Obtaining a Career in the Fire Service
Are you interested in becoming a firefighter but unsure of the steps involved? We hope this document will help you along the way. This document is fairly specific to the Southern California area, but much of the information may be applied nation wide. Dedication is perhaps the most important part of the journey to becoming a firefighter. Traditionally this has been a very competitive career resulting in hundreds of applicants per job opening available. It is very important to learn from the process and keep trying, always looking for a way to make yourself more marketable, and become more effective at showing your qualifications throughout the testing process. NEVER GIVE UP!!!
The number one thing you can do, and you can start now, is keep a clean record. Remember this is actually 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 constantly trying to learn and improve themselves. Put 100% effort into all that you do, make it a habit, whether it is school, team sports, or work make it a point to do your best. When you get to the point of being considered for a job it will show.
Get involved. You can begin preparing for a specific career in the fire service when you turn 15. There are many explorer posts similar to The City of Corona Fire Explorer Post 360 offered depending on your area. Another option you have is a Regional Occupancy Program (R.O.P.) which is available through several fire departments to high school students and adults alike which will give a good orientation into the fire service. Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) is also available through some R.O.P. programs. A good physical fitness program is also a must with an emphasis on endurance. Once you are 18 years of age (or 17 with parental consent) there are several volunteer programs available through Cal Fire, Riverside County Fire Department and other various departments. Becoming a seasonal with with Cal Fire or the Forest Service is also good experience.
Once you are 18 and have a high school diploma or GED you may test for some departments as they will put you through their own academy and train you. Some examples of this are Long Beach, Torrance, Los Angeles City, Los Angeles County and Orange County. To better increase your chances it is wiser to look into a college fire science program and academy in order to open more windows of opportunity. It can’t hurt to place an interest card with any of these departments and try though.
Now you have a couple options of what to do next and it depends heavily on which college you intend on going to. Here is a list of some of some of the local Fire Science Programs and Academies around. Click each link to see what they require for admittance into the academy. Some give priority to people with more college units, some require all fire science classes be completed prior to admittance and place applicants in a lottery. There are full time academies as well as part time depending on whether or not you need to work while attending the program. Full time means Monday through Friday 8 plus hour days on average for roughly 4 months, where as the part times are generally about 2-3 days a week for 8 months to a year. Click on the college you are interested in to get an idea of the requirements and program.
Once you have completed a fire academy several more job opportunities will become available. You will want to utilize one or more of these job sites to find departments seeking entry level firefighters.
Volunteer and Reserve Positions
A great way to get experience is to become a Volunteer, Reserve, Seasonal or Apprentice Firefighter. Other examples are Auxiliary, and Paid-On-Call Firefighters. Different Agencies have different names for these positions, and each have a different range of duties and criteria. A good deal of these will require a Fire Academy and EMT, though some accept 18 and GED.
The Testing Process
Application - Do not be picky about where you test. Take every test you can make it to in order to learn the testing process and gain experience taking the different types of tests departments utilize. 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 you do not have the neatest hand writing. Turn in the completed application ONLY with the materials asked for. Resume, Certificates, Current Drivers License, EMT, and CPR all may be required upon application submittal.
Written Examination - There are several different kinds of written exams that departments use to identify the type of candidates they want. These are generally multiple choices and range in content from psychological profiling, memory, to math, reading and grammar. Examples of these tests are:
Physical Fitness Examination - There are different variants of the physical fitness exams. Each has different events that mimic different firefighting tasks. Generally your success in an exam will be good for 6 months to 1 year, however sometimes various departments require that you take them specifically for their department which your score may be determined by your time. Some departments may have separate events specific to their department such as a swim, or taking a hydrant and connecting hose.
Interview - Remember, you are seeking a career as a professional firefighter. Show up to your interview dressed professional. Suite and tie are the norm for this stage of the testing process. Be confident, and courteous. Shake hands with your interviewers and have a resume ready unless specified otherwise.
Resume - One page, one sided. Use a good quality paper and include a solid outline of your experience and accomplishments. Avoid cramming as it is difficult to read and could bore the interviewer. Be creative and keep it simple but make it stand out from the crowd. Interviews are where most candidates experience trouble in the testing process. You will need to be ready for the proctors to ask you anything an entry level firefighter should know, plus anything they may find on your resume. Interview panels may have anywhere from 2 to 5 interviewers, including the ranks from firefighter through battalion chief, and sometimes even a human resources representative. Remember when answering scenarios human resource perspective can be different than fire department perspective so think about your answers. You should be prepared for all interviews by preparing for those questions you can be certain will come up.
- Tell us about yourself? DO NOT focus only on your fire preparation. They want to know about you and who you are.
- What have you done to prepare for a career in the fire service? They want to know about your education and experience, focus on it but think outside the box. Almost everything you have learned from school or any job can reflect preparation.
- Is there anything else you would like to add? This is your biggest chance to let them know you want it and go out with a bang. Be heartfelt and genuine, and let them feel your dedication to their department.
Not all departments will have an opening and closing above, but the 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. It will be in your best interest to do some mock interviews, with the department you are testing for if possible, in order to get feedback and be ready for the real deal. Answer questions with examples from your life experience, and then relate what you learned back to the fire service. NEVER let an answer come across as negative, always shed a positive outlook on everything. (E.g. I wasn’t very good at public speaking, so I took a speech class in order to get some practice and I now feel much more comfortable.)
Chief’s Interview - Congratulations! Now you only have to compete with just a few people per job opening...probably. Just like the first interview this one can have various scenarios. In general the chief’s interview is just to get to know you and see if the chief feels you are right for his/her department. DO NOT lower your guard though; be just as ready as you were for the first interview. This interview may be with only the fire chief, a division chief, battalion chief, or a mix.
Background Investigation - In general at this point you will have been given a conditional job offer. “Conditional” in that you must still pass the background investigation in order to get the job. The Background investigation is a very thorough process in which a background investigator from the city, county, state, or agency considering you will be assigned 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 exactly as following directions is part of it.
Polygraph Examinations - These have become increasingly common in today’s background investigation. There will be a pre polygraph questionnaire on which it is crucial that you 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, rather we seek individuals who are hard workers, have integrity, and have learned from their mistakes.
- 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 is expected. Hold yourself to a higher standard from this point on.
Psychological Evaluations - 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. You will be sent to talk to a psychologist and be evaluated for mental health.
Medical Examinations - These are used to get a base line assessment of your health to determine if you will be an asset or a liability to the department. Blood work, doctor visit, sight, hearing, and a fitness/capability exam are some things to expect but as always can differ from department to department.
Probation - Getting the job is a great accomplishment, but now you have to keep it. Probationary periods vary from department to department generally lasting anywhere from a year to a year and a half. During this time you will be assessed on your appearance, attitude, knowledge, and skills. Each department will have certain criteria you must successfully accomplish, and a number of examinations to pass.
- Attitude is perhaps the most important aspect of who you are, and a great indicator of who you will be years from now.
Paramedic - Emergency Medical Services has become a very large part of the fire service throughout the years. Departments have continually searched out ways to better serve the people in their community. One of the ways was to provide Advanced Life Support (ALS) care. A great majority of departments here in Southern California, as well as the rest of the country, have adopted a paramedic program. For a department to send a firefighter to paramedic school it is difficult due to staffing needs, though some will still do it, many have opted at one time or another to simply hire an already licensed paramedic. Most paramedic schools require an Anatomy and Physiology course completion, as well as a year or 2000 hours of experience working as an EMT. Here are some links to available paramedic schools. It is a good idea to place an application in as soon as possible since they usually have a long waiting list.
Associates and Bachelors Degree - Education has been an important part of your life up to this point and it will continue to be important especially if you get into a career with the fire service. 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
Fire Prevention - Specially trained fire service employs who are well versed in Fire Codes, and conduct inspections to insure compliance and safety within the community.
Emergency 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.
Hazardous Materials (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 and how best to deal with it.
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 Mechanics - 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.