Preparing for a Career as a Firefighter

The fire science industry is a very competitive field. Although there are approximately 1.1 million firefighters in the United States, only about 320,000 are professional career firefighters (the vast majority are volunteer firefighters). In fact, only an estimated 30 percent of people who begin the training, testing and application process go on to become career firefighters. If you’re interested in becoming a firefighter, this guide will tell you everything you need to know to begin your career and prepare you for the firefighter test.

Character Traits and Desirable Skills

Though the requirements to join the fire service industry vary by state and station, future firefighters should have good leadership skills and a willingness to work hard. Similarly, a well-rounded firefighter is accountable, courageous, dedicated, an excellent communicator, honest, passionate, a problem-solver, reliable, selfless, a team player, able to perform physical tasks and work well under stress.

Research, Training and Volunteering

learn about our fire science degreesIt is important that you begin preparing early by volunteering and taking Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) classes, as most departments require an EMT certification to apply or after hire. You can volunteer at a local firehouse, the American Red Cross (they’re always looking for volunteer CPR instructors), the Big Brother program, burn camps, Habitat for Humanity, or more – the possibilities are endless. Since fire departments are looking for people to provide a community service, volunteering shows you have a desire to help others, it can bolster your resume, and it gives you a chance to network and make invaluable connections.

Additionally, it is imperative to do your research to understand all aspects of the firefighting hiring process, including the firefighter test. Familiarize yourself with key phrases, such as PAT (Physical Agility Test) and begin doing research on departments in your area and how they test and recruit. This would also be the time to work on or maintain a good public image. For example, if you’re unkempt or have a reputation for being disrespectful or arrogant, it will reflect negatively on not only yourself but your department and profession. While volunteering, keeping (or building) a good public image, and researching your local department’s specific requirements, take the opportunity to get into shape. Becoming a firefighter means you’ll have to take and pass a strenuous physical test of tasks you’ll be expected to perform daily when you apply for work. Namely, you must be strong, coordinated, and have a good cardiovascular capacity.

Degrees and Courses

Next, begin taking fire science courses. The fire service industry has an ever-increasing demand and needs people who can evaluate situations and make reasonable judgments based on academic knowledge and experience, reducing the chance of error during an actual fire. Though each hiring organization will have its own requirements, most positions require an Associate or Bachelor’s degree in Fire Science. Some required courses may include Fire Behaviors and Combustion, Introduction to Fire Prevention and Principals of Fire and Emergency Services.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics fire professionals are also be expected to know or be willing to learn how to:

  • Drive and operate emergency vehicles and pump engines.
  • Evacuate fire structures and treat victims.
  • Maintain firefighting equipment.
  • Participate in public education.
  • Suppress and extinguish fires with hoses, pumps, etc.


Even if you’re in the early stages of becoming a firefighter and taking fire science courses, you can begin taking the necessary firefighter tests. In fact, there’s no better way to see what your strengths or weaknesses are. To find out which fire departments are testing (some test every six months, but most only test once every two or three years), call around. The testing typically consists of a written exam, an oral exam and a physical exam. You’ll also be asked to provide an academic record, credit history, driving record, extensive job history, and a list of personal references during the application process.

The written exam covers judgment, human relations, math, memory, problem solving, written and oral communications and reasoning. The oral interview typically covers short-term and lifetime career goals, your vision for a life in firefighting and why you’re choosing that specific fire department.

During your physical exam, your blood, blood pressure, eyesight, hearing and urine will be tested. The PAT will test your endurance and fitness. Additionally, you’ll be expected to undergo a psychological exam, which will measure your personality traits against those necessary to perform as a firefighter. Most departments are looking for people who can succeed on a team, endure harsh conditions, handle stress and adapt to shift work. The most basic requirements to become a firefighter are that you have corrected 20/20 eyesight, a high school diploma, a clean criminal record and be at least 18 years old.


It’s is a good idea to visit local fire stations, especially those you plan on applying to. The firefighters there are a great resource (and connection) for you – they’ve already passed their exams, have real-world experience and they can tell you what they like and dislike about the department. Also, doing a pre-interview at the station will help you if/when it comes time for your actual interview.

Columbia Southern University recognizes that education is an investment and should be taken seriously. Technology (research, skills, development, and education) is ever-evolving and demands that we change with it or miss potential opportunities. Lifelong learning, such as that required in the fire science career path, supports professional development, self-development, and experience. With hard-work, dedication, and preparation, you can be on your way to a highly sought-after career that has saved countless lives.