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Every year, fires take thousands of lives and destroy property worth billions of dollars. Firefighters help protect the public against this danger. This report gives information only about career firefighters; it does not cover the many thousands of volunteer firefighters in communities across the country.

During duty hours, firefighters must be prepared to respond to a fire and handle any emergency that arises. Because firefighting is dangerous and complicated, it requires organization and teamwork. At every fire, firefighters perform specific duties assigned by an officer such as a lieutenant, captain, or chief. They may connect hose lines to hydrants, operate a pump, or position ladders. Their duties may change several times while the company is in action. They may rescue victims and administer emergency medical aid, ventilate smoke-filled areas, operate fire apparatus, ambulances, emergency rescue vehicles, and fireboats.

Most fire departments also are responsible for fire prevention. They provide specially trained personnel to inspect public buildings for conditions that might cause a fire. They may check building plans, the number and working condition of fire escapes and fire doors, the storage of flammable materials, and other possible hazards. In addition, firefighters educate the public about fire prevention and safety measures. They frequently speak on this subject before school assemblies and civic groups, and, in some communities, they inspect private homes for fire hazards.

Between alarms, they have classroom training, clean and maintain equipment, conduct practice drills and fire inspections, and participate in physical fitness activities.


Firefighters spend much of their time at fire stations, which usually have facilities for dining and sleeping. When an alarm comes in, firefighters must respond rapidly, regardless of the weather or hour. They may spend long periods at fires and other emergencies on their feet and outdoors, sometimes in adverse weather.

Firefighting is one of the most hazardous occupations. It involves risk of death or injury from sudden cave-ins of floors or toppling walls and from exposure to flames and smoke. Firefighters also may come in contact with poisonous, flammable, and explosive gases and chemicals.

In some cities, firefighters are on duty for 24 hours, then off for 48 hours, and receive an extra day off at intervals. In other cities, they work a day shift of 10 hours for 3 or 4 days, a night shift of 14 hours for 3 or 4 mights, have 3 or 4 days off, and then repeat the cycle.
On average, firefighters work 50 hours a week. In addition, firefighters often work extra hours at fires and other emergencies. Fire lieutenants and fire captains work the same hours as the firefighters they supervise. Duty hours may include some time when firefighters are free to read and study.

Firefighters held about 296,000 jobs in 1990. More than 9 out of 10 worked in municipal fire departments. Some very large cities have several thousand firefighters, while many small towns have only a few. Some firefighters work in fire departments on federal and state installations, including airports. Private firefighting companies employ a small number.

Applicants for municipal firefighting jobs may have to pass a written test, a medical examination, and tests of strength, physical stamina, and agility. These examinations are open to persons who are at least 18 years of age and have a high school education or the equivalent. Those who receive the highest scores have the best chances for appointment.

Extra credit usually is given for military service and education. Experience as a volunteer firefighter or in the Armed Forces and completion of community college courses in fire science also may improve an applicant's chances for appointment. In fact, in recent years
an increasing proportion of entrants to this occupation have some postsecondary education.

As a rule, beginners in large fire departments are trained for several weeks at the department's training center. Through classroom instruction and practical training, the recruits study firefighting techniques, fire prevention, local building codes, and emergency
medical techniques; also, they learn how to use axes, saws, chemical extinguishers, ladders, and other firefighting and rescue equipment. After completing this training, they are assigned to a fire company where they are evaluated during a probationary period.

A small but growing number of fire departments have accredited apprenticeship programs lasting 3 to 4 years. These programs combine formal, technical instruction with on-the-job training under the supervision of experienced firefighters. Technical instruction covers subjects such as firefighting techniques and equipment, chemical hazards
associated with various combustible building materials, emergency medical techniques, and fire prevention and safety.

Most experienced firefighters continue to study to improve their job performance and prepare for promotion examinations. To progress to higher level positions, firefighters must acquire expertise in the most advanced firefighting equipment and techniques and in building construction, emergency medical techniques, writing, public speaking, management and budgeting procedures, and labor relations. Fire departments frequently conduct training programs, and many colleges and universities offer courses such as fire engineering and fire science that are helpful to firefighters. Many fire captains and other supervisory personnel have college training.

Among the personal qualities firefighters need are mental alertness, courage, mechanical aptitude, endurance, and a sense of public service. Initiative and good judgement are extremely important because firefighters often must make quick decisions in emergency situations. Because members of a crew eat, sleep, and work closely together under conditions of stress and danger, they should be dependable and able to get along well with others in a group. Leadership qualities are assets for officers, who must establish and maintain discipline and efficiency as well as direct the activities of firefighters in their companies.

Opportunities for promotion are good in most fire departments. As firefighters gain experience, they may advance to a higher rank. After 3 to 5 years of service, they may become eligible for promotion to the grade of lieutenant. The line of further promotion usually is to captain, then battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and finally to chief. Advancement generally depends upon scores on a written examination, performance on the job, and seniority.

Firefighters are expected to face considerable competition for available job openings. Firefighting attracts many people because a high school education is sufficient, earnings are relatively high, a pension is guaranteed upon retirement, and promotion is possible to
progressively more responsible positions on the basis of merit. In addition, the work is frequently exciting and challenging and affords an opportunity to perform a valuable public service. Consequently, the number of qualified applicants in most areas generally exceeds,
the number of job openings, even though the written examination and physical requirements eliminate many applicants. This situation is expected to persist through the year.

Turnover of firefighter jobs in unusually low, particularly for an occupation that requires a relatively limited investment in formal education. Nevertheless, most job openings are expected to result from the need to replace those who retire, transfer from the occupation, or stop working for other reasons.

Layoffs of firefighters are not common. Fire protection is an essential service, and citizens are likely to exert considerable pressure on city officials to expand or at least preserve the level of fire-protection coverage. Even when budget cuts do occur, local fire departments usually cut expenses by postponing equipment purchases or the hiring of new firefighters, rather than by laying off staff.

The law requires that overtime be paid to those firefighters who average 53 or more hours a week during their work period--which ranges from 7 to 28 days.

The majority of career firefighters are members of the International Association of Fire Fighters (AFL-CIO).

Firefighters work to prevent fires and to save lives and property when fires do occur. Related fire protection occupations include fire rangers and fire protection engineers who identify fire hazards in homes and work places and design prevention programs and automatic fire detection and extinguishing systems. Other occupations in which workers respond to emergencies include police officers and emergency medical technicians.