7 Traits of All GREAT Firefighters


Great firefighters separate themselves from the rest. They’re always ready to act in the line of duty, and they seem to possess traits that most other firefighters don’t. It goes beyond perseverance, bravery, and honor. It’s something more, so what is it?

Here are the 7 traits of all great firefighters:

  • Willingness to learn and adapt
  • Patience
  • Physical fitness
  • Empathy
  • Reliability and trustworthiness
  • Sense of humor
  • Knowledge

The above traits are ones that you don’t hear of as often but are still critical in developing tomorrow’s best firefighters and other fire leaders. By strengthening these traits yourself, you can excel in your firefighting job, so make sure you keep reading!

Willingness to Learn and Adapt

You spent about 14 weeks in the fire academy and trained for up to 600 hours. You might have gone back to school to earn an associate’s or even a bachelor’s in areas such as fire science or medicine.

Good firefighters assume that once they get hired by a fire department that the time for learning is done. Great firefighters know that the learning never stops.

No firefighter is perfect, even though many are darn near close. When a mistake happens, the great firefighters don’t sweep it under the rug. They don’t deny it. They spend time with it. They rewind it in their heads and go through the steps they took. They determine what they could have done better.

Firefighter fighting fire

Then, the next time they find themselves in a similar predicament, that’s exactly what they do: better. 

More so than that, great firefighters are flexible in situations. If an approach they’re taking isn’t working, they don’t keep chugging along hoping that the circumstance will change for the better, almost by magic.

Instead, they adapt and evolve with the situation, doing what it requires to rescue civilians or save a building from ruin. 

In the fire service, there’s a saying of sorts: “because we always did it that way.” This mindset hinders adaptability. Young firefighters who have the potential to be great might live and die by that saying because they’re too afraid to color outside of the lines.

That’s not to say that you should fly in the face of the vast years of experience your superiors have. That’s not the point. If you’re trying something and it’s clearly not working though, just because it’s the way it’s always been doesn’t mean it’s the way it always has to continue to be.

This is something great firefighters know innately through experience. 

Patience

You like to think of yourself as a patient person, but how far does your patience really go? If someone’s yelling in your face, are you still going to be patient? For how long?

You don’t hear of patience being a trait ascribed to firefighters often, let alone great firefighters, but it should be. 

When you join a fire department, you’re assigned to a squad or team. You do more than work with these people. You often live with them. You’ll end up seeing the members of your team more so than you do your friends, your parents, possibly even your spouse and children. 

The thing about firefighters is many of them are decidedly Type A personalities. In other words, these are some of the most competitive people around. So what do you think happens when everyone wants to be the top dog but there’s only one slot available?

That’s right, heads will butt.

When you combine that with the often long hours of firefighting and the grueling strenuousness of the job, bad feelings can take hold very quickly. 

The best firefighters are those who can keep a level head even when everyone else’s heads are getting hot. If someone on their crew regularly flies off the handle, the great firefighters can deal with this person no matter their moods.

Firefighter speaking to classroom of children

If you’re patient enough, your crew will notice when you’re not there, such as during a day off. They’ll miss your calming presence. 

Great firefighters aren’t only patient with their crew, but with the general public as well. They project a good image of their fire department in every interaction they have with the public. They’re not doormats, but they’re accommodating and kind. 

Physical Fitness

Of the traits we’ve discussed so far, this one is the most obvious. Physical fitness is a must of any firefighter. You must be physically conditioned to handle the many rigors of the job, from running around in weighty gear to handling heavy equipment and being able to lift, push, and pull large amounts of weight. 

You need stamina and energy as well, and these attributes also come from being physically fit.

Physical fitness alone is not enough to make you a great firefighter, but it does put you well on the road to getting there. 

Empathy

Going from a trait that comes up all the time in great firefighters to one that’s not discussed nearly enough, it’s time to talk about empathy.

Some firefighters think in the hustle and bustle of their day-to-day jobs that there’s no time to be empathetic. They have to worry about rescuing civilians, but they don’t want to learn more about them. 

This can be a coping mechanism in a way. If you don’t know what transpires after putting out a fire, you can’t be personally affected by the situation. Treating tragic situations like this can come off as cold and callous though. 

Great firefighters care about the members of the public they interact with. They might check in with the families by phone or even in person to see if they’re okay. That’s being a public servant in a nutshell.

To some firefighters, doing this might seem like going above and beyond, but to the great firefighters and fire leaders, it’s just what they do. 

Reliability and Trustworthiness

Okay, so technically this is two traits, but we’re rolling them into one because really, you can’t be trustworthy without being reliable. 

Lots of firefighters like to keep things close to the vest, either because they don’t want to burden their crew with their personal problems or they feel like they can’t fully trust the others on the crew with their issues.

Not great firefighters. A great firefighter is someone to who others on the crew can go with their personal and professional concerns alike. When they sit down and talk with this firefighter, they can trust that the information they discuss won’t get out to the whole rest of the department. 

Sure, technically being reliable and trustworthy goes beyond the realm of firefighting, but that’s not a bad thing. If you’re someone who your firefighting crew can trust at work, then the chances are good that you have plenty of friends and family who adore you back home too.

They know that you’ll happily lend them an ear, and that goes a long way towards strengthening friendships and relationships.

Firefighting isn’t all about being on the scene extinguishing blazes and rescuing victims. It’s about the life in between too. It’s no secret this job can take a mental toll just as much as it does a physical one, sometimes more so. Having a trusted confidante in the fire department is truly invaluable.   

Sense of Humor

Are you surprised to see this one on the list? You shouldn’t be. If anything, this is one of those traits that can’t be overstated enough. 

As we’ve talked about, firefighting is a hard job. Even saying that is the understatement of the year. If you do your job well, people can still die. If they don’t die, they sometimes lose everything, which is just as heartbreaking. 

Besides the victims who don’t always make it out, sometimes it’s your fellow firefighters you lose as well. 

All that weighing on you day in and day out is enough to make anyone depressed. That’s why a sense of humor is so key to being a great firefighter. When small mishaps happen at the fire department (not any that put someone’s life in danger, of course), you can laugh or at least smile.

You can also laugh at yourself, which is good because others will sometimes be laughing at you, not with you. Fitting in with your crew isn’t always easy, and it can entail you being picked on a bit. You need thick skin and the ability to laugh off jokes.

why do firefighters die?

Even once you’re everyone’s favorite crewmate because you’re such a great firefighter, don’t lose your sense of humor. Crack jokes in the fire department and laugh at other people’s jokes, even if they are at your expense. 

In other words, be a good sport. Firefighting is stressful enough as it is. If there are situations in which everyone can have a smile on their face and no one has any hurt feelings, it’s good for the entire crew’s morale. 

Knowledge 

The last trait of great firefighters is knowledge. 

It’s easy enough to be book-smart, but can you hold it together in the face of a life-threatening situation? Some firefighters and medics can, and others can’t. They forget all their training, where they’re supposed to go, and what they’re supposed to do. 

This is a panic response, and it does get easier for some. Great firefighters can understand that there’s a scary situation unfolding and recognize that their calmness and clear knowledge are needed more than ever. 

They can think on their feet and not allow panic to sweep them under and make them forget what they’ve learned. 

When the fire department gets a call about installing a child seat or changing a carbon monoxide alarm, a great firefighter will try to help. If they by chance cannot, then they’ll point the general public in the direction of someone who can. 

There you have it, seven traits that all great firefighters possess. These traits, although not what you would have expected, are what make the legendary firefighters and fire leaders that people talk about for decades. 

Hopefully, you saw some areas you can improve upon in your own job as a firefighter so that you may someday be one of the greats as well.

Mike Pertz

I’m Mike, I’m a full time firefighter/paramedic and the founder of FirefighterNOW. I’m also a columnist for FireRescue1. If you’re reading this blog my guess is you are interested in the fire service. There's information on fitness, gear, interviews, tests and more. I hope you find what you're looking for.

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