Capt Craig Freeman

12 Steps – How To Become A Firefighter Faster – Guide by: Paul Card

How To Become A Firefighter Faster

Dear Firefighter Candidate-

I hope this guide helps you make your dreams of becoming a paid, professional firefighter come true…

It should be obvious that the steps aren’t difficult with a focused effort, and the time to complete them is under a year if you choose not to go to paramedic school and only as little as 18 months if you do.  This is a VERY small portion of your life and will put you in the best possible position to get hired as a firefighter in the shortest amount of time.

You may have noticed that although I’ve included coursework in fire science and mentioned fire academy training, I haven’t pushed the completion of these things as mandatory for getting a leg up on your competition in the hiring process.  My reason for this can be summed up as follows:  In most cases, you can get hired on a fire department without a degree or your FF1 certification…In no case can you be hired without excelling in the testing process.  I firmly believe that being a great firefighter includes continuing education and coursework that should include degrees related to the field.  I also freely admit that competition will continue to get more and more difficult for positions in our profession.  If you’re a degreed EMTP who crushes the testing process…You’ll likely be the first to get a badge in whatever hiring process you participate.  I just think you have a good chance of getting hired before getting your degree. I also know that your department will very likely support your pursuit of a degree both in spirit and financially…AND MOST IMPORTANTLY I BELIEVE YOU SHOULD NEVER WAIT TO TEST.

Today, I’m going to check off one major obstacle you’re probably feeling in the pursuit of becoming a paid, professional firefighter.

So…You want to be a firefighter, but you don’t know exactly what you should be doing and when to make it happen?


That stress is now gone.

None of the principals in the guide are “magic” or “rocket science”, but they’re rarely if ever taught to firefighter candidates.  The guide is the one I wish I had when I was trying to make my dreams come true.  I would’ve been a firefighter about 2 years sooner!

I wrote this guide for you because I wished someone had told me these things when I was first trying to get on the job.  I know that if I’d known what to do, I would’ve been hired years sooner.


Here’s to you making it happen. Faster…

A little introduction

All of the steps outlined have been put in the specific timeline to give you the highest likelihood of achieving the goal of becoming a paid, professional firefighter in the shortest amount of time possible and with the least amount of stress.  You should understand up front that some of the steps in the process can, and in a number of cases, should happen out of order.  The steps are outlined to produce the greatest overall benefit to the candidate, but depending on where you live and the departments that you pursue, you may find yourself with opportunities that present themselves that cause you to change the step by step order. If you find yourself in this situation, then you just need to ask yourself one question:  “Is this going to get me closer than any other current action I could take to my goal of being a paid, professional firefighter.”  Don’t deviate from the recommended path unless you can answer with a firm “yes”.

Here’s an example:  A candidate that I recently helped had had the opportunity to volunteer for a local fire department.  He didn’t have several of the first five steps that I outline mastered, but I would’ve recommended that he jump on the opportunity to volunteer.  Why?  This particular department was known to hire only from their volunteer ranks.  In his case, becoming a volunteer for the department not only helped him out in his pursuit of the career, but it was a crucial step in getting picked up by one of the departments with whom he most wanted to work.

Outside of a situation like the above.  You can take the steps and recommendations within them literally.  Do this…then this…I’ll spend a little time explaining why in each section.  The important thing is this:  My methods work, and you’ll be happy you followed them.

Step One

ENROLL IN AN EMT COURSE (and get in shape!)

Physical fitness should be a way of life for you this day forward…Step 1 should be done concurrently with steps 2 through 5.  

The EMT course is the single most effective use of your time for several reasons.   First, most departments are requiring it, and those that aren’t, still love to see it.  Second, it provides you with a certification that will allow you to apply for jobs surrounding the profession of firefighting within a few months of start.  The EMT course lasts for approximately one college semester and leaves the successful student with a certification allowing them to work for fire departments, ambulances, hospitals, and even basic life support transport services.  Third, it provides the candidate with a fantastic introduction to the fire service.  How you ask?  Over 80 percent of our daily lives as firefighters are spent responding to medical emergencies.  We do a lot more, but one should always know how they’ll handle the most common emergencies we respond to.  You’re decision to become a firefighter should also be immediately followed by the start of your physical fitness program.  The program should relate specifically to excelling on the fire department physical agility exam.  If you’ve got the time, energy, and ability, you can also take your EMT course within a Firefighter 1 Academy.  Candidates love this as they get a great introduction to firefighting in an immersive program that introduces them to a large portion of their day to day job.  It also forces the candidate to get into excellent physical condition.  There are two huge considerations with the academy:

Cost.  The academies often cost a great deal of money.  They also take a great deal of time while you’re in them with most being along the lines of 9am to 5pm five days a week.  Many people simply can’t afford either.

Use of time.    Although the academy benefits are numerous and obvious, most fire departments don’t require your FF1 for application and will put you through the same training in their hiring academy.  If you go to an academy, you’ll graduate with some great skills introductions, certifications, and will have gone a long way to boost your resume.  You have to realize though, that you might benefit just as much IN TERMS OF JOB PURSUIT by doing other things. You must balance whether or not you have the time and money along with the fact that you’ll likely be too busy while in the academy to apply for jobs.

My recommendation here is this:  If you think you might be interested in working for a department that has FF1 as a prerequisite and you have the time and money, go for the academy.  You won’t regret it.  If not, don’t sweat it at all and go for your EMT certification while participating in a physical fitness program.


Step Two

Figure out the range you can travel to test for jobs and join a test announcement service to get updates on those available in your travel area.

Many unsuccessful fire candidates have fallen into the trap of testing in only one or a few local areas.  They take a test and then wait for another year or two to hear about another.  This is a recipe for failure and a future that includes the statement:  “Yeah, I always wanted to be a firefighter, but it just never worked out.”  You will dramatically improve your likelihood of getting the job by testing frequently in as many areas as you can physically and financially handle.  Even a few places you’re not sure you’d like to end up will make sense because they will give you practice in the exam environment and help you to see what you need improvement on in the process.  Furthermore, if you do end up getting offered a job in one of these departments, you’ll be a much stronger candidate for other testing opportunities while working in the field or be able to include yourself in a much easier selection process in a “lateral hire” event.

Step Three

Start applying now.

Never wait to finish coursework, get a degree, or “get some experience” in the field before applying.  One of the biggest secrets to fire service hiring is that departments don’t hire on resumes, they hire based on their assessment of the individuals.  Here’s a personal example:  When I was selected as one of 28 new hires in a field of over 2000 applicants, I thought it was because I’d finally prepared properly for the testing process AND because I had completed my Bachelor of Arts in Public Administration, put myself through EMT and EMTP school, was working in the field, and spoke a second language fluently.  I found out my first day that I was one of two people with a degree, one of a small handful (less than 4) of Paramedics, and one of two that spoke a foreign language.  In fact, the majority of my academy class had EMT basic training or less and no field experience.   We’d all been hired mostly because we’d excelled in the testing process.

Step Four

Study firefighter exam training materials in earnest in preparation for your first tests.  

The biggest reason for getting hired on any department of any size:  KNOWING HOW TO EXCEL IN THE TESTING PROCESS.  You must be in the top 10% of the testing process to have a prayer at getting the job.  You must be in the top 5% if you want the job “now”.

Understand this:

The testing process typically starts with the Firefighter Written Exam.  You should start your study with this.  Start by taking a pretest and seeing where you’re at in terms of the typical testing material.   Once you’ve done this, use what you find to study the sections of the exam that give you the hardest time first.  Follow this up with polish on the sections that you needed less work with, and then take at least two more practice tests to see where you’re at.  Next, you should ensure that your physical fitness is where it needs to be.  Many departments have gone to the CPAT.  You should be training to simulate the completion of the entire event.  Third, you should practice for your oral board exams. These will be the areas of the test that will determine whether or not you get the job.  In most cases, you can almost consider the Written and Physical Agility Exams pass/fail although you should be focused on scoring in the top 10% in both events.  The Oral Board is where careers are made.  You should gather a large list of possible questions and begin answering them over and over.  Although you shouldn’t memorize any speeches, you should prepare to go to these exams like the future of you and your family depends on it…because it really does if you want to be a firefighter.

Step Five

Once you begin receiving dates for your tests, create a schedule and preparation timeline that will help you hit benchmarks for excelling in the different portions of the test while maintaining optimal energy and focus.

You will be presenting yourself to a variety of fire departments, and at times, testing may begin to feel much like a (second) full time job.  Managing your time and energy will be critical as the process will require you at your best and most prepared at each phase.

At this point, you’re EMT course is well under way along with your physical fitness program, you’ve applied for as many departments as you could qualify for and travel to, you’re studying and practicing the different phases of the exam process, and you’re awaiting your first tests.  (Note:  Don’t work on your oral board exam until you could do a written exam and score over 90% in your sleep.  The oral board is where you’ll get the job, but means nothing if you can’t get there in the first place…) You are one VERY busy candidate.

You’ll need to schedule everything.  You can be as simple or complex as you like (I prefer simple), but you must place everything you need to accomplish on a calendar with intermediary benchmarks whenever your performance is of primary concern.  If you have your first FF Written Exam in 1 ½ months, you should have not only the date of the exam but the steps to scoring above 90% on the exam scheduled.  These will be things like:

On date one week from today:  Take written exam pretest to determine where I’m at in my knowledge.

Two weeks:  Download study sections for largest areas of concern on the written exam pretest and do the exercises/take the practice segments.  Three weeks:  Retake pretest to look for improvement in scoring.

Four Weeks:  Take two practice tests to ensure mastery of materials.

1 week before exam:  Go back over questions from pre and practice tests to ensure mastery of material.

Two days before exam:  Eliminate all distractions for the next 48 hours and prepare to be at test site early.

Day of exam:  Take exam, make notes after in questions that I recall that seemed to give me some issue.

You’ll be scheduling the same way for your fitness goals to include ample time for recovery and energy maximization around your hiring and school exams.  Your calendar will also include your work schedule and time for your family/friends/loved ones.

In all likelihood, you’re going to find out that for about 6 months, it’ll feel like you have little to no free time.  Trust me when I say that those six months will matter very little in the context of the rest of your life, and you will probably look back on them as an incredibly happy memory in your life when you recall how you prepared yourself to become exactly what you wanted to be.

Step Six

Start working as an EMT full or part time. 

The EMT job isn’t a “high paying career job”.  The truth is that in many places across the country, it can be difficult to support a family on an EMT salary.  However, if you’re single or have the opportunity, you should consider working in the field full or part time in the EMT position.  The reason for this is that there is a huge difference between someone who has a certification and one who has the certification and even a small amount of experience.

When you complete your EMT course, you’re going to feel excited that you might have the opportunity to make a difference in saving the life of another.  This is fantastic, and you should feel proud of the accomplishment.  There is a vast difference between the “idea” of a thing and actually doing it, though.  All the school in the world will not answer one important question for you:  “Can I perform in an actual emergency?”

As you test for departments, you’ll have a different level of confidence knowing that you have actually DONE things that are directly related to the work you will do every day as a firefighter.  Furthermore, even if you’re working 8 hours per week in an emergency room as an EMT Tech, you’re going to be getting the best education possible in the treatment of patients every week for 8 hours while getting paid for it.  Experienced fire personnel know all of this as soon as they see it on your application/resume or you tell them in the oral board interview.  The benefit, therefore, is actually multifold:  you get the confidence of having the experience under your belt and the ability to say that you have some experience when in front of the individuals responsible for scoring your fitness for the position.

In short, take an EMT position even if it’s a very part-time one.  It’ll help you out in several ways in the pursuit of your dream.

Step Seven

Start work on degrees and certifications.

At this point, you’re ready to really put your experience building in overdrive by adding layers to your education surrounding the position.  My suggestion is that you pursue fire science coursework first towards whatever degree path you take.  Please note that I’m NOT suggesting that you go to school full time or take a large number of courses at one time in the pursuit to “complete your degree”.  The fire service is changing in that the competition for positions and promotions is increasing to include positions at Captain and above that are unattainable without degrees, but the time has NOT come where a degree is expected upon application.  The reason for this coursework is to simply BEGIN your education as a firefighting professional, to keep you involved in a firefighter interested community, and to be able to include the coursework in your application/resume.  (Remember that your focus IS ON TAKING FIREFIGHTER HIRING TESTS.)

Step Eight

Analyze your testing experience.

After taking your first fire department hiring exams, you should go back over the notes that you made throughout the experiences.  Use these notes and your recollections to continue to improve in the testing process to ensure that you’re in the upper 5% and one of the first to be considered for a rookie position.  You won’t believe the effect that it has on your next exams.

Step Nine

Consider Paramedic school.

Be aware that your paramedic certification can be a huge advantage in getting hired…

Since you should now be well on your way to being an excellent fire department exam performer, you have a few courses and perhaps some volunteer work under your belt, you can now take your training to the next level by considering becoming a Paramedic.  Make no mistake that this is a very large commitment of your time and energy.  This will take a year, and it’ll take a lot of work to complete.

As big a commitment of your time that it will be, it’ll also put you in a whole different exam bracket.  Completion of the coursework and licensure will allow you to begin to apply for “Firefighter/Paramedic” positions.  The testing field for these positions is much smaller, and with the skills you’ve developed in the testing process, you’ll be at a huge advantage to others.  Believe it or not, there are a huge number of working paramedics that have no clue how to take the Firefighter Hiring Exams.  The other benefit of this is that when you test for the “firefighter” positions, you’ll have something that many fire departments across the country are looking for even when they’re not hiring specifically for fire medics.

The other benefit of the Paramedic Licensure is that you have the opportunity to make a fairly decent living while pursuing your dream of being a firefighter.  There are a number of people that don’t want to be firefighters, but they spend an entire career as a medic.  You’re not one of these people, but advanced life support experience is incredibly valuable to any fire department in the country.

Step Ten

Volunteer, join a specialty program, or…volunteer!

You’ll hear most people that discussing volunteering and the fire service suggest that you go and volunteer for a fire department, join an explorer program, or join one of the many great cadet programs throughout the country.  This would be ideal for you as you can get a great deal of your training and hands on experience by volunteering while continuing to build your confidence, experience, and resume. The only problem with this suggestion is that it leaves out a huge portion of the population of firefighter candidates who don’t live near a department that takes volunteers, doesn’t have one of these specialty programs, or cannot afford to take the time that some programs require for inclusion.

My suggestion is this:  If you have the opportunity to volunteer for a department or one of the specialty programs, jump on them if you can afford the time.  If you can’t, you should still find other ways to volunteer whatever time you have to good causes in or out of the fire service.

I even suggest that you consider doing infrequent or not regularly scheduled volunteer work outside the fire service if this is what it takes.  If you can serve food, clean up, or the like, then you can volunteer.  It’s great for your resume, your confidence, and it’s even better for your karma.

Step Eleven

Hire a coach.

Many of you will already be well on your way to being hired at this point, but some of you will still not have gotten a Chief’s Oral Board in the time it’s taken you to decide and start paramedic school.  If you’ve gone greater than four hiring processes without getting one, you need to seriously consider hiring a coach.  There aren’t a huge number of them out there, and they can be expensive.  The training and feedback you get from them, however, will be priceless.  It’s not uncommon for a candidate to start getting job offers on their very next hiring exams.

Step Twelve

Consider becoming a full time paramedic.

This is really a decision within the decision that you made when you decided whether or not you wanted to pursue paramedic school.  Once you complete your training, you can go out and seek work as a full-time paramedic.  This is a guaranteed experience magnet, and you’ll just be making yourself more and more valuable while making a living.

Like any full time job, it will make it more difficult to get to tests, but I can assure you that it’s much easier to trade shifts in the EMS world to make it to exams than it is to get time off in other professions.  It’s much easier to get these jobs than it is to become a firefighter and if you’re willing to relocate even a little bit, you should be working in no time.


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