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How to become a firefighter

Firefighting isn't just about putting out flames. Here’s what’s really involved and what it takes to become one

Although the title may suggest otherwise, firefighters aren’t always fighting fires. As the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education says:
Firefighters tackle a wide range of emergency situations where problem-solving and initiative is vital to resolve incidents quickly and calmly.

These situations vary from tackling fires, searching, rescuing and protecting people and animals, by sustaining/preserving their life to protecting life and the environment from the effects of fire, natural and human disasters and hazardous materials (eg chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosives).

They also respond to incidents involving planes, trains, road traffic collisions and marine emergencies. When in attendance, they must adopt a sensitive approach to dealing with members of the public and casualties who may be distressed and confused. 

Firefighters also engage with the community to provide information, advice and guidance to individuals and groups around health, safety and wellbeing.

We ask a firefighter what their day job is really like:
Before I became a firefighter, I don't think I realised the range of incidents that firefighters attend. I always knew that I would see some quite horrific things, but you can't prepare yourself for acid attacks, burns victims and people who have jumped in front of trains.

Those are few and far between though. Often we find ourselves dealing with fire alarms actuating, flooding and gaining entry to houses etc.

Skip ahead to learn more about becoming a firefighter:


Not interested in becoming a firefighter? Browse all of our careers and job guides.
 

Overview

What does a firefighter do?

According to Graduate Prospects, the tasks a firefighter may carry out include:
  • responding immediately and safely to emergency calls and requests for assistance
  • attending emergency incidents including fires, road accidents, floods, terrorist incidents, spillages of dangerous substances, and rail and air crashes
  • rescuing trapped people and animals
  • minimising distress and suffering, including giving first aid before ambulance crews arrive
  • safeguarding your own and other people's personal safety at all times
  • cleaning up and checking the site after dealing with an incident
  • taking time to become familiar with local streets, roads and buildings so you can respond to emergency calls with speed and efficiency
  • inspecting and maintaining the appliance (fire engine) and its equipment, assisting in testing fire hydrants and checking emergency water supplies
  • undertaking drills and physical training and taking part in training on techniques, use of equipment and related matters
  • maintaining the level of physical fitness necessary to carry out all the duties of a firefighter
  • educating and informing the public to promote fire safety, by giving talks in schools, local organisations and completing home visits to offer advice
  • maintaining links with the local community.


Get on the right path: search for a degree course.


What to expect as a firefighter?

We ask a firefighter what they enjoy about their job:
There's so much about my job that I enjoy.

I enjoy the people that I work with. You become really close with your watch. We will often go out for drinks, play football and try to organise a few weekends away a year.

I also really enjoy the varied and worthwhile work that I get to do and getting the genuine chance to help people. I think the shift pattern is pretty great too – I work two days followed by two nights and then four days off.
 

How to become a firefighter


It's really difficult to become a firefighter. A constant story from many firefighters is that it can take many attempts before you're successful. 

You need to find out when the fire service you're considering to apply to is likely to have its next recruitment period. This may happen just once a year (or even less), for a short period only.
 

Tips for budding firefighters

We ask a firefighter for their advice:
The first tip that I would give to anyone interested in becoming a firefighter is simply to head down to their local fire station and have a chat with whoever is on duty. This is what I did when I was going through the application process.

Most of the time you will come across someone who’s happy to have a chat and answer any questions, as well as let you have a look around the fire engine. I ended up getting the phone number of the guy who was a trainee at my local station and we are still in contact now. 

Secondly, it’s important to maintain a decent level of fitness. I know that in London, the physical tests that we did in the application process didn't actually reflect the level that you need through training school (where you spend days running around putting up ladders and hauling equipment up a training tower).

Firefighter education and qualifications

It’s important that you find out exactly what's required from the fire service that you're applying to, because the exact requirements can sometimes differ. However, the principles used in recruitment are similar.

Below are the requirements from the London Fire Brigade:

Eligibility checklist 
'Are you...

  • over 17 and a half years old on the date you apply? Note, there's no upper age limit.
  • a UK/EU citizen or a permanent resident of the UK without any work restrictions?
  • willing to get an LGV driving licence within three years of joining? Note, you don’t need a driving licence to apply.
  • happy to be clean shaven, so you can safely wear breathing apparatus while fighting fires?
  • free from any unspent criminal convictions?'


Qualifications

  • 'You don’t need any particular qualifications to become a firefighter. However, you’ll be expected to sit tests at a similar level to English and maths GCSEs, along with a test to assess your mechanical reasoning.'
     
  • 'Mechanical reasoning tests are generally used during the recruitment process for jobs related to engineering, the emergency services and the army, among many others. They are typically used to assess how well you can solve problems in a practical environment.'


Skills and behaviours
Other than good fitness levels, the diverse role of a firefighter means we’re looking for people with the following skills and personal qualities:

  • working with the public
  • being flexible and able to adapt to changing situations or demands of the job
  • good communication skills, which include contributing your ideas, listening to others and being clear and confident
  • being confident to take the lead and put yourself/ideas forward
  • able to think quickly and to solve problems, and communicate your ideas clearly to others
  • work as a team to support others
  • skills to organise and manage your time well
  • cope well under pressure.

The London Fire Brigade is very keen to encourage non-traditional applicants to apply (as are all other fire and rescue services):
Many people feel discouraged about joining the fire service because they believe the industry has no place for minority groups. But research by the London Fire Brigade suggests that there is a real need to adjust its recruitment processes for it to become more accessible to everyone – LGBT and BAME groups included.
 

Applying to be a firefighter

Anyone seriously considering becoming a firefighter will need to spend a serious amount of time researching the application processes used by the fire and rescue service that they are applying to.

Fire Service Resources feels that taking due diligence when completing the application form is essential:
Filling in your application form is probably the most important part of the recruitment process, as this is the first time the fire and rescue service you are applying for receives any information about who or what you are.

However up to 90% of applicants fail at the first hurdle by not following simple instructions given in the actual application form.

Application forms are designed to screen you out rather than to get you in. Because of this you need to put a lot of thought and effort into answering each question, to be competitive in your application.

You need to research every bit of the process, because the level of competition means that fire and rescue services are looking for reasons to reject you.

You have to get with the process, whether it is: 
  • meeting personal qualities and attributes (PQAs) in the online or paper application form
  • passing physical, medical and ability tests
  • or the final interview.

Fire and rescue services are in the process of changing their application process and may increasingly use situational judgement tests, assessment days, realistic job previews and more focused maths and English tests.

How to prepare for a job interview.
 

Vocational vs academic routes to becoming a firefighter

Operational firefighter apprenticeship
Increasingly, the main route to becoming a firefighter will be through an Operational Firefighter Level 3 apprenticeship, offered by North Wales, Durham and DarlingtonBuckinghamshire and Milton Keynes and the London Fire Brigade among others.

Here's what the apprenticeship may involve:
  • Qualification: Operational Firefighter Level 3 qualification (eligibility for registration with the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) at technician level).
  • Duration: 18-month apprenticeship, then up to 36 months to achieve full competency as a firefighter.
  • Assessment: an assessment at 18 months that includes a knowledge test, practical observation and a professional discussion.
  • What's involved? Mix of operational training, workshops, station-based development and other work-related activities.

Interested applicants should regularly check the careers sections of fire and rescue service websites. You should assume that the application process will be very similar to those mentioned above.

Interested in an apprenticeship? Check out our full advice section, including case studies, myth-busting guides and more.
 

Academic routes to becoming a firefighter

If you want the university experience and want to study something you enjoy before you try to enter the fire service, then that is up to you.

When you apply, successful entry will depend on your ability to meet the entry criteria of the fire service that you are applying to.

The London Fire Brigade recently trialled a small graduate entry scheme where graduates will be fast-tracked into station manager roles. 

As of April 2019, four courses come up in our course search that could be related to becoming a fire fighter. This includes the University of Wolverhampton’s BSc in Fire and Rescue.

However, while they can teach you many useful things and give you accreditation for the Institution of Fire Engineers, these courses do not guarantee entry to the fire service. You will still be required to go through all the application processes mentioned above.


Want to go to university first? Start your search for a degree course here.

 

Do you need to go to university to become a firefighter?

Here’s an opinion from a firefighter:
Personally, I do not believe that being a graduate would help in a firefighting career.

From my training squad of 10, three were graduates. It’s a job that attracts all sorts of people and everyone brings their own value.

Firefighter jobs



Where to find firefighter jobs

The IFA says:
Firefighters could be employed in any of the fire services across the UK, the armed forces, civil aviation or within small private-sector fire services that may be incorporated in other organisations such as manufacturers and engineering.

 

Average firefighter starting salaries

According to the Fire Brigades Union, earnings can range from £23,000 for a trainee/apprentice, up to £58,000 a year for an experienced area manager.

The average annual pay for watch managers and below is £36,920.

 

Firefighter career prospects and progression 

If you're considering a career as a firefighter, you should familiarise yourself with the language of the fire service.

Examples of ranks in the fire service:
  • Trainee firefighter/operational firefighter apprentice.
  • Firefighter – carries out day-to-day firefighting and fire safety work.
  • Leading firefighter/crew manager – in charge of the crew of a fire appliance (ie fire engine) at many stations. Carries out day-to-day firefighting and fire safety work, but can take charge of incidents involving up to three pumping appliances.
  • Sub-officer/watch manager A – in charge of the watch at smaller fire stations or the crew of a fire appliance. Carries out day-to-day firefighting and fire safety work. Will attend incidents as officer in charge of an appliance and will also take command of incidents involving up to three pumping appliances. Will also undertake specialist duties such as training or fire safety.
  • Station officer/watch manager B – in charge of the watch at larger fire stations. Carries out day-to-day firefighting and fire safety work or junior work in policy areas. Can also undertake specialist duties. Will take charge of an incident of up to six pumps or undertake specialist tasks.

Watches
Full-time fire stations tend to operate a 42-hour week four-shift system. The system operates on a four days on/four days off routine, creating an eight-day cycle, ensuring that staff progressively work on different days of the week.

There are four different ‘coloured’ watches that operate this four-shift system: red, white, blue and green. This system ensures fire cover is maintained 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year.

WT and retained firefighters
WT stands for 'whole-time firefighters', in other words full-time firefighters.  

Retained firefighters are now often called 'on-call firefighters'. These are firefighters who are often doing another job and usually – but not always – they live in rural areas. Retained firefighters will be self-employed or have an agreement with their employer, and can respond to an incident at very short notice.

 

Related jobs and careers

  • Health and safety adviser
  • Police officer
  • Paramedic
  • Various careers in the armed forces
  • Heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver
 

For more information

National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC): professional voice of the UK fire and rescue service UK Fire Service Resources: information and online community around the fire and rescue service Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education: an organisation which oversees apprenticeship standards and assessment plans

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