Probationary Firefighter 101: A Guide To Your First Year

How long is probation and what can I expect as a probationary firefighter, is a question I hear a lot

The application process for becoming a firefighter can seem long and complicated. There are so many hoops to jump through, such as fitness tests, medical screenings, background screening, firefighter interviews and sometimes even polygraph examinations.

But, once you get through all that and the department likes you, you can work as a firefighter, right? Well, not quite.

There is one other step that you need to take first. To become a firefighter in your local department, you need the right experience and qualifications. To do that, you need to go through all the necessary training during your time as a probationary firefighter.

In this guide, I will discuss what it means to be a probationary firefighter. This means looking at the roles and responsibilities as well as the hierarchy of ranks in the fire department, the standard time for probation and the average salary.

What is a probationary firefighter?

A probationary firefighter has many different names. Some departments call them “probies” for short or use the term PFF.

Others prefer to call them candidates because it seems like a more positive term. Probation makes it sounds like you have a threat of expulsion hanging over your head for doing something wrong.

Instead, this is just a training phase where the department gets to see what you can learn and how you handle yourself.

The best thing about being a probationary firefighter is that you are on the payroll and a part of the department right away. You don’t have to spend a long time studying for a qualification and then apply if you don’t want to.

It is the ideal “earn-as-you-learn” approach to the profession. The downside is that you really are on the very bottom rung of the ladder and you may end up handling a lot of jobs, studies and other responsibilities for less pay. However, this probationary period will prove to be worthwhile once you qualify and become a skilled firefighter with more experience.

How long is new firefighter probation?

The time period for probation can vary between departments, I’ve heard of departments with probationary periods as short as 6 months and I know of a couple with probationary periods as long as 2 years. Most will keep candidates on probation for close to a year to be sure that they are ready to move up the ladder.

If a department is short-staffed and require specializations in training they may not keep you on probation for as long. You can generally expect this period to last for a year at most.

This means up to 6 months for the training and then the remainder on probation within the station. Check with the department you are applying with to see how long each portion of the job takes.

The first portion of time spent as a probationary firefighter is that training period where you can learn all the basic skills required to get out into the field. The length of the course and the style of the facility will vary depending on the expectations and budget of the department.

Work hard to learn all you can for your first examinations in Firefighter 1 and 2. Then you can put this all into practice to some degree at the station. Again, the extent of your roles and input on the scene will depend on the approach of your station.

What can you expect to do on duty as a probationary firefighter?

Some stations will allow their probationary firefighters to handle quite a wide range of tasks while they train to help them learn. Others may be a little more reserved and insist that their probationary staff member perform more menial tasks where they can’t be a liability through lack of training.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. On one hand, there is the chance that new recruits will learn more easily and gain more skills early on with guidance on the more difficult tasks. But, there is that risk that there will be a mistake that could prove costly.

That is why all new probationary firefighters must be paired up with a senior member that is a good and patient teacher.

In fact, the first department I was hired at paired me with a senior firefighter who was fantastic.  During my time there he took me under his wing and taught me a lot about firefighting that you can only learn on the job.

On the other hand, the menial, in-house duties give probationary team members a greater sense of the hierarchy of the station, respect for the role and they can still study while they earn.

However, there is the risk that there may be a lack of hands-on or real-world experience if they don’t attend enough incidents on duty.

That is why it is so important that recruits in the first few months get a balance of tasks. There should be a middle ground where they get a full spectrum of tasks for a more well-rounded education – but in a safe, controlled manner.

If recruits have learned the skills in theory at the station, it makes sense to put them into practice. They need to be able to handle these tasks effectively on their own once it is time to progress onto a firefighter role.

What are probationary firefighter duties?

If you are taken out on calls, you need to be prepared for the fact that you could enter burning buildings, attend vehicle accidents and deal with medical emergencies.

You don’t have to be fully qualified for this to happen – this is part of your training. You may simply end up fetching equipment or cleaning up after a job. But, this is still important work.

This can be both daunting and exhilarating for recruits. A job well-done means that you can showcase what you learn and apply to real-life experiences under pressure. This will help when becoming certified.

But, be prepared for the fact that everything will be new, mistakes can be made and there may be times when it doesn’t go to plan. Even the best firefighters at senior levels can’t save every life or every building.

This is another reason why it is so important for probationary firefighters to get that firsthand experience of major incidents, even from a safer distance.

You need to know how you would handle cases of severe trauma, destruction and fatalities. You also need to know how well you can handle responsibility in these situations.

When you aren’t out on calls, there will be plenty of tasks that you can perform at the station. This is your home-away-from-home and it needs to be clean and functional enough that all firefighters can eat, sleep and rest here when they aren’t on a call.

You will have to pay your dues and show you commitment with some of the more menial tasks before you can rise up in the ranks. Wash the dishes, take out the trash, clean the toilets and volunteer to help where no-one else will.

What can’t you do as a probationary firefighter?

That covers some of the basics of what you could do as a probationary firefighter. So what can’t you do? In some departments, you will find that you won’t be able to drive the engine until you pass probation.

It is a safety precaution and a role that is currently above your pay-grade. This isn’t a big deal, it is enough to be asked to ride-along and take part in any responses.

The same is true for being on the tip of a handline during a fire. Depending on your department, and more specifically, your officer, they may prefer to keep you by a doorway for your first few fires to move hose. 

If you’ve never don’t it before, just be aware, this job sucks but it is vitally important.  If you can’t be trusted with that you probably won’t be trusted on the tip of a handline.

Another thing that you absolutely cannot do as a candidate is fail to make the most of your time at the station. You will soon learn that time spend not on-calls isn’t time off.

You can’t be seen to be lazing around at the station when there are better things to do – and there are always better things when you are on probation. This is when you need to make sure that all your household chores are complete. If so, use the rest of the time to complete your task books and study.

Studying while on probation

Take the time to study when you have no other jobs to do at the station. Show your crew how willing you are to learn and develop, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You will spend a large portion of your time as a probationary firefighter training in the training division or at a fire academy.

But, there is still a lot more to learn and additional courses to take. For example, you will need your EMT training, Hazmat skills and other certificates as a firefighter.

Some departments will have specialist divisions that deal with subjects like rope rescue, water rescue, urban search and rescue or wildland fire management. You have to have the right skill set to handle the risks within your department’s jurisdiction.

Finally, while you’re on probation I promise you at some point you will be tasked with studying maps.  This is a very underrated skill with probationary firefighters as we’re all used to using Google Maps or some other GPS program. 

Know your district!

Your task books are vital to your progress as a probationary firefighter. This is where you will log your progress and demonstrate that you have gained experience in specific areas of the job.

The task book must be completed and signed off by a superior to progress onto the role of Firefighter. You must do so before the designated end period of the probation.

Is hazing still an issue with probationary firefighters?

One thing that you will notice when you go on social media sites and forums is the insistence that there should be absolutely no hazing for any probationary firefighters. This stems partly from previous experience and partly from the intention to change the reputation of the fire service.

It is important to differentiate between hazing and a little light-hearted fun. A new firefighter may become the subject of a couple of practical jokes as they learn the hierarchy of the station. They will also be expected to put themselves forward for the worst jobs to pay their dues.

If you are looking to join the fire service, you must have thick skin.  I promise you will be on the receiving end of many jokes at the kitchen table.  

At no point should there be any task that doesn’t fall into the roles and responsibilities of a crew member or any form of embarrassing initiation ritual. As many younger firefighters now say – this is a professional service, not a fraternity.

Can you be fired as a probationary firefighter?

Yes, being on probation means that if you make too many mistakes or don’t work to the right standard then they will let you go. A few honest mistakes in training should be fine as long as you understand what went wrong and correct yourself.

Unwillingness to admit fault and improve won’t go down well. Study hard, carry out all your tasks and be respectful at all time and you should be fine. Fail to complete your task book, slack off or put others in danger and they will probably let you go.

What is a probationary firefighters salary?

The average salary for a firefighter in the US is around $46,000 per year.  As a probationary firefighter you can expect to earn slightly less, on average, than this depending on your department.  However, as you gain more experience your salary will rise accordingly. 

The good news is that you do get paid for your work on the force as a candidate. This isn’t like an apprenticeship service where you learn and work for free. The bad news is that it is the lowest rate in the whole department.

Some state averages are much lower in poorer areas while other states and metropolitan areas can offer a lot more. You will be on a reduced rate for this probationary period and then move up to the firefighter salary.

The probationary period is tough but essential for new candidates.

Without this probationary process, fire departments can’t be sure that they have precisely the right candidates for the job. They need to see how you work with others, your general work ethic and the way you apply yourself to your studies.

If you complete your probation with a complete task book, certifications in the right areas and a good record of work, you should have no problem transitioning into the role of a firefighter.