Become a Firefighter
Fairfax County (Virginia) firefighter Marc Davidson knows. "It's like controlled chaos," Davidson says. "A lot of things are happening very quickly, and unlike what you see on TV or in the movies, you can't see anything. It takes a lot of discipline and control to understand that that's part of what happens, but when you're actually doing it, you're not thinking about it because you have a job to accomplish." It’s a job that involves much more than fighting fires.
"That represents about 20 percent of a typical firefighter's day," Davidson says. "The rest of the time is spent doing very mundane tasks that range from cleaning equipment to inspecting someone's house to helping a citizen who's locked out of a car. So you really have to want to become a firefighter."
Davidson, who grew up in State College, Pa., knew he wanted to become a firefighter after touring a local firehouse at age 7. After a year in college and some time working, Davidson joined the Marine Corps. He got serious about a fire-service career as his military service was ending.
While still at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Davidson took classes in basic EMT (emergency medical training) and CPR instruction and began volunteering at the local fire and rescue squad to increase his chances of getting a coveted paid firefighter job.
"Getting a paid position as a professional firefighter is a long and difficult process," Davidson says. "For a fire academy class of 24, there will probably be between 4,000 and 6,000 applicants.
To become a firefighter is a unique career track because it's one of the few places where if you didn't pay anybody anything, you'd still get more than enough people to get the job done."
Davidson spent four years as a volunteer firefighter while holding several jobs, including one in sales, while waiting for his opportunity.
Soon after, he began working to get his paramedic certification, which he says can give potential firefighters a leg up on other applicants. "The role of the fire service has evolved from just firefighting to providing emergency medical services as well as rescue and firefighting," he says. "If you want to become a firefighter today, it's actually easier by first becoming a paramedic."
Becoming a paramedic offers financial benefits as well. "It can represent another $10,000 to $35,000 in salary," Davidson says. That's on top of a starting salary range of between $21,000 and $37,000, which can increase to $45,000 to $75,000 over 20 years, without any promotions.
Education, skills to become a firefighter
As the fire service becomes more technical, a college education is more important than ever. In addition to degrees in emergency medicine and the sciences, Davidson says people with degrees in management, government and business or public administration are being recognized as future fire department leaders.
Davidson recommends people thinking about a fire-service career get some real-life experience as volunteer firefighters. "This helps if you want to get a job, but more importantly, it helps you determine if this is really something you want to do."
Serving as a volunteer firefighter is just one of many volunteer opportunities firehouses offer. Though programs vary, examples include cadet programs, which may accept people as young as 13 to help with cleaning equipment and administrative matters; riding on emergency calls and assisting with fire-scene activities (but not going into a burning building) starting at age 16 with parental consent; and fully participating as a volunteer at 17 or 18.
Davidson encourages people to take first-aid and CPR classes. "These are very basic things that help you recognize those situations are real, and you start questioning if that's something you could do or want to do," he says. "It's important to recognize within yourself that you want to help other people, as that's ultimately what the job's about." The job is also about working well with others.
Is it for you?
Firefighters live and work together in close quarters, and each has a certain job in battling a fire that's critical to a successful outcome. Davidson says the typical firefighter works three to four 24-hour shifts a week, which involves eating and sleeping at the firehouse and being on constant alert to handle any emergencies. "It's like a second family in a lot of ways," he says of his co-workers.
Firefighters also share a commitment to physical fitness. "It's such an important aspect of the job for a lot of reasons, but most importantly is the ability to do the job well," he says. "To be able to wear and carry 80 to 100 pounds of gear, lift people, move objects and quickly do the job you're supposed to do, it takes an incredible level of fitness."
Davidson suggests people wanting to become a firefighter get all the fire, emergency medical and rescue experience they can. "In addition to being a paramedic, I've had a wide variety of training in various aspects of rescue: hazardous materials, swift water and technical, the last which I paid for out of my own pocket as a volunteer firefighter to help build my firefighter-related resume."
Davidson admits that firefighting isn't a job for everyone, and says surveys often rank it as one of the most stressful jobs. Davidson, though, wouldn't trade it for any other profession. "I really enjoy the work I do, never having a set routine and being able to help people on a regular basis."
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