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Career: Firefighter

A Day in the life of a Firefighter

"We try to save things and protect people," is how one New York City firefighter describes one of society's nobler professions. A firefighter protects people, their property, and their goods against destruction or damage due to fire. The successful firefighter is an approachable, good communicator with the ability to take decisive action under trying circumstances. Firefighters must be able to perform strenuous physical tasks, such as carrying unconscious people down flights of stairs, directing the flow of a hose that carries 2,000 gallons of water per minute, or breaking down doors locked from the inside. The profession is very dangerous--over one in four firefighters have to take time off for work-related injuries, ranging from slipped disks to disfiguring burns--and requires a strong sense of commitment to public service. Firehouses are manned around the clock. Firefighters must be able to deal with brief bursts of intense activity, then long periods of "crushing boredom." "Get good at solitaire," wrote one, alluding to the amount of downtime he faces. The firemen who responded to our survey were unanimous in their estimation of their colleagues: "The best people I've ever known," said one ten-year veteran, "I count on them to guard my life every day." This reliance on each other encourages close companionship among members of any firehouse, who can boast the unique professional bond of having "been through hell" together. Most firefighters are deeply proud of what they do. Aside from taking on extra responsibilities, such as becoming a company leader or training other firefighters, firefighters don't have any kind of "corporate ladder" to climb. They keep abreast of technological or technique-oriented changes in firefighting through seminars, conferences, and conventions. Retirement is usually available at half-pay at age fifty for twenty-year veterans. Most firefighters enjoy structured raises based on seniority and job performance. The largest fire departments have many battalions and divisions, with lieutenants, captains, battalion chiefs, division chiefs, fire marshals, and investigators, with substantial pay hikes for those making it into senior positions.

Paying Your Dues

While many colleges offer courses in fire science, these are usually taken by firefighting professionals after they've been in the field for a while. To become a firefighter you need to be between eighteen and thirty-one years of age, you need a high school diploma, you must have corrected 20/20 vision, and you must pass the firefighters' examination, offered annually by local governments throughout the country. Applicants who have good scores on the written portion of the test and demonstrate physical dexterity, strength, and mental alertness, should be able to find employment. Many departments now require an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certificate as a condition of employment. The hours are long, and you should check with the firefighter's association in your area for details (some have 24 hours on, 48 hours off; most cities average between 48 and 56 hours a week). Firefighters can become members of the firefighters' union (affiliated with the AFL-CIO) and some become members of the International Association of Firefighters.

Associated Careers

Firefighters who leave the profession (14 percent annually, including those who are put on disability retirement) generally continue in public service. A number apply to become police officers, frustrated with the "reactive" nature of firefighting. Roughly five percent return to school to be trained in paramedic or medical duties. Others go into teaching or fire safety consulting. Those who wish to rise to positions of advice and influence, particularly on a national level, become private consultants or authors, or take high-profile political jobs elsewhere. Firefighters are in general very satisfied with their choice of career, and the majority of those who leave do so in the first few years. Those who remain firefighters for the first six years tend to stay for twenty.

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