Last week I received an email from an aspiring firefighter asking me, “can I be a firefighter with glasses?“
When you take your first physical with the fire service, you will soon become aware of the very high standards that the fire service has set for their personnel. This is clear in everything from strength and agility tested in the CPAT to the different tests you will take during your medical exam.
Eyesight is an important factor here and there are warnings that new applicants may fail to make the cut if their eyesight isn’t good enough. Yet, there are also lots of stories and forum posts online from firefighters that can in their department with terrible eyesight.
So, what is the truth of the matter here, can you become a firefighter with glasses or contact and what measure are in place to help?
Can I be a firefighter with glasses?
Yes, you can be a firefighter with glasses, contacts or colorblindness. There is no reason why you shouldn’t be able to have a successful career in the fire service as a glasses wearer if you are prepared to make adaptations to your mask or correct your vision appropriately. It all comes down to the amount of vision loss that you have and any other medical conditions.
In this guide, I will cover some of the medical concerns raised in firefighter medical exams that may disqualify you.
From there I will talk about some of the corrective measures that you can implement to help you overcome any problems. I will also take a moment to mention the issue of colorblindness in the fire service.
What are some of the disqualifying factors?
Let’s start with the basic requirements. There are medical conditions categorized as either Category A or Category B in a firefighter medical exam.
Category B conditions are those that can be allowed if they pose no significant risk.
Category A conditions disqualify applicants from the process. When it comes to vision, there are a few Category A issues to be aware of. They are:
- Far visual acuity that is less than 20/40 binocular after correction
- Monochromatic vision that prohibits the use of imaging devices
- Monocular vision that could impact depth perception
- Any other eye condition that would stop candidates from safely performing their role.
But, there will be many people requiring glasses that don’t fall into these categories. Instead, they can complete tasks with the right types of correction to their vision.
Glasses, contacts or surgery?
This leads to some questions over the best route to take if you do have bad eyesight and need this to be corrected. Can you wear glasses as a firefighter in a safe manner? Can you wear contact lenses instead or is it a better idea to opt for corrective surgery?
I want to talk about the latter first because this is the first thought that so many applicants jump to.
There are pros and cons to taking this approach. In the long-term, successful surgery could eliminate the risk of further issues on calls or dealing with less-than-perfect vision again.
However, some departments don’t recommend re-applying until at least a year after surgery. There is also the high cost involved. Is this something you can afford right now?
The next option is to get corrective glasses that correct your vision to the right levels for the department you will be applying to. There is some confusion about the rules on wearing glasses as a firefighter.
The general rule in most departments is that you can wear glasses at the station and on some calls but not if you have to wear your mask.
Some firefighters claim to wear their prescription glasses under a standard mask. This shouldn’t be the case. It leads to safety concerns of the mask not fitting correctly and leaving gaps for the smoke and other contaminants.
There are three options that you can take here if you are reliant on your glasses to see.
The first is to get a special mask made that will fit over your lenses so you can work safely. This investment could make a big difference when on calls.
The second is to get a mask with a shield with the same prescription as your glasses. This way you can see on-scene and not worry about having the frames underneath.
Finally, there is an option to simply not wear glasses at all when attending a structural fire as visibility is so poor anyway. Find a way to work with a mask that is comfortable but also safe for all concerned.
Can I be a firefighter with contact lenses?
Yes, you can be a firefighter and have contact lenses, but this is another area where there is some confusion. Some will tell you that you can’t use contact lenses over safety fears that they won’t hold up to the heat. Others say they have used contact lenses as a firefighter for years with no problems.
My personal opinion on this is if you’re in an environment that is hot enough to melt a contact lense in your eye, through your mask, you’ve got far bigger concerns.
The best approach, whether you have glasses or contact lenses, is to be honest with the department and see what their guidelines say.
Views on glasses and contacts and the best safety precautions may vary between departments. You might find that yours is a little more lenient or a little stricter, so always go with what they say rather than the anecdotal evidence of other firefighters at other departments.
Can I be a firefighter if I’m colorblind?
Yes, absolutely can be a firefighter if you are colorblind. While it may cause some difficulty, it should not prohibit you from completing your duties professionally and safely, but always consult each departments rules and standards.
Another issue regarding vision that I want to talk about here is colorblindness. There is an assumption that you can’t be a firefighter if you are colorblind because it would have an impact on your abilities and professionalism. This isn’t the case at all.
There are many people with colorblindness that are more than capable of handling the job with ease. It all depends on whether you are completely colorblind or color-deficient.
The latter means that you can distinguish between colors but not to great detail on specific tones. As I mentioned above, the disqualifying condition here is for complete monochromatic vision with no color perception.
It is up to the physicians to administer all appropriate test to determine the level of colorblindness and possible impact on the job.
Those that are deemed eligible to continue may benefit from color-correcting lenses or contacts. However, there are cases where some have continued to work without seeing the true color.
If you want to see a feel-good story about a firefighter with colorblindness. Check out the link below. It shows that a good crew with empathy and communication can go a long way to helping those with disabilities flourish in the service. Read the article here.
Finally, it’s important to remember that every department will be different. While I don’t know of a single firefighter who has been disqualified for vision issues some departments may be more strict than others.