How To Become A Firefighter (8 Simple Steps)

Because becoming a firefighter shouldn't be so difficult.

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how to become a firefighter

I want to become a firefighter, where do I start?

So, you want to be a firefighter. I commend you.  It’s a long, difficult and usually painstakingly slow process.  It’s full of ups and downs, false leads, and a whole lot of bad advice.

Becoming a firefighter is simple, but it’s not easy.

Whether you’re new to this process or you’re a seasoned veteran to the hiring process, there will be something in here you will find useful, so read on.

I’ve written several articles about different phases of the process, but in this book I’m going to go one step further, and put them all together.  This is written for the person who is completely new to fire service, knows nothing about the process, or has no idea what to expect and isn’t sure where to begin.

Step 1- Learn what you’re getting yourself into

The best advice I can give someone just starting, is to know what you’re getting yourself into.  Hollywood has done a great job at creating entertaining drama and excitement around what the fire service is, and it will be an adventurous and fulfilling career, but rarely do they show you the real side of it.

I once had an instructor tell me something that has stuck with me to this day.  He told me that people can usually count on one hand the number of times they have called 911.  While it may seem like just another call for us, a lot of people will remember every detail of that day because it is the worst day of their life.  This puts a huge responsibility on you to be professional, courteous and empathetic at all times.

Truth be told, some days are really boring.  Some days are so busy you’re dying for one of those boring days.  Most days follow the same routine, but one thing is certain; you never know what could happen next.

For many people this is exciting and exactly what they’re looking for, but if you don’t deal well with change, danger, uncertainty and lack of sleep you may want to consider another career.

Also, the movies and television try really hard to dramatize the painful parts of being a firefighter, but no amount of acting can really capture what it can be like to come face to face with human suffering.

Watching another human in severe pain whether it be physical, mental or emotional is a unique experience; one that needs to be prepared for, and can often be overwhelming. Having healthy and realistic coping skills will be central to your success as a firefighter.

Finally, just because you are on a fire department doesn’t necessarily mean you have a built in group of family members.   That’s a common analogy used to describe the fire service, and in many ways it can be fairly accurate, but don’t think just because you become a firefighter everyone at every department will have your back, or even your best interest in mind at all times.

I realize a statement like that may offend a lot of people currently in the fire service, but I truly think anyone that is honest about their experiences can say they know ‘that guy’ in their department.

So how does one who is new to all of this adequately understand what they’re getting themselves into? 

I recommend 2 ways.

First, talk to people you know who currently work in the fire service.  To find out what it’s really like, the best source is people who do it on a regular basis.  However, this is a double edged sword.  When talking to other people about their experiences you will automatically be subject to their biases.  Though this can be a good thing, make sure people you talk to are people you respect and want to emulate.

Try to offer that individual some sort of value.  Whether that’s asking them to coffee, buying them lunch or doing something for them (cut the grass, shovel the driveway etc) be sure to make it clear that you are appreciative of their time.

If you’re going to ask questions, make them good, here’s some good ones to ask:

  • Walk me through a day on your shift.
  • Why did you become a firefighter?
  • What do you like about the job?
  • What do you dislike about the job?
  • What are the easy/hard parts about the job?
  • What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the fire service?
  • What’s the toughest part about your job? What’s the easiest part of your job? 

Second, if you don’t’ know someone in the fire service it can be tough to ask a stranger for their time.  My second best recommendation is to go to your local department and ask to do ride time.  If it’s a volunteer department they may be more apt to allow you to sit in on meetings and other department functions even if you’re not a part of their department.

Otherwise, just ask if you can do several ride-alongs with them.  Most department’s have some kind of program set up for this where you’ll have to sign some paperwork, but it will give you first hand experience as to what you are getting yourself into.

The same rule applies here: bring something of value to the department.  When you show up, bring coffee, donuts, bagels or some kind of food (99.999% of firefighters love food) and that will go a long way.  Be polite and respectful, don’t get in anyone’s way, and whatever you do, please don’t pretend that you’re ‘one of the guys’ right away.  You’re not, and it will be VERY off-putting to everyone on that shift.

*BONUS TIP:  When you show up for ride time bring some cash (usually 5-10 bucks is plenty).  The reason for this is a lot to crews cook and eat together.  They will probably extend the invitation to you, and it is in your best interest to accept the invitation to be in on dinner (most places have a guests don’t pay policy so be sure you are extra polite and appreciative).  Yes, it can be very awkward being the new person who knows no one at the table, but it will give you a front row seat into what you can expect in the future. 

Step 2-  So you still want to be a firefighter?  Ok, here we go…

Congratulations!  You’ve made it to step 2 and you’ve made the decision to pursue a career in the fire service.

It’s gonna take some serious time and effort, but here’s the next few steps to achieving your goal.

Here’s the simple formula:  Apply – Test – Repeat …until you are hired.

Simple, but not easy.

The path most career firefighters start out on is working on either a volunteer or a part-time fire department as they work their way through school.

For you this means doing a quick google search and a lot of leg work.

First, do a quick search for ALL of the fire departments in your area.  It doesn’t matter if they’re volunteer, wildland, part-time or career.  Once you have this list separate the departments into one of those 4 categories.

Once you have them all broken down, you’ll want to make a list of all the requirements for each department.  Here’s an example:

  • Department A (career)- No experience required, no certifications required
  • Department B (part-time)- EMT, Firefighter 1 required
  • Department C (career w/part time)- Must be a Paramedic w/ Firefighter 2 and Basic Haz-Mat Operations
  • Department D (volunteer)- EMT

Now that you have all the departments listed out, determine what departments you would be eligible for right away.  So to continue with our same example:

Let’s say I just finished EMT school but have no fire, paramedic or Haz-Mat training.

I would now make a new list:

  • Department A
  • Department D

These are the only 2 departments I am eligible to apply to right now.

Next, I’m going to find out the exact process of applying to these departments.  A lot of times you can find the information on the website.  If you’re unable to find it on the website, drive to the department, introduce yourself, express your interest in the department and ask how to go about applying or joining the department.

Do this same process over and over for every department within the area you are willing to travel or work.

Now that we’ve got the ball rolling, let’s move onto step 3.

Step 3- “Inc.” yourself.

I once heard the advice that you need to think of yourself as a business and do whatever you can to increase the value of your stock.

Kind of an odd way to approach your life, but if you think about it, it makes sense.

If a department has thousands of candidates to choose from, why should they choose you?  What can you do, or at least begin doing, to increase the value you bring to a future department?

The great part about this is there are lots of ways to boost your value (some better than others).  Here’s some examples:

  • Become an EMT-B
  • Become a Paramedic
  • Get your Firefighter 1 & 2 and beyond
  • Become extremely fit
  • Make friends in the fire service
  • Get a job working in an ER (where you’ll be exposed to a lot of firefighters)
  • Pick up useful hobbies (being mechanical, diving, ropes, radios, construction etc)

The best way to boost your value is experience, and at this point you should be doing everything you can to get on a volunteer/part-time department or at the very least somehow become involved with one.

The next best way to boost your value (in the fire service) is to get some kind of EMS certification.  As with most things, the more you do the more valuable you become.

In another article on FirefighterNOW titled Fire Science vs. Paramedic we talk about the importance of having EMS certifications in today’s fire service.

In short, fire science degrees look great, but I’ve never seen a department that required one to get hired.

Unfortunately, if you go to any school counselor they will put you on an educational track that takes a lot of time, and doesn’t necessarily get you the results you want.

Why?  Tuition.

If you are looking to stand out in a sea of average applicants the best way to do that is to be a Paramedic.  A lot of departments don’t require you to have your Paramedic certification ahead of time, but like it or not, today’s fire service is moving more and more towards integrating Fire and EMS protection into one department.  Staying ahead of this curve not only makes you smart, but allows you to stand out.

If you’re wondering where you can go in your area to get started on an EMS certification you’re in the right place.  Feel free to check out the FirefighterNOW EMS database where you can find every school in the US and Canada that offers courses for EMS certifications.

While a lot of the larger departments out there will send you to their own fire academy whether or not you have experience; I don’t recommend putting all your eggs in one basket of getting hired at a large department and going through their fire academy.

A lot of smaller departments will require you to have some form of fire education.

This is where I highly recommend going to a Fire Academy.  Fire Academies are usually a few months in length and will give you the necessary education and training (for your particular state) to be certified as a firefighter.

The main difference between this and a Fire Science program is that a Fire Academy is more direct.  They give you all of the classroom and hands on experience to be a firefighter in the shortest amount of time possible.  Degrees in Fire Science usually take more time (at least 2 years) and may or may not give you the necessary certification to get hired (depends on the school and the program).

At FirefighterNOW we like simple, and if you’re looking for a Fire Academy in your area (US or Canada) feel free to check out our list and enroll in one near you!

Other ways to separate yourself from the crowd is to acquire special knowledge or skills.  This isn’t as important as your EMS certifications, but having excellent mechanical skills, knowledge of construction, plumbing (or any of the trades), ropes or really any sort of skills that would be used daily at a fire department can go a long way.

Step 4- How do I know who’s hiring and when?

It goes without saying that all this work is a waste unless you can find departments to apply to.  There’s a number of ways to do this, but also some important information for you to know.

  1. Departments make this knowledge public, but it’s up to you to do the work and find them.
  2. Not all departments hire continuously.  While some departments are always accepting applications and hiring new firefighters, most do not.
  3. Most department’s hiring processes follow a pattern where they will accept applications for a certain time, test the applicants, and move them forward through the process accordingly.

Finding these job openings can be a challenge, but here are some of the best ways we know to stay up on who is hiring.

  • You can search the local papers (yes, people still do that in the 21st century)
  • You can use general job boards like Indeed and Monster
  • A lot of departments have social media pages that they update with announcements

The best part is that all of the options work well, it’s up to you to decide which is best for you.

Step 5- Test, Test, Test……and Test

The best part about the firefighter written exam is they’re all pretty similar.  The worst part of the firefighter written exam is they’re all different.

Sounds confusing, so let me explain.

There are tons of different tests out there.  You could be taking a Wonderlic, IO Solutions, FireTEAM, Ramsey etc etc.  All the tests are different, but they all test on the same general subjects.  These subjects include:

  • Math
  • Mechanical Reasoning
  • Maps/Directional Orientation
  • Reading Comprehension
  • Vocabulary
  • General Knowledge
  • Human Relations
  • Scenario Based Testing
  • Memory

Different tests weigh different subjects more heavily than others, but you will be hard pressed to find a test that has questions that fall outside one of those categories.

It’s important as you progress through your journey to become a career firefighter to be taking as many tests at as many departments as you possibly can.  Even if you have no interest in working at a particular department I highly recommend that you still take their test.

This strategy is important for many reasons, but most of all it gives you valuable practice at taking these written tests.  The oft used expression ‘practice makes perfect’ comes to mind, and while all this practice may not make you a perfect test taker it will eventually get you in the top 10.

The other benefit to taking as many tests as possible is that eventually you will begin to see repeat tests.  Taking the identical test the second time around is always easier than the first.  Take advantage of that and test everywhere!

Step 6- How’s your fitness?

In my humble opinion, level of fitness is one of the most underrated aspects of a successful firefighter.  According to recent statistics more than half of all line of duty deaths in the fire service are due to a heart attack.

Not only is that statistic sad, but also embarrassing to the fire service.

We’ve all seen that firefighter.  The one that is morbidly obese and can barely fit into his turnout gear.  Please don’t be that firefighter.

Being fit and strong is important for several reasons, but for you, the aspiring firefighter, it is of particular importance for 2 reasons.

Number One:

Simply put, you MUST pass the CPAT or Firefighter Physical Agility Exam.  This is a necessary part of the hiring process that a lot of people underestimate.  Having a poor CPAT time will not only keep you from getting hired, but an ‘average’ time will make you blend in with all the other hundreds or thousands of candidates.

Every department will be different.  A lot of departments will use the National Testing Network (NTN) physical agility test.  While others will have their own version.  It’s important to look up the requirements of every department you want to apply to.

*Bonus Tip-  Make sure you keep an eye on the expiration of the physical agility certificate.  Usually once you complete the test you will receive a certificate with your time/score on it.  Some departments will require that it be within 6 months of application date.  Some require 12 months, and some have no time limit, as long as you have proof of completion.  I personally know of several people who have unfortunately been excluded from applying due to the timing of their last test. 

Finally, you will hear a lot of people give you the terrible advice of ‘just pace yourself’ or ‘don’t worry about your time, it’s a pass/fail test.’

Don’t buy it.

That kind of thinking will not help your chances.  I highly recommend that you train for your test, and when it’s your opportunity you do the absolute best that you can.  Don’t pace yourself, don’t take it easy and certainly don’t do the bare minimum.

Number Two:

As much as we like to think that looks don’t matter, they do.

If you show up at an interview and you are clearly overweight or out of shape.  Your chances of getting hired are significantly lower.

Think about it this way, the officers that you will inevitably be interviewing in front of are giving you the opportunity to not only get a job, but also to be part of their second family.

That may sound dramatic, but let me explain.

Firefighting, unlike most other professions is inherently dangerous, and the chances of you getting hurt are much higher than in most other careers.

Firefighting is also a team effort, and the other men and women you work with MUST be able to rely on you in a tough situation.    If you are seen as physically unfit to fulfill even the basic duties of the job, no officer will want you on their department.

Finally, firefighting is also a very public position.  Like it or not, if you are hired you will be spending a lot of time in the community.  Station tours, school talks, CPR classes, checking hydrants, charity events and a whole host of other things will become regular duties in your job.

You will be a part of the public face of the department.  If you can’t physically take care of yourself do you really expect the citizens you serve to be confident in your ability to take care of them?

Step 7: Your First Impression 

The most important part of the entire hiring process is the interview.

As much as departments try to make the hiring process objective, it is not.  While there are aspects of the process that are objective; at the end of the day you getting hired will solely depend on what a few people think of you as a candidate.  This is why the interview is crucial to your success in becoming a firefighter.

If you’ve never had an interview before or you are preparing for an upcoming interview I highly recommend you download a copy of Mastering the Firefighter Interview. I’ve heard from several candidates who have told me that this book alone is responsible for them doing well in their interview and getting hired.

Mastering the Firefighter Interview covers:

  1. What to expect on the big day
  2. Questions you WILL be asked (and tips to craft your own unique and memorable answers)
  3. The best ways to prepare in the weeks leading up to the interview
  4. Exactly what to say to any question you’ll encounter
  5. How to end the interview…the right way
  6. The correct way to follow up without being annoying
  7. What to do if you don’t get hired
  8. And more!

The panel interview consists of anywhere from 2-6 (usually no more than 6) individuals.   The individuals can be anything from officers on the department, other firefighters on the department, city council members, civil service members or other front office staff ( managers, etc).

Please be sure you wear a suit and tie (guys) or a business professional skirt and blouse (girls).  This is a professional environment, and if nothing else it is a sign of respect to dress your best when showing up for an interview.

Also, make sure you are properly groomed.  If you have a beard, shave it.  If you have long hair/messy hair, cut it.  If you have earrings or other visible facial piercings, take them out.

So, what will you be getting asked during your interview?

All interviews are slightly different, and there are an infinite number of potential questions you can be asked.  However, I have broken down every question into one of four categories.

The WHO Questions-

A question I can almost guarantee you will get at some point during your interview (usually at the beginning) is something like “So ______, tell us about yourself.”  Pretty obvious what they are asking, but what they really want to know is your background.

Sure, they’ve run a criminal background check and have probably talked to your references, they will know the basics.  But what they really want to know is, in your words, what kind of person you are, what makes you tick, how do you spend your time, what have you achieved, what are you proud of etc.

This is obviously important information for them to know.  After all they may be inviting you to be a part of their family.  They want to know as much information as they possibly can before they offer you the job.

It goes without saying that when answering a ‘who’ question it’s important to be honest.  This is a prime opportunity to let them your story, your achievements, your beliefs etc.

The WHAT Questions-

If you are a candidate who is completely new to the fire service chances are they won’t be asking you questions about specific fire tactics.  However, if you are a lateral hire or have experience in the fire service don’t be surprised if they ask you some scenario based questions.

This is your time to shine.

It’s in your best interest to keep in mind that there’s a good chance that there are people on that panel who have been fighting fires longer than you’ve been alive.  You’re not going to blow them away with your knowledge so keep it simple and show them that you are an intelligent, competent firefighter.

If you’re a new firefighter the panel is going to ask you questions geared more towards a different set of knowledge.  They’re going to ask you questions based more on do you know the basic duties and functions of the job.  What do you know about the particular city/district to which you are applying, and do you know the number one responsibility of the fire department?

Make sure you do your research on the city BEFORE you get into the interview.  It may not ruin your chances at getting hired, but if you are asked a basic question about the city/district and you don’t know, it certainly won’t look good for you.

The WHY Questions-

Don’t get me wrong, being a career firefighter comes with a lot of perks.  Great pay, lots of time off, pension, benefits and the list goes on.  However, if this is your only reason for wanting to get into the fire service now is not the time to bring that up.

Before I move on with this section let me make one thing clear.  A lot of candidates email me asking me if their reasons for getting into the fire service are ‘good enough.’ As long as your reasons aren’t illegal, immoral or an attempt to hurt anyone or anything– don’t let anyone tell you your reasons aren’t good enough, or aren’t the ‘right’ reasons.

You’ll hear a lot about the brotherhood of the fire service and reference to service/sacrifice and alike.  While this is all true, we all arrived here for different reasons and on different paths, and your reasons are exclusively yours.

An easier way to approach why questions is to think about what in the fire service initially attracted you to it.

For some people it’s the constant change never knowing what’s going to happen that day.  For others it’s a specific event or person in their life that affected them so much that from that point on they knew the fire service was for them.  For me, I had a background in soccer and played in the pros for a couple years.  When I stopped, I realized what I missed the most wasn’t necessarily the game, but the camaraderie of being part of a team.  The fire service was the closest thing that I knew of that matched what I was looking for.

Be careful though, “why” questions are easy to mess up with cliché answers.  ‘I want to help people,’ is probably the most common answer any interview panel has ever heard.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but make sure you have some kind of unique story as to what sparked that interest.

  1. The HOW Questions-

The dreaded situational questions!

The ones that present some kind of moral, safety or ethical dilemma that leaves you wondering exactly how to answer the question.  Yes, there is a right way to answer these questions, and yes if you don’t answer them correctly it will reflect very poorly for you.

As with the ‘what’ questions, if you don’t have any actual fire service experience they probably won’t be asking you questions directly involving fire tactics.  However, they will want to know that you are able to think through situations in a logical way, and make the right decision in a given situation.

The best advice I can give you is to prepare.  Prepare until you think you are ready, then prepare some more.  I really can’t stress enough just how important this step of the process is.

So, how do you prepare for an interview?

Great question.

I have 3 ways that I and many others have used with great success.

  1. Practice in the mirror. It sounds strange, but it works. Take your sheet of practice questions (if you need some practice questions check out our free list of questions).  Sit in front of a mirror, and practice your answers while you watch yourself.

This is important to see yourself as you answer and watch your body language while you speak.  You may find that you have certain quirks or habits you don’t even notice.

  1. Record yourself. This was the most difficult for me. It seems like everyone these days has a smart phone which gives you the ability to record.  If you don’t have a smartphone, make the 10 dollar investment in your future and get a handheld recorder.

Now for the hard part, take your sheet of questions and record yourself as you answer.  You’re probably not going to like the sound of your own voice (that’s ok, nobody does) but try to focus on what you are saying.

You’ll probably notice that you use a lot of filler words.  Filler words are things like ‘uhh’ ‘umm’ ‘like’ or just plain silence.

The idea is to eliminate these filler words and make your answers flow as smoothly as possible.

  1. Do a mock interview. This is the best possible way to prepare. It forces you to bring everything together.

The idea here is to get one (or multiple) people to sit down with you and ask you questions, simulating a real interview.

*Bonus Tip-  Unfortunately, there are those out there that will tell you that in order to do this properly you MUST do a mock interview with someone with experience as a fire officer because they’re the only ones that know and understand…blah blah blah…  

People that tell you this are trying to sell you their services.  Not that there’s anything wrong with this at all, and it may be a great idea for you.  But, not everyone has a couple hundred dollars for one hour.

Finally, if I didn’t stress it enough already, prepare for your interview!

It is the single most important part of the entire hiring process.  Whether or not you get hired will be decided in this interview.  Make the small investment in yourself and your future and download Mastering the Firefighter Interview.

Step 8:  Congratulations!  You’re hired!

You’ve done it!  You’ve been patient, studied, practiced and prepared better than anyone else and you’ve been officially hired to your dream job as a career firefighter!

Your first day is just around the corner.  Here’s a few tips to survive your first day…

  1. Be early.  Unfortunately, there’s always that guy/girl that shows up late on day one.  Don’t be that person.
  2. Come prepared.  You’re going to be really nervous, and that’s ok, it’s expected.   Just be sure you show up with something in the morning.  Whether it be donuts, bagels, coffee or some kind of goodwill gesture will go a long way.
  3. Do the dishes/offer to help in every way.  There’s always stuff to be done.  Don’t be the person that just sits at the table with all the senior guys on your first day.  Later on, that’s fine, but on day one you must be on point.
  4. Be just as polite, smile and introduce yourself to everyone just like you did on the day of your interview.  Inevitably you will come across that crotchety old firefighter (every department has one).  Just roll with it, he’s not going to be your buddy and chances are most people don’t really like him either.
  5. Be quiet.  If you know me or follow anything on FIrefighterNOW you probably know that I’m not a big proponent of the “you’re a rookie and only speak when spoken to” mentality.  I think it’s stupid, childish and the only people that do subscribe to that thinking are generally just insecure people.  However, this is not a license to run your mouth on day one.  Please DO NOT think that just because you are on the department you get to tell the same jokes, call people by their nicknames and join in on the roasting of others at the table.  This takes time.  You’ll get there, just not on day one.
  6. Refer to all officers as Chief/Captain/Lieutenant _________ until you are either told specifically by that person to call them something else, or your probationary period is up.

This list could go on forever, but those are some of the big ones I recommend to everyone that I coach or speak to.

Finally, you’ve made it to the end.

At the very beginning we covered how long and difficult the process can be to become a career firefighter.  Many people will tell you along the way that it’s ‘too competitive’ or ‘you’re too old’ or ‘you have to know someone to get hired.’

Most of the people that give that advice are not career firefighters.

If there’s anything you take away from what you’ve read remember this:

Learn from those that have come before you, and learn from those that are where you want to be.   

Whether or not you decide to become a firefighter, there will inevitably be people in your life who will try to give their two cents on your life choices and what you’re capable of.  Sometimes their advice is shrouded with good intent, and sometimes it’s just jealousy and insecurity.

Take it from me, someone who knew no one and nothing about firefighting and the fire service, you can do it.  You don’t need to know someone, and no, the system is not rigged.

Sometimes you may seem like the perfect candidate and you don’t get hired.  It’s hard to deal with rejection, but that’s life.  The only thing you can do is to brush it off and get ready for the next one.

Whatever the reason, in firefighting and in life, don’t let others define what you are and are not capable of.  That’s for you to decide.