Firefighting – Is It Worth It?

Becoming a firefighter is anything but easy. Consider, these days nursing is becoming a hugely popular career route, especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area where salaries are the highest in the nation. Recent RN graduates around here can’t find jobs for months and for some, over a year. well boo-hoo! Try getting into firefighting where the average time to get hired runs 5 years!

There aren’t too many careers out there that are quite as hard to break into as firefighting, and so I pose the question: How bad do you want it, and is it worth it? Let’s consider.

The statement about 5 years being the average time to get hired doesn’t apply to everybody – it applies to those who get hired at all. Many never do! Of course, some lucky folks will get jobs in their first year. Others get hired right out of the academy. …and some people win the lottery. In the year and a half that I’ve been on the fire-career road, I’ve spoken to many, many firefighters of varying ranks and the one consistent thing they all tell me is “If you really want it, don’t give up – you’ll get there.” They follow this advice with a story of someone just like me who got hired after years and years of trying.

I have no doubt that every story I’ve heard is true, and that each one was referring to a completely different person, but (and I confess, I am a born skeptic) what decent firefighter or captain or chief is going to tell an aspiring hopeful a story of failure. Nobody is going to tell you to quit while you’re ahead, because the odds are against you and for each person who makes it, there are ten others who did not.

With that said, don’t let me dissuade you. There’s plenty you can do to increase your odds of being that one guy. Let’s start with the ones I’ve done and continue with additional options:

I have…..

  • Earned my bachelors degree (prior to becoming interested in fire)
  • 10+ years of post college experience (throw me a bone and let’s call this maturity)
  • Earned my EMT license and worked as an EMT (I just left)
  • Went back to school and got an Associates degree in Fire Technology
  • Graduated from a state accredited Fire Academy
  • Am on the verge of beginning as a resident firefighter with a local fire dept.
  • Volunteer – I currently give my time at a local hospital, a small business academy, and will start, as mentioned above as a volunteer with a local fire dept. soon.

I have yet to….

  • Consider jobs outside my own state
  • Earn my paramedic license
  • Work as a paramedic
  • Work for the Dept. of Forestry (here in California it’s CalFire)
  • Work for a fire department in a non-firefighter role (get your foot in the door)
  • **Military experience is usually a big plus, but don’t join for the purpose of putting this on your resume.

* I’m sure there are items I’ve missed or forgotten. If you have thoughts or suggestions, please email me and I’ll add them to the list.

You are different than every other person out there trying to become a firefighter. It is my belief that for some it is, and for others it may not be, worth pursuing firefighting. Major factors you need to consider include:

Your Age – Youth will allow you the time to get things like school, your paramedic training and experience as a volunteer in. If you’re older these things may not always be possible, but you have life experience, maturity and possibly some directly applicable experience behind you.

Time – Becoming a firefighter can be a very time consuming challenge. If you’re working full time to support a family, you may find yourself burning the candle at both ends if you try and accomplish some of the points listed above into your busy schedule.

Education – If you have a college degree, awesome. If it’s in Fire Sciences, even better. If you have other formal training related to the fire service, you’re already a step ahead, but if you have none… well, you’re behind the ball. These days, the fire service can pick from the best of the best. If you’re not the student type, maybe consider becoming one… or ditching fire.

Family – This may possibly be the biggest factor of all, but it generally will apply to those who are married with kids. Your spouse may be hugely supportive at first, but after you’re in, and away from home for days at a time, frustration and problems can build. For some couples the schedule couldn’t be better – it allows you to spend many full days with your family at a time. Still, for others those nights alone, build up. Make sure your family knows what’s coming if you get hired.

Expenses – Becoming a firefighter isn’t cheap. Between the costs of school(s), equipment, academies, books, uniforms, and more, you can spend a pretty penny just trying to get the job. Next month, I’ll go into more detail regarding the finances of firefighting, covering both, the cost of getting in and income potentials once you’re there.

Life Risk – As obvious as this is, it’s the last thing many people consider. You could die. It’s a real possibility. These days, fire departments work smart and usually provide tons of great training to fully prepare their crews for everything they can, but you can never account for all possibilities. Firefighters do die and we all like to think it could only happen to the other guy. …but we know that’s not true. It can happen to you. If you’re just thinking about firefighting as a career, take a day to consider this. It probably wouldn’t happen in nursing.

At the end of the day, despite my skepticism, I agree with all of those optimistic firefighters who have told me not to quit and to keep my eye on the prize. I’m not sitting on my ass hoping to get hired. I’m out there, actively doing what I can to make myself a better and more realistic candidate everyday. The fact that you’re on this site, and reading this blog, means you probably are too. Keep your head up, and good luck!

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