Do I need a degree to become a firefighter, is a question I get a lot. The role of a firefighter is one that requires a lot of training, specialty skills in specific areas and a good level of intelligence. We don’t always think of firefighters as being college-educated, although there is no reason why they couldn’t be.
We often see the job as purely vocational, something we can sign up for at a fairly early age with minimal academic qualifications. If that is the case, why are there so many colleges and fire academies across the country that offer a degree course in fire subjects? Do you actually need a college after all?
So, Do I need a degree to become a firefighter?
The short answer is no. You don’t need to have a degree to be a firefighter as many departments will train you to their standards and help you with certifications. You may need a Firefighter I and II certification in order to work as a qualified firefighter. EMT certification and some paramedic training certificates are also encouraged.
Instead, you work through your basic training as a recruit, enter into the screening process that includes tests and interviews and then gain your qualifications based on those new-found skills.
It is all purely vocational and can often center around professional training divisions and academies within your local area. If you have no aspirations to progress much further than a senior firefighter or officer, a college degree really isn’t that essential for you.
In this guide, I want to clear up any confusion by addressing some of the main points regarding firefighter education and essential training.
I will look at what it is like for firefighters that don’t attend college to earn a degree. Then I will look at the potential benefits of getting a degree depending on your current situation and aspirations.
On The Job Training vs. Classroom Training
On-the-job learning and training provide firefighters with the chance to learn new skills and gain additional certifications as they work.
In other words, you can evolve as you serve your community and learn the skills that are most important to your department and the local area.
For example, if you are part of a rural department near areas prone to wildfires, you can take wildland management training courses to help you handle this role. If you work near water or in colder areas, marine fire suppression skills, water rescue and ice rescue could be useful.
It is all about building knowledge as you work. It is easy to build a career in this way without any formal college education or degree if you are willing to put the effort into your studies and enhance your skillset.
A college degree may not be essential, but it can be useful. That being said, there are advantages to having a college education. College courses in fire science subjects help by
- Providing a more comprehensive education on the subject
- Taking subjects further with advanced courses on management and administration subjects
- Giving young applicants and volunteer firefighters the chance to gain that college life experience that they don’t want to miss out on.
This idea of the college experience is something that is often overlooked. College isn’t just about the classes, the credits earned and the final degree at the end.
Students learn a lot about themselves and the world around them as they develop into adults at college. The people they meet, and the life lessons here could prove valuable when dealing with incidents in their community in the fire service.
I do have a few words of warning, however, to all those that want to get the “full” college experience and then join the fire service. There are strict rules for applicants on their fitness and their previous experience with drugs.
Keep this in mind, stay out of trouble to highlight your good character and work on your fitness to be ready for those fitness tests like the CPAT.
Also, it’s important to note that the cost of attending a college or university can be significant. Click this link to see my guide on how much it costs to become a firefighter, and what costs you can expect.
Should you get a certificate, associate degree or full bachelor’s degree?
There are different options available depending on your goals and the choices at your local college. You can pick between the following:
It’s important to remember that there are different types of courses out there at different lengths. You can choose the option that is most applicable to your needs and situation. The first option is the certificate course.
These programs are typically vary from a few months to a year and offer basic training and knowledge on fire behavior and suppression. The idea here is that students come out of the course with a formal certificate of higher education that looks good on their resume.
The qualification also allows most graduates the chance to take their Firefighter 1 and 2 examinations before they apply for a job at a department.
The advantage here is that you can show hiring officers that you already know a lot about the job and how to handle the equipment. They don’t have to worry about training you and you might jump to the top of the list in the hiring process over inexperienced applicants.
The next step is to extend the studies into a 2-year associate degree. This is a great idea for those willing to put in a little more time for a more comprehensive education on the subject.
This longer course provides more credits and hours in the classroom and the training areas. This will allow you to expand your knowledge in key areas for more experience.
There are different options when taking associate degrees and choosing the best course. Some colleges that are more academic in nature may stay within the classrooms with minimal experience in simulations.
Others may have a designated fire facility with burn rooms and other equipment. There are also colleges that run partnerships with local departments for first-hand experience in firefighting.
From there, you could transfer the credits onto a full bachelor’s degree. This is where you get more specialist subjects based on the focus of the degrees.
Some degrees are more focused on the technology side of fire suppression, rescue and strategies. Others are more administrative and managerial with modules on law, investigations and other skills.
The latter is a great qualification for those that want to move into these management roles in the future.
Bachelor’s degrees also bring in other credits in other subjects for a more well-rounded education. You could find a course that has a single major with room to bring in additional credits in English, sciences, history, politics or psychology.
You might also be able to add a minor to your degree in a related subject. Some people that aim to become a firefighter/paramedic and will choose to minor in paramedicine or other medical sciences.
Be aware that the certificates and associate degrees are often more accessible than the full bachelor’s degrees. Local community colleges may have the former but then you will have to relocate to finish the course.
A college course could be a good way to give yourself an advantage before you reach the minimum hiring age.
Another factor that I want to mention here is that some fire departments have a higher minimum age than average for new recruits.
Most will take applicants from people out of high school at 18. But there are some that insist that applicants are 19, 20 or even 21. That could mean 3 years between graduating high school and getting your dream job.
So, what do you do? Do you get a menial job to pay the bills and pass the time? Or, do you go to college, improve your education and apply at the right age with that advantage.
If a department wants to make sure that their recruits are old enough, mature enough and have enough life experience, college could be the best option for you.
Be sure to weigh the pros and cons of getting a degree
Therefore, while a college degree isn’t essential in order to become a firefighter, it is recommended for many people. It all depends on your ideal career path.
If you want to work for your local department as soon as possible, and they accept 18-year-old applicants, take the vocational route, get your basic certification and learn on the job.
If you want to gain a little more experience and education first, or aren’t old enough to join, a college education could be what sets you apart from other candidates.
Research the courses available near you for a better idea of your chances. Also, talk to your local department about their minimum requirements and recommendations.
Check out my state by state guides on how to become a firefighter on the site here as this will have information and recommendations for courses that may be in your area.
Don’t forget that knowledge is power in any profession. The more you know now, and the more you are prepared to learn, the better able you will be to serve your community effectively.