How can I prepare for a career in the fire service?
The Fire Service is an extremely rewarding and satisfying career. I don't believe you can find a firefighter anywhere in the United States that would give up their job for any other line of work. Apparently the word of our love for the job has leaked out to the public because if you are looking to join the fire service, you are going to have a lot of competition. As many as 3,000 hopefuls will apply for as few as 10-15 actual openings in a typical City or County Fire Department in southern California. Although getting hired may seem to be a daunting task, here are some ways that you can prepare yourself to beat the competition:
1. Education. Do well in school and seek a bachelors degree in almost any subject you are interested in. The fire service has evolved from the days when a strong back was more desirable than a sharp mind. Today's firefighter has to have that strong back but also read and absorb information in multiple disciplines and skills. Para-medicine, hazardous materials, confined space entry, fire hydraulics, maps, plans, codes, tools, shoring, electrical, plumbing, investigation and, let us not forget, you also are expected to save lives and put out fires. School gives you the discipline to learn, and having a bachelor's degree shows discipline, goal orientation, sacrifice and learning. The candidate with a bachelor's degree has an edge on the candidate that has not achieved that level of education.
2. Military Experience. Firefighting is the ultimate team sport. No fire gets put out by one person, and no emergency is abated without coordination from all members working together. The best team builder known to humans is the military. Do you need a military background to become a firefighter? No, but it definitely gives you a big edge over the candidate that doesn't have it.
3. Work Experience. The skills applicable to the fire service are numerous. Jack of all trades, master of none truly applies to the modern day firefighter. Almost any skill or trade that you bring to the fire service can be utilized at one time or another. Try to learn everything about any job you have. Try to be the worker that can be depended upon. Give 100% to whatever job you have, and get glowing evaluations from your superiors. These might very well be the people that the Fire Department calls for their opinion of you during your background check. The background check for Police and Fire is extensive and thorough. Do not burn your bridges.
4. Skills and Training. When you are competing for a job in the Fire Service, there are several qualifications that can bring you to the front of the list.
Firefighter 1 certification: You can obtain this through any one of a number of Fire Academys in Southern California. El Camino College and Rancho Santiago are two of the most notable. This usually involves 8 to 12 weeks of full time (40 hours per week) training involving both didatic and hands on training.
EMT-1 and EMT-P Certification: Emergency Medical Technition One and Paramedic licensing is also a valuable asset. Most Fire Departments require Emt-1 certification either before training begins, or before probation ends. Either way, it is usually up to the individual to complete on their own time. Emt-1 is aproximately a 120 hour course that is offered all over the Southland. It might be Semester oriented through a college, or 15 to 20 hours per week through a private instructor. EMT-P or Paramedic licenses require arpoximately 1200 to 1500 hours and can also be aquired through a college or private institution. There is usually a long waiting list at all schools offering Paramedic licensing, so plan ahead. Since aquiring an EMT-P license is so time intensive, it is a real feather in your cap to have this in your corner.
Volunteer/ Auxiliary: Many Fire Departments offer either volunteer or auxiliary training experience or both. This ususally involves you donating your valuable time, maybe in 24 hour increments, to learn or keep up already learned skills while you are testing for Fire Departments. Some programs require prerequisite training prior to acceptance in their volunteer program such as a Fire Fighter 1 certificate. The City of Torrance Fire Department has an auxiliary program that you can enroll for a maximum period of one year to keep up learned skills after successful completion of a Fire Academy with a Fire Fighter 1 certification. This is our only volunteer program. Not only do these programs help keep your skills sharp, they show desire and motivation when you test for your oral interview
Other Certifications: There are many other certifications that can help. Some of these are, Rescue Systems 1 and 2, CPR, Hazardous Materials First Responder, and other numerous fire courses offered through the State Fire Marshalls Office.
5. The Hiring Process. Most Fire Departments test in similar manners. First is a written exam. This is either a pass/fail or a scored exam. Some or all that successfully pass this exam move on to some kind of practical agility test which will test your physical ability to perform the work of a firefighter. An oral exam in front a panel of firefighters will test your preparation, motivation, and presentation skills, Usually a select number will then move on to a Chief's interview for a more personal conversation with a panel of upper administrators of the Fire Department. The Fire department will then do background checks, which can be very extensive, on candidates that they are seeking to hire. After successful background checks, you will be given a thorough physical exam. Passing this, you will generally be given an extensive psychological exam which may include a lie detector test. Those passing all the above will generally be offered a job with the Fire Department. You will usually have some kind of mandatory rookie training called a tower. This can last 4-10 weeks depending on the city. Completion of the tower will take the candidate through a year of probationary training including daily, monthly, and a yearly final exams involving both didatic and physical skills. After your year of probationary training, you have made it. You are a sworn public servant with one of the best jobs available.
This list may seen daunting, but it is really a journey of incredible learning and experiences culminating with the reward of Firefighter. Your training, learning and experiences only begin at that point. There is truly something new every day in your career as a firefighter. If you are determined and motivated, you will make it. Don't wait to take fire entrance exams until you have completed any or all of this list. Take every fire department test you can get to. You get better with each one. GOOD LUCK!