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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.

Present and Future

Fire departments began as locally organized groups of residents and merchants who would come to each other's aid in times of crisis. They formed unofficial "bucket brigades" that would make a human chain from the nearest water supply, passing buckets to each other to the mouth of the fire. At the turn of the century municipalities formed professional fire departments of their own. Many smaller communities still rely on volunteers who keep their ears open for the alarm whistle or carry beepers to alert them to a fire emergency. Although technology has improved considerably and safety records are set each year for the protection of firefighters, unforeseen circumstances and unique developments all require competent and experienced professionals to make snap decisions and take decisive action. The number of firefighters hired each year corresponds roughly to population increases, so an awareness of shifting demographics can help the aspiring firefighter find a location that needs him.

Quality of Life


At the beginning of their careers, firefighters are put through a rigorous three- to sixteen-week training program to learn firefighting techniques. Attrition rate is highest in these initial years--almost 25 percent. Many find the lifestyle too uneven (extremely pressured or overly dull), and rookies are generally stuck with the late-night "graveyard" shift, making it hard to have any kind of personal life at the beginning.


During these years, attrition declines to between three and five percent for those who leave the profession due to dissatisfaction. Over 20 percent of firefighters receive on-the-job injuries in years four through seven, as those who have survived five years have battled a number of different types of fires and may become a touch overconfident in their abilities. Most of these injuries only result in three to twelve weeks of missed time. Those who wish to move up take additional courses during these years and begin to teach at local training academies or give fire-prevention lectures at schools. Some get promoted to "chief" or "manager" of the firehouse.


Ten-year veterans have more control over their hours and higher pay, but do basically the same job they were initially hired to do: Fight fires. Halfway to their pension, most firefighters who've lasted this long have enough experience in action to avoid disabling injuries. A curious note: Of those who have the option to retire at 50, only about half accept. People who see themselves as firefighters enjoy the profession for as long as they can.