Careers in the Fire Service
A career in the fire service is one of the noblest professions known in the world today. Dating back to the late 1600s, the first fire engine company went into service with Benjamin Franklin, in 1736, establishing the Union Fire Company in Philadelphia. Most government-run fire departments were not around until the time of the American Civil War (1861-1865).
Becoming a firefighter can take many paths with all the occupations currently available within fire departments. Positions and qualifications vary from state to state, and this information will center on obtaining a job fairly specific to Southern California with some useable information applicable nationwide. Dedication and perseverance are two of the best qualities to possess in the pursuit of becoming a firefighter. The hiring process can be very competitive, and one not to be taken lightly. Hundreds of applicants will apply for positions that, depending on the size of the fire agency, will yield far fewer openings than the number of people who apply. The first step to becoming a firefighter is understanding how the hiring process work, keep trying until hired for the job, and always put 100% of your time and effort into each department you apply. Hard work and dedication will help you succeed; learning along the journey will make you more experienced and marketable as a candidate. Regardless of what occurs, NEVER EVER GIVE UP!
Ready to start? The number one thing you can do, and you can begin to now is by keeping a clean record. Remember the fire service is a small world, and word gets around. Inevitably events through your life will catch up with you. The fire service does not expect to find “Perfect People,” however, they do seek to find those who try to be their best and are continually trying to learn and improve themselves. Put 100% effort into all that you do, make it a habit, in all that you do to make a habit of doing your best. When you get to the point of being considered for a job, it will show.
You can start as young as 14 years of age. The Montebello Fire Department has a Fire Explorer Post where men and women, between the ages of 14-21 can join and learn about careers in the fire service. Other options are through a local Regional Occupational Program, commonly known as ROP. ROP offers classes in fire science coursework and medical programs closely resembling those seen in fire departments today and are available to high school and adult learning students. When a person reaches 18 years of age, there are entry-level positions offered in both wildland firefighting and municipal fire departments as well. These positions may be on a seasonal period, such as a seasonal wildland firefighter with CalFire or the United States Forest Service (USFS) that provide another level of experience and marketability.
After graduating from high school with a diploma or GED, your opportunity to take examinations for fire department looking for “entry-level” positions begins. Most entry-level positions have minimum requirements of a high school diploma or GED. People hired in entry-level positions attend a structured academy and receive the complete necessary training specific to the agency that has hired you. Examples of entry-level agencies are Orange County Fire Authority, Los Angeles City, Long Beach, and Los Angeles County Fire Departments. You can click on the hyperlinks below that will take you to more information:
- Los Angeles County Fire Department – Job Interest Website
- Orange County Fire Authority – Job Interest Website
- Los Angeles Fire Department – Job Interest Website
- Long Beach Fire Department – Job Interest Website
- California Department of Forestry & Fire Protection (CalFire) – Job Interest Website
- United States Forest Service (USFS) – Job Interest Website
For positions that are not entry-level, applicants must complete a fire academy available at the community college level. There are a few community colleges that offer fire technology-based education and fire academies with most requiring coursework before admission to the fire academy. These fire academies may be shorter than entry-level academies, and once completed, the number of fire departments you can test with will increase dramatically. Please check with each college, as they will all be different in the programs and requirements specific to their fire technology program. Click on fire academy and fire technology programs listed here for more information:
- Santa Ana College
- Rio Hondo College
- Palomar College
- San Antonio College
- Moreno Valley College
- San Pasqual Reservation Firefighter Academy
With the options listed above, take the time and research every program available. Some give priority to people with more college units, and some require completion of all fire science classes before admittance and place applicants in a lottery. There are full-time academies as well as part-time academies depending on whether or not you need to work while attending the program. Full time is usually Monday through Friday for eight hours each day averaging from 2-4 months. Part-time academies are often one-two nights a week and both Saturday and Sunday for 8-12 months. Learn and understand what the prerequisites, costs, timeframes, and requirements are of each program. Talk to friends and family who attended one of the programs listed above to see if that program suits you. The time you put into researching each program will guide your decision making towards the best plan for you.
Multiple websites provide job information for firefighter and fire department jobs. Some offer this service free of charge, and others charge a subscription fee. Most of these agencies will allow you to filter your search to specific job types and certain geographical areas. If you can test in the regions that are outside of where you live, your chances in obtaining a fire service career will increase. Click on each link to learn about what each offer:
Volunteer and Reserve Positions
Another fantastic way to get experience is becoming a Volunteer, Reserve, Seasonal, or Apprentice Firefighter. Other examples are Auxiliary and Paid-On-Call Firefighters. Montebello Fire Department offers an Auxiliary Firefighter Program open to a person who possesses the following:
- A completed City of Montebello online employment application via NEOGOV.
- Copy of valid California Class C driver’s license
- Copy of State certified Fire Academy Diploma
- Copy of current California State EMT- Basic or EMT- Paramedic License
- Copy of your High School diploma or equivalent
- Proof of successful completion of a Biddle Physical Ability Test or CPAT (dated within twelve months).
** Please see the Auxiliary Firefighter & Fire Explorer Tab for more information **
The Testing Process
Application – Do not be picky about where you test, apply for every job and take every test you can make it. This plan will help to learn the testing process and gain experience taking the different types of tests departments use. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS at all times during the application process. Many applicants never even make it through the application process. Make sure you fill out the application as completely and thoroughly as possible. Use black ink or blue ink only as instructed. It is preferable to take the time to type out your application, especially if your handwriting is not the neatest. Turn in the completed application ONLY with the materials requested. Resume, Certificates, Current Drivers License, EMT, and CPR all may be required upon application submittal.
Written Examination – Entry-Level examination may usually be some form of a civil service exam. Some agencies may use a combination of testing materials, and others may write their own. There are several different kinds of written exams that departments use to identify the type of candidates they want, which are almost always written by large test generating organizations. Questions range from 100-150 multiple choice questions focusing on areas of reading comprehension, mechanical aptitude, mathematics, English, and grammar. FOLLOW THE INSTRUCTIONS for the examination. Dress professionally, collared shirt, dress pants, and shoes. DO NOT show up in sandals, shorts, or jeans. You will most likely see personnel from the fire department, and everyone is watching. Some agencies have a dress code for the examination and will turn away candidates not dressed appropriately. There are examination guides that can help you understand the general content and questions examples likely contained within the test. Examples of these tests are:
- Resources for Firefighter Examinations
- 4 tests.com
- Job Test Prep
- Firefighter Candidate Testing Center
- Fire Prep
Physical Fitness Examination – There are different variants of physical fitness exams. Each has different events that simulate different firefighting tasks. Success in an exam will be good for six months to 1 year, and however sometimes various departments require that you take them specifically for their department which your score may determine your time. Depending on how the department operates may dictate separate physical events. Examples of additional examinations have included swimming tests, connecting fire hose, and making hydrant connections.
- Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT)
- Biddle Physical Agility Examination
- How to Train for the Fire Department Physical Ability Test
Department Research – So you applied for the position, took and passed the written examination, scheduled or passed your physical ability examination, now what? You MUST prepare for your interview. Researching the fire department, you are testing for shows that you are serious for the position. The best way to conduct departmental research is to visit a fire station. Depending on the size of the department, try to visit more than one station. Montebello has three fire stations, so one will usually do. If the department has multiple stations, such as Los Angeles, or Orange County, pick 2-3 stations to visit. When deciding what station to visit, pick their bigger stations, usually a headquarters, division, or battalion level station. Departmental websites can provide information on these locations.
When planning your station visitations remember these two important rules:
- DO NOT SHOW UP WITHOUT CALLING FIRST
- ALWAYS wear a suit, preferably the suit you are going to wear to the interview
Station visits accomplish many things. It shows you are proactive and respective of their schedules, and their time; it may not be the best station to visit (doesn’t have probationary firefighters or firefighters who have recently tested) and allows for firefighters to assemble a group to speak with you and give you a “mock interview.” A mock interview is where the candidate sits across from firefighters who ask questions most commonly asked during the interview, and many times are the actual questions asked when they took the interview.
Resume – One page, one-sided on good quality, conservative paper is sufficient for a firefighter position. Make your resume flow for reading ease on the rater with a solid outline of your contact information, education, work experience, and volunteer experience. Avoid cramming too much on the page or making the font so small, and it is hard to read. A good rule of thumb is “Times New Roman, 12-point font” (10 may be used to fit everything on the page while still making it readable.) Be creative and keep your format organized and straightforward. A good resume will make you stand out in the crowd.
The interview is your time to shine. Many candidates never make it past the written or physical examinations or score high enough to get an interview. Those who do not prepare for the interview will not succeed. To be successful, memorize, and practice this golden rule:
“You never get a second chance to make a good first impression.”
You are seeking a career as a professional firefighter. Before your interview, practice your interview. Research “firefighter interview questions and develop that sound realistic, authentic, and genuine. Have people ask you interview questions and video record the answers. These habits and practices highlight body posture and movements, voice tone and clarity, and show you things you never knew you were doing that could damage your interview skills. Answering questions in front of a mirror is also a tactic widely used by candidates.
Before the Interview
Research where the interview will be held and test-drive the route to make sure you know the exact location. Ensuring the area and best way to get there is essential if flying or driving to an unfamiliar place. The night before, lie out your suit, print out 4-5 copies of your resume, carry them in a portfolio notebook, and get a good night sleep.
The Morning of the Interview
In the morning, wake up early and spend some quiet time going over the questions in your head. Try to eat some breakfast; even something small is better than nothing, regardless if you are nervous. Arrive professionally dressed at the interview a minimum of 15-30 minutes early. Arriving early gives you time to park and check your dress in the bathroom mirror before checking in. Have your identification ready, make sure your cellphone is off/silent, and approach the greeter with a smile.
During your Interview
You are seeking a career as a professional firefighter. As you enter there will be anywhere from two to five people on the interview panel including the ranks from firefighter through battalion chief, and sometimes even a human resources representative. Introduce yourself, shake their hand, you’re your resume copies ready to hand out, and DO NOT sit down until told to do so unless otherwise told to do so. They may start with directions or go right into the questioning. Be genuine, honest, and keep it simple. Don’t try and fool them or tell them what you think they want to hear. Remember they were in your spot once before and have probably seen and listened to every kind of answer from the most brilliant to the worst ever hear. Interviews are where most candidates experience trouble in the testing process. Be prepared for the raters to ask anything an entry-level firefighter should know, plus anything they may find on your resume. Remember, when answering scenarios, human resource perspective can be different from fire department perspective, so think about your answers. Remember the interview questions you researched beforehand? Your research comes into play here. It would help if you prepared for all interviews by practicing your answers for those questions you can be confident will come up. LISTEN to the question BEFORE you answer. LISTEN & HEAR what is being asked, take a small breath, and respond. When answering start with the person who asked the question, and look at each rater, even if they are not looking at you, or writing notes about your answer, and finish with the original person who asked the question. Not all departments may provide the opportunity for an opening and closing statement, while a good majority will. Other types of questions are situations or general fire department knowledge. There are many books out there on interviews and various questions, and coaches who provide job preparation services for a nominal fee.
Most agencies will invite successful candidates back for an interview with the Fire Chief. Congratulations! You now compete with a smaller group of individuals based on the total number of open positions. This interview usually is with just the Fire Chief. Some Fire Chief interviews may include a Division Chief, Battalion chief, or a mix. The interview will be a “get to know you” type of format you and see if you are right for his/her department. DO NOT lower your guard; be just as ready as you were for the first interview
After the Chief’s interview is when successful candidates are generally a conditional offer of employment. “Conditional” in that you must still pass the background investigation to get the position. The background investigation is an extensive process in which a background investigator from the city, county, state, or agency considering assigns to your case. You will be given a background packet, usually requesting your entire work history, educational documents, legal documents, and questionnaires. Just like the application process, follow the instructions precisely as following directions is part of it. Begin working on the packet IMMEDIATELY as some of the documents needed will take considerable time acquiring.
These are increasingly common in today’s background investigation. There is a pre-polygraph questionnaire that you MUST be 100% honest (as you always should be). Rumors of being able to ‘Beat the Poly,’ or ‘Trick the machine,’ should not be attempted as with advances in technology the polygraph has become increasingly accurate. The Fire Department isn’t looking for “Perfect” candidates. Instead, they seek individuals who are hard workers, have integrity, and have learned from their mistakes. Successful completion of polygraph starts way before the actual
- The #1 reason for failure it lying
- DO NOT do drugs or participate in underage drinking or any other illegal activities
- Everyone makes mistakes, but you know now that if you want to be a firefighter, what the expectation is. Hold yourself to a higher standard from this point on.
These are also quite common in today’s fire service. There are many variations of this test ranging from psychological profile to problem-solving, personality traits to general knowledge. During this examination, a variety of written responses paired with talking to a psychologist are what occurs.
Medical examinations provide a baseline assessment of your health. The test results give a comprehensive evaluation of your physical condition concerning blood chemistry, musculoskeletal durability, vision and hearing quality, cardiac, and endurance capabilities. Although some tests may vary from agency to agency, those listed are the most common. This battery of tests provides the department with a medical determination if you are capable of performing the job descriptions without injury or illness previously undetected by you.
After completion of all testing and academy graduation, candidates are given an official starting date for the start of their career as a professional firefighter. With all the testing behind you, you are far from done. Getting the job is a great accomplishment, and now you have to keep it. Probationary periods vary from department to department generally lasting anywhere from a 12 to 18 months. During this time, you will be rated, tested, and assessed on your appearance, attitude, knowledge, and skills of being a professional firefighter. Each department develops specific criteria that must be accomplished and will subject you to multiple examinations where you must pass to demonstrate your learning retention. Attitude is perhaps the most critical aspect of who you are and a great indicator of who you will be years from now.
Emergency Medical Services is a massive part of today’s fire service. Fire departments continually search out ways to enhance service to the community. The best method in accomplishing this is to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) care, commonly known as Paramedic Service. A vast majority of departments here in Southern California, as well as the rest of the country, have adopted a paramedic program. Training paramedics is a lengthy and costly venture for any fire department. Despite the associated costs of staffing needs, many departments still sponsor firefighters to attend this valuable training while others choose to hire personnel who already possess this licensure. Most paramedic schools require prerequisites of anatomy and physiology coursework, as well as a year or 2000 hours of experience working as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). If this is something of interest, research thoroughly and apply soon as possible as there is usually a long waiting list. Below are links that offer paramedic training:
Associates and Bachelors Degree
Being a lifelong learner will benefit both your personal and professional life. Education is an integral part of becoming a professional firefighter. It will continue to be necessary, especially as you continue in your career, especially if you choose to promote to a higher rank or decide to learn a specialty within your department. Some departments find a Bachelors degree just as desirable as a paramedic license. Down the road, these degrees may help, or depending on the department you get hired with, may be required for promotions.
Additional Fire Service Jobs
Community Fire Educator – Specially training employees with training and education capable of writing fire-based educational curriculum for all ages and delivered to educational institutions from kindergarten to high school, community, and social groups.
Fire Prevention – personnel with extensive knowledge and understanding in Fire Codes who complete fire and life safety inspections to ensure compliance and safety within the community.
Fire Communications Dispatcher – Dispatchers receive calls and contact the most appropriate available unit to respond to emergencies of all kinds.
Fire/Arson Investigator – Some fires are suspicious, and a thorough investigation of the scene is needed. Burn patterns, colors, and chemicals are but a few of the things an investigator will look and test for in determining fire cause.
Hazardous Materials Specialist/Technician (HAZMAT) – Various chemicals require a specialized group to respond to mitigate the problem safely and efficiently, that group is the HAZMAT Team. The team has various tools and equipment needed to determine what an unknown substance is how to correct the situation.
Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) – Another specialized team of individuals ready to respond to more complex rescue incidents, or even national to international disasters.
Fire Apparatus Mechanic – Specially trained mechanics educated in diesel as well as the large capacity water pumps found on Fire Engines and related apparatus are a necessity to keep the emergency responders up and running.