Thursday, February 16, 2017

So You Want to Be a Firefighter

In September 2016, a columnist who claimed firefighters have “cushy” jobs closed her uninformed tirade by saying, “I want to be a firefighter.” My immediate reaction, shared by many of the commenters: What’s stopping you?

That, of course, is a knee-jerk, “put up or shut up” type of response. But that’s exactly how I feel. You think it’s so easy to become a firefighter? You think you can do just as well or better at the job? Then by all means, go right ahead. I won’t stand in your way.

(Photo courtesy of
The reality is that not everyone can be a firefighter. I don’t say that to be arrogant or malicious; it’s simply a fact. Each of us has different abilities, talents, and skills that make us good at some things and not so good at others. Not every person is cut out for firefighting. Likewise, not everyone can be a teacher, astronaut, mechanic, nurse, carpenter, pro athlete, artist, soldier, or computer programmer.

I’ve met many people over the course of my career who claimed they wanted to be firefighters. Some were simply expressing a wistful dream. Others were “all talk, no action” types who had no intent of following through on their braggadocio. And then there were those who were actually making an effort, doing everything they could to land their dream jobs. I later ended up working with some of those folks, but others came up short in the testing process, sometimes repeatedly.

Firefighting is a very competitive career field. For paid jobs, it takes more than simply declaring “I want to be a firefighter” to actually become one. You need determination, perseverance, motivation, physical and mental endurance – and that’s in addition to meeting a host of other minimum standards. Entrance requirements vary by agency, but all are intended to draw the best and most qualified candidates.

To give you an idea of what it takes to become a paid firefighter (volunteer organizations have different membership processes), here is a sampling of prerequisites listed in recent online firefighter job postings:

1. Must be 18 years of age (21 for some fire departments), possess a high school diploma or GED equivalent, hold a current driver’s license, have a good driving record, and pass a background check. These requirements are pretty standard. 

2. Some agencies have no requirements for certifications while others want one or more of the following:
    • Emergency Medical Technician – Basic (EMT-B) certification. 
    • Emergency Medical Technician – Paramedic (EMT-P) preferred or required. 
    • Firefighter I and/or II. 
    • Driver Operator. 
3. Current Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) or similar physical fitness qualification/certification.

4. College degree may not be required, or it may be “desirable,” “highly desirable;” or required. 

5. No previous firefighting experience required, or some previous experience necessary.

6. No residency requirements (meaning new employees can live anywhere) or the agency may require applicants to live in the designated city or county within a certain timeframe after being hired. 

If an applicant meets the minimum requirements, he or she can then expect some sort of testing process before being hired. Like everything else in the fire service, each department’s hiring process varies, but many rely on similar practices.
  • Written test. Contrary to what some believe, firefighting requires a certain level of intelligence and common sense. Written exams are used to assess an applicant’s basic reading comprehension, writing, math, and problem-solving skills.
  • Physical abilities or physical fitness test. Some agencies incorporate physical testing into the hiring process while others require a Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT) or similar certification at the time of application. To see types of fitness tests that incorporate job-related tasks, go to and enter the search term “CPAT” or “Biddle test.”
  • Oral board interview. Candidates are interviewed by a panel, usually three to five personnel from the agency or its municipality. Questions are often designed to assess a person’s integrity, work ethic, moral standards, and temperament for the job in addition to addressing qualifications. 
Successful candidates are then usually placed on a ranked list from which hiring selections are made. Once hired, candidates must then complete a rigorous training academy that can range anywhere between 8-12 weeks (again, each department does things differently) followed by 6-12 months on probation.

So you want to be a firefighter? Then step right up. Fire departments across the country always need new employees. But be forewarned: This is a job you have to earn.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

A Soft Spot for Old Firehouses

While doing some research this morning, I learned that the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant reopened for business yesterday following a devastating fire in December 2014. I have never been to this dining establishment but am glad nonetheless for the owner, employees, and patrons. One, I hate to see any business shuttered because of a fire. Two, this restaurant is housed in a historic former Chicago F.D. firehouse, and I have a soft spot for old firehouses.

Chicago Firehouse Restaurant fire, December 10, 2014.
Photo by Chicago Fire Department
Old fire stations are not just a place where firefighters store their equipment and hang out awaiting the next call. They are part of history and become as much a part of a firefighter's life as the crew he or she works with.

This particular Chicago fire station was built in 1905 to house a horse-drawn engine and continued to serve its community for decades. Ron Howard partially filmed his 1991 movie Backdraft there, and it became a restaurant in 2000. In 2003, the building was designated as a landmark.

So how do firehouses end up not being firehouses anymore? Older fire stations may not be adequate to house new, larger apparatus and/or more firefighters. Buildings may have developed issues that are cost-prohibitive to rectify such as structural instability and faulty utility or HVAC systems, or they may contain hazardous materials such as asbestos. Response demographics can change over time, forcing the relocation of a fire station to provide better service to a community.

Once firefighters have moved on, some firehouses are demolished. Others find new lives as office space, restaurants, museums, event venues, and even private homes.

Here’s wishing the Chicago Firehouse Restaurant many more years of success.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 3

Two of the most common controversies that arise when discussing a firefighter’s job are eating and sleeping on duty. Few jobs allow people to be paid while shopping for groceries or catching a quick nap under their desk. But then again, few employers require their employees to be at work for 24 or 48 hours straight.

FDNY Engine 65
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
The whole point of having paid firefighters on duty 24/7 is to reduce response times to any emergency that arises.

Fires double in size (roughly) every minute they burn. The sooner firefighters arrive the sooner they can put out the fire, thus preventing deaths, minimizing injuries, and reducing property loss.

In EMS, the faster a patient receives treatment for a traumatic injury, cardiac problem, stroke, or other life-threatening emergency, the better chance he/she has of surviving the event. Statistics repeatedly prove that having staff on duty around the clock reduces response times and thus improves service to the community.

But when you work 24 (or 48) hours at a stretch, you still have to eat, right? Full-time American workers typically get a daily meal break and additional breaks during the workday. Why wouldn’t firefighters?

Occasionally you will see firefighters at the grocery store or picking up a meal at a fast-food place. Policies for shopping on duty vary by department (some allow it, some don’t), but many agencies view it as an opportunity to interact with citizens and provide positive public relations.

Then there's sleeping at the firehouse. Contrary to modern belief, sleep is not a luxury. It is a biological function as necessary to health and survival as food, water, and breathing. Loss of sleep leads to deterioration of cognition and motor skills, and subsequently decreased performance. Before you complain about firefighters “sleeping on the job,” ask yourself: How well could you perform your job after being awake for 24 hours straight? How sharp are your skills after working just 10, 12, or 16 hours? Do you want fatigued emergency responders trying to help your loved one through a medical crisis in the middle of the night?

The reality is that some nights you will get just that: Emergency responders who have been on the go all shift. Some shifts are busier than others. Some fire departments and individual fire stations are busier than others. It all depends on where you are.

Emergencies do not occur on any sort of schedule, so interrupted meals are common and there’s no guarantee of a full night’s sleep. On a subconscious level, firefighters are always on alert for that next call. Responding to fires or rescues that require a great deal of physical exertion takes firefighters from rest to peak performance with no warm-up.

Over time, the stresses associated with emergency response take a toll on mind and body, and many firefighters retire or leave the job carrying the burden of physical problems, mental health issues, disabilities, or cancer. How cushy is that?