How to Become a Volunteer Firefighter in 5 Steps

Research what it takes to become a volunteer firefighter. Learn about education requirements, job duties, median wages, and job outlook to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Fire Science degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does a Volunteer Firefighter Do?

A volunteer firefighter works to extinguish ongoing fires and rescue people in need. As first responders, firefighters are usually the first people on the scene of an accident. While putting out fires are the main duties of a firefighter, many are also trained in treating sick and injured people. They also promote public safety and educate people on how to properly prevent and deal with fire.

Consider the information in the following table to determine if a career as a volunteer firefighter is right for you.

Education Required High school diploma or equivalent
Training Required Fire academies run by the fire department or the state
Key Skills Communication, decision making, physical stamina and strength
Certification Professional certification required
Job Growth (2014-2024) 5% (for all firefighters)*
Median Salary (2015) $49,330 (for all firefighters)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is a Volunteer Firefighter?

Volunteer firefighters are members of the fire brigade working without pay to help control fires in their community. As firefighters, they put out fires in buildings, nature, and other places, as well as save people from burning areas and disasters. Additionally, firefighters help to educate the public on fire safety to help prevent emergencies before they happen. Depending on where they work, some firefighters are trained to respond to hazardous material accidents or wildfires.

Step One: Earn a High School Diploma

Fire departments require volunteer firefighters to have graduated from high school and hold a valid driver's license. Some will allow you to become a firefighter when you're 18, while others require you to be at least 21. High schools generally don't have courses that train firefighters. However, physics and chemistry are relevant if you want to understand fire dynamics, and physical education could be helpful for developing the strength and stamina needed in firefighting. You could also participate in extracurricular athletics if your school offers a sport that interests you.

Step Two: Take Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) Courses

Because you may have to provide emergency medical care while on a call, training in CPR or EMT is recommended. Almost all departments require EMT certification, and some larger departments require paramedic certification. Courses are available from community colleges and community health centers. Through a mix of skills practice and classroom lectures, you learn to assess, stabilize, and safely move injured people. Specific topics might include head and spine injuries, cardiovascular and respiratory emergencies, HIV prevention, vital signs, allergies, and poisoning.

Step Three: Earn an Associate's Degree

A degree isn't required to become a volunteer firefighter but could be useful if you are interested in transitioning into a full-time, paid position within a department. Programs in fire science or fire science technology are widely available from community colleges. Firefighting tactics, fire prevention, building codes and construction, protection equipment, detection systems, and hazardous materials are likely course topics. Some programs might have separate tracks or specialties for fire inspectors and fire officers. You will also have to complete general education courses in the humanities and social sciences.

Step Four: Join a Fire Department

Find out if your local fire department is recruiting. You might have to pass written and physical examinations if you live in a state that requires hiring decisions to be based on merit. A background check, drug testing, and psychological profiling may also be part of the hiring process. Once hired, your training will likely consist of regular meetings, classroom instruction and practice drills using axes, saws, ladders, and hoses. Once you secure a position as a volunteer firefighter, you might also consider joining an association such as the National Volunteer Fire Council to gain access to resources and partnerships in the field.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), about 318,790 people worked as firefighters in 2015. Most worked for local governments. But figures on the number who were paid and who were volunteers are not available. Employment is projected to increase by 5% to 344,700 firefighters by 2024.

Step Five: Advance Your Career

Your prospects for advancement will depend on your willingness to continue studying and gaining expertise in firefighting techniques, fire dynamics, budgeting, and management. Job performance, seniority, and results from exams and real-world simulations will all be contributing factors in promotion decisions. The chain of command or hierarchy in fire departments starts with a firefighter and moves up to engineer, lieutenant, captain, battalion chief, assistant chief, deputy chief, and chief. An associate's degree is sufficient for the first four. Many departments expect you to earn a bachelor's degree for promotion beyond battalion chief.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Police and EMTs are two other kinds of first responders, working with firefighters to save lives. Police respond to crimes in progress to make arrests, document facts to collect proof, and take statements from victims, while EMTs are called to the scene of an accident to treat the injured and transport them to a hospital if need be. Fire inspectors often work closely with firefighters, inspecting buildings to ensure they are up to code and free of obvious fire hazards, as well as investigate the scene of a fire to determine its origin.

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