More than 310,000 professional firefighters work throughout the United States, and many describe it as the best job in the world.
There’s the adrenalin rush of fighting blazes that threaten to consume a home, building, or forest. Making emergency medical calls in response to accidental injuries or disasters brings the deep personal reward of saving lives. Firefighters enjoy a sense of camaraderie as all aspects of their exciting job revolves around teamwork. The Labor Department reports that more than 90 percent of all professional firefighters work for local government, meaning they make big contributions to their communities, from saving lives to saving millions of dollars a year by preventing property damage.
These rewards pay firefighters in ways a paycheck never could.
Competition can be fierce to enter the field. After earning a high school diploma or GED, many break in by volunteering with local firehouses. For firefighters who want to climb the ranks faster, pursuing a degree that will prepare them for a career at the state or federal level is often the answer. The first step to choosing the path that’s right for you begins by understanding the wide variety of firefighting careers and responsibilities each entail — from firefighter/EMTs and firefighter/paramedics to fire investigators and inspectors.
How to Become a Firefighter
All professional firefighters must undergo advanced training, either in a technical school, university, or firefighting academy. Each state and fire agency sets its own hiring qualifications, but one of the best places to learn about firefighter education requirements is by volunteering at the local firehouse. If you live near a national forest, there are ample volunteer opportunities through the Forest Service branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that can help you build skills while meeting new people and forming valuable career connections.
How do you stand out from the competition in this sought-after profession?
Some fire departments provide opportunities for people to engage in a wide range of volunteer services. You may be asked to help out around the fire station or participate at a recruitment table at a local job fair. Volunteering can provide you with much-needed hands-on experience, as well as a networking opportunity. Some agencies actually require candidates to volunteer or even enroll in accredited apprenticeship programs that combine work with firefighter training.
The firefighter exam is tough — really tough.
Prospects must complete a written test that covers basics such as math, reading and oral comprehension, memory, mechanical aptitude, writing, and reasoning. (The good news is it does not usually require previous firefighting knowledge.) Due to the limited availability of test dates for entry-level firefighters, studying for the test and getting the highest score possible is important to keep your career goals on track.
Applicants also typically take the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT), which tests their physical fitness and strength. Being a firefighter may require wearing up to 75 pounds of gear and the additional strength needed to carry ladders, firehoses, and people out of burning buildings. Many firefighters work for long hours under stressful and potentially hazardous conditions. Because firefighting typically requires a higher level of physical fitness than most other professions, be sure you’re in shape before taking the qualification examinations.
There are many different requirements and prerequisites that need to be completed before becoming a firefighter. First, you have your written examination, interview, background check, and drug screening.
Then there is a strenuous physical performance test, which involves a variety of difficult tasks, such as carrying heavy equipment while climbing long flights of stairs, operating heavy vehicles, and emergency preparedness training.
There is also a psychological exam, which covers personality traits specific to firefighter performance. The interview typically covers career goals, how you see yourself with a career in firefighting, and why you’re choosing that specific agency or department.
Best Degrees for Firefighters
While entry-level firefighter positions typically don’t require a college degree, some full-time positions prefer candidates to have postsecondary education. Having a college degree can boost your job prospects and allow you to advance to higher positions, such as lieutenant, battalion chief, and fire chief.
Emergency Medical Technician Certificate
In many areas, having an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification is a requirement for firefighters, who are often called out for emergency medical situations. EMT certification requirements vary by state. National University offers an Emergency Medical Technician Certificate that provides entry-level basic knowledge, essential skills, and an understanding of emergency medical assistance in outpatient and emergency settings.
Successful completion of the EMT Certificate program will allow you to apply for your state Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) card and perform entry-level EMT skills as a member of technical rescue teams or as part of an allied service such as a fire or police department.
Certificate in Fire Science
A Certificate in Fire Science prepares students for a career or promotion within fire and emergency service organizations, many of which require applicants to complete some post-secondary education and career training. The certification also prepares students for careers in the private sector, such as fire investigation, fire engineering, suppression/alarm systems maintenance, emergency management, and hazard analysis.
This undergraduate certificate is typically completed between several months and one year. The curriculum covers topics such as theory and tactics in prevention engineering, firefighting, emergency medical services, fire behavior, hazardous materials, and rescue operations.
Associate Degree in Fire Science
An associate degree program in Fire Science expands your knowledge of topics such as fire engineering, fire suppression, fire prevention, code inspection, arson investigation, and departmental leadership. The degree can satisfy basic application requirements for some roles or give you an advantage in fire service organizations where recruitment is highly competitive. In addition, the degree can provide the foundation for admission to advanced educational programs and degrees in fire science fields such as teaching, departmental management, or consulting specialties.
The associate degree is typically completed in two years. The curriculum includes general education courses such as psychology, introduction to computer science, chemistry, physics, American government, and communications.
Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management
Any situation that involves the attention of firefighters can typically be considered an emergency situation. At a high level, a degree in emergency management provides a solid foundation in the best practices to cope with a pending emergency, as well as managing operations during and after an emergency situation.
National University offers a Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management program that can prepare you for a variety of emergency preparedness settings, including threat assessment, disaster management, and crisis response management. Pursuing higher education as a firefighter can help you ascend to higher ranks within the department, such as lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and fire chief.
This program offers ideal courses for firefighters, such as Crisis Management, Disaster Management, Emergency/Disaster Response, and Infrastructure Protection.
Master of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management
For those who want to climb the ladder much higher, a master’s degree in emergency management could be the right path. National University offers a Master of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management program that helps integrate tools, resources, and organizational systems for the successful implementation of emergency management issues. Naturally occurring events, such as the Southern California wildfires, are additional evidence of the ongoing need for more specialized knowledge in the area of emergency management.
Someone with this master’s degree is able to help businesses, governments, and private industry prepare for, respond to, and recover from potentially debilitating natural and man-made catastrophes.
One potential career opportunity stemming from this program is an Emergency Management Specialist working for the Department of Agriculture. The average salary for this position was $79,965.86 in 2021, according to FederalPay.org. In this role, you would manage emergencies such as wildland fire incidents, natural hazard incidents, and hazardous material incidents. You would also create and implement wildfire incidents plans and policies.
Fire Science Degrees
While there is no specific ”firefighter degree,” many accomplished firefighters have found success pursuing a degree in fire science. Learning about the science behind the start and spread of fires can help you advance into alternative roles in the field, including fire inspectors, fire investigators, and fire marshalls. Somebody who is trained in fire science can also assist in forensic science, determining the source of fire-related crimes like arson.
Find the perfect courses for firefighters with National University
Whether you’re just starting out as a volunteer firefighter or already on the front lines, you can earn a degree or certificate to advance your career. Sound the alarm, because National University’s College of Professional Studies offers a quality education with flexible options for firefighters. National University’s curriculum allows working professionals to enroll in four-week courses, offering a convenient, flexible schedule.
No matter which program you choose, the flexible, four-week class schedules let you earn your degree while working and/or volunteering at the firehouse. Contact an academic advisor to learn more about which program to pursue to help earn advanced certifications or college degrees that can boost your rank, earnings, and responsibilities as a firefighter.