kinds of weather, and the fire department doesn’t have a residency requirement.
If the department does require residence in the city, county, or within a restricted distance of its territory, are you comfortable with that? Will you be able to find the kind of home you want to buy there, at a price you can afford, in a neighborhood where you are comfortable? If your spouse or partner is a firefighter from another department, does that department also have a residency requirement? It is not a good idea to start the job intending to violate such requirements, and many departments are not flexible about them, even in cases of two-firefighter marriages.
What fire department activities interest you most? If you hope to become a firefighter/paramedic, choose a department where this is an option. Some fire departments will give you hiring preference or extra pay if you’re already a paramedic when you’re hired. In others, becoming a paramedic is a promotion you must compete for and are only eligible after you have some time on the job.
If you have a particular interest in specialty teams — hazardous materials response, technical rescue, SCUBA — be sure to choose a department that has those teams. Some fire departments participate in Urban Search and
Rescue teams that respond to major incidents all around the world. While positions on these teams are limited to a select, highly trained few, you should choose a participating department if being on such a team is your goal.
If you want to be a firefighter only for a few years and then become a fire inspector or fire marshal, don’t choose a department that has a civilian fire inspection bureau. Make sure the departments you apply for have these positions as promotions or in some other way part of a career ladder that begins in suppression.
The U.S. Forest Service and several western states employ firefighters who specialize in wildland (forest fires) firefighting. Some urban fire departments, particularly in California, do both structural and urban firefighting. If this is of particular interest to you, you should focus on these agencies and areas. See our article on being hired as a wildland firefighter for more information.
The answers to the above questions should narrow down your options. Once you have a short list, you can start investigating the details of specific departments more closely. It may also simply be that you don’t really care where you work: you’re unemployed or working at a job you hate, and you just want to get on a fire department and get started. In that case, you’re probably already scanning the Sunday classifieds and putting in job applications every time you find an announcement for firefighter hiring. But even if you don’t think you care, you may care. If you have even two fire departments to choose from, you’ll want to make the right choice.
Is This Fire Department a Good Place to Work?
Go to the fire stations and talk with the firefighters and officers there. (This will work best if you know someone on the department or can get a mutual friend to introduce you). How do they feel about their work? Do they seem to have respect for each other and for the department’s management? Take a look at the station and the fire equipment. Is it clean, in good repair and well taken care of? Or is it run-down and shabby through neglect or lack of funds?
What is the department’s track record with respect to hiring women firefighters? The environment can be very different in a department where women have worked successfully for many years and earned the respect of their co-workers, compared to one that has yet to hire its first women. The first woman in any fire department will often encounter obstacles that are not found, or are much smaller, in fire departments that already employ women: someone else has already blazed the trail and smoothed out some of the rough spots. If you aren’t sure you’re cut out for the dual role of pioneer and firefighter, you may wish to concentrate on fire departments where women already work as firefighters and officers.
How do the department’s personnel treat you? Do you feel comfortable talking with them as a prospective firefighter? Do they give you information about how to apply for the job, and about the testing process? Do the women on the job say good things about the department? Be sure to visit more than one station, including at least one where a woman is working.
Naturally, you will want to find out how much firefighters on the department make. Also find out how long their work week is. Firefighters on different departments in the same county or area may have pay scales and working hours that differ by 20% or more. The competition will be greater for the jobs with higher pay and shorter hours, but the benefits are also greater. Don’t just compare starting pay. How much do firefighters with one year on the job make? Two years? What is top firefighter pay, and how long does it take to get there? Are raises based strictly on longevity, or are they merit raises? When was the last contract negotiated, and are the pay scales expected to go up with the next contract?
Is there an annual fitness or performance standard that fire personnel must meet in order to keep their jobs or their suppression assignments? What does this consist of, and what happens to people who don’t meet the standard? Do people on the job find the standard is relevant to the job’s demands, or do they feel the annual test is stressful or unnecessary?
Are pay bonuses or incentives available? Do paramedics or engine drivers receive additional pay, and how are personnel selected for these spots? If you plan to continue your college education while you’re working as a firefighter, what kind of tuition reimbursement or educational incentive pay is offered?
What kind of promotional opportunities are available? How often are promotions made, and what kind of testing is given? How many years as a firefighter are required for promotion? Is a college degree or other advanced education required or given preference?
Is the department unionized? Departments with firefighters’ unions typically offer better pay and benefits than non-union departments, and the union is, or should be, an advocate for you if you have any problems on the job. What is the relationship between labor and management like: positive or hostile? Has the union been supportive of its women members?
Making your Choice
If no one fire department stands out above the others, you are the only person who can decide which factors are most important to you. The answers to these questions should at least help you make an informed, positive decision about where you might like to work for the next 20 or 25 years.
If you are interested in getting job as a federal wildland (“forest”) firefighter, the following general information will help get you started on your quest for a federal wildland firefighter position. The majority of these jobs are with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) the National Park Service (NPS), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) also offers a few firefighter positions on national wildlife refuges.
Entry-level firefighters are generally hired as Range Technicians or Forestry Technicians/Aides. In addition, a few positions are available for Professional Foresters and Natural Resource Specialists specializing in fire management. These titles are used in the federal service to describe a myriad of different positions for field-going individuals. For fire management positions, you should seek only those vacancy announcements that specify “Fire” in the job title, such as “Forestry Technician (Fire).” Pay rates for these jobs vary by geographical area. Where the cost of living is high, employees receive specific locality pay.
Hiring procedures vary among agencies and even within each agency. If you are interested in working at a particular location, you should contact its personnel department and request information on their specific hiring procedures.
Some federal wildland firefighters get permanent fire jobs after several seasons of temporary employment. Because competition is great, recent budget cutbacks may make it difficult to get hired permanently. Job opportunities sometimes vary due to politics, as it is the President and Congress who make the final decisions on the federal fire budget.
How to find out about job openings
For 24-hour job information, call the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM) at 912/757-3000, or visit their Web site at www.usajobs.opm.gov.
Other Useful Links:
Utah Fire Management: www.ut.blm.gov/Fire
BLM National Office of Fire and Aviation: www.blm.gov/fna/recruit.htm
The Department of Interior’s (DOI) Fire Integrated Recruitment Employment Systems (FIRES): www.firejobs.doi.gov
Review the list of openings, decide which jobs you are interested in, and follow the instructions given. You may apply for most positions with a resume, the Optional Application for Federal Employment, or any other written format. (You can get the Optional Application form by calling OPM or dialing its electronic bulletin board.) For jobs that are unique or filled through automated procedures, you will be given special forms to complete.
What to Include on your Application
Although the federal government does not require a standard application form for most jobs, they do need certain information in order to evaluate your qualifications and determine whether you meet legal requirements for the job. If your resume or application does not provide all the information requested in the job vacancy announcement, you may lose consideration for a job. Help speed the selection process by keeping your resume or application brief and by sending only relevant material. Type or print clearly in dark ink. Be sure to include the following:
Announcement number, title and grade(s) of the job for which you are applying
Personal information: name, address, phone numbers, Social Security number, country of citizenship, veteran’s preference if any, reinstatement eligibility if any, and highest federal civilian grade held.
Education: high school name, city and state; date of diploma or GED; college/university attended; name, city and state; major; type and year of degree received. Include a copy of your college transcript if the vacancy announcement requests it.
Work experience: job title, duties and accomplishments; employer’s name and address; supervisor’s name and phone number; starting and ending dates; hours per week and salary. Indicate whether they may contact your current supervisor.
Other qualifications: job-related training courses, skills, certificates and licenses; job-related honors, awards and special accomplishments such as publications, memberships in professional or honor societies, leadership activities, public speaking, and performance awards.
If you served on active duty in the U.S. military and were separated under honorable conditions, you may be eligible for veteran’s preference. To receive preference if your service began after 10/15/76, you must have a Campaign Badge, Expeditionary Medal, or a service-connected disability. For further details, call OPM at 912/757-3000. Select “Federal employment topics” and then “Veterans.” Or access the electronic bulletin board at 912/757-3100.
If you are not willing to move around in order to establish a work history with the federal government, your chances of getting hired on permanently may be limited. Most federal wildland firefighter positions are in the west. Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, Oregon, Washington, California have lots of public land and thus need more wildland firefighters than states that do not have a lot of public land. (Public land includes national forests, national parks or monuments, national wildlife refuges, and land managed by the BLM.)
If you’re not the outdoors type, you are a poor candidate for jobs of this type. Wildland firefighting assignments take you to some of the most beautiful country in the U.S. Not only is this for free, but the government pays you to be there! However, this beautiful country is often remote and rugged, almost never a level hike, and dangerous to be in when it is burning.
If you are having problems getting hired, talk to someone who is already a federal fire management employee about how they got hired. Also, many states have their own wildland firefighter agencies, and employment with them might be another option.