How do I become a firefighter?

The process to become a firefighter can take some time. Do not give up! If you persevere, you can do it.

The first step is to become CPR/First Aid certified. This is normally an 8 hour class. The next step is to become an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). The course can be completed in as little as 14 days or as much as 4 or more months. The EMT course is part lecture and part clinical. During the clinical phase, you will ride in an ambulance with other EMTs and paramedics and learn how to assess patients and apply the skills and knowledge you learned in the lecture portion. After the course is complete, you will need to schedule yourself to take the National Registry EMT (NREMT) cognitive exam at a testing center. The cognitive exam is a computer-based test in which you answer a series of questions. The number of questions in the test varies; once you have answered enough questions to definitively pass or fail the test, the test will end. You will be notified of the results of your test by mail in at least 2 weeks. If you passed the test, you will receive your NREMT card at the same time.

If you plan to work in California, your next step will be to take the Candidate's Physical Agility Test. This is a timed physical fitness test consisting of several events such as stair climb, hose drag, and more. This is the minimum physical testing requirement to apply for any fire department in California. Be aware that some departments may have additional requirements. 

The next step is to apply for fire departments. You can use several resources to be notified of job postings. National Testing Network, Fire Recruit, and Fire Candidate Testing Center are just a few of the resources. It is strongly recommended to apply for as many fire departments as you can. The more you test and interview, the better you will be. 

Most departments will require a clean driving record, no felony convictions, and an honorable discharge from the military. 

The typical hiring process is written test, followed by interview, followed by background checks, and finally a chief interview. If you clear these obstacles, you may be placed in that department's fire academy. Typically these fire academies are 16 - 24 weeks and include a lecture and manipulative skills portion. Testing is constant. You must maintain a passing percentage in both written and manipulative testing or you may be dropped from the academy.

Once you pass the academy, you will be assigned to a station with an officer who will train and evaluate you. Normally, there is more testing at 6 month intervals to ensure you are retaining your skills and learning new skills. This period is called probation. Probation lasts normally 12 - 24 months. If you fail probation, you may be dropped and you will have to start the testing and hiring process all over again. If you pass probation, congratulations! You have made it and you are fully vested in the fire department.

Why are military veterans especially suited for the fire service?

The fire service is a paramilitary organization, so by nature, veterans are accustomed to the rank structure. Furthermore, knowing how to take orders is a critical skill, and veterans are certainly experienced in that. This may seem surprising to some, but not everybody has the skill of being able to take orders.

Veterans are physically disciplined. In every branch of service, there are physical fitness standards to which every person must strictly adhere. In the Marine Corps for example, a few fitness standards of note include a 3 mile run in 28 minutes or less, and being capable of at least 3 pull-ups. Most service members strive to exceed the minimum standard. For many it is a measure of one's own stamina and physical strength, and most service members seek to exceed their previous fitness test score. In short, physical fitness is part of the military culture. They bring with them these traits into the fire service, so they come already physically prepared for the job. Being physically fit leads to less injuries, which means less cost for employers, and a more active, energetic employee.

Veterans are extremely motivated. By nature, veterans are challenge seekers and goal-oriented, and bring these traits with them into the fire service. Always wanting to learn more and seek self-improvement, most veterans are not content to sit idle and are consistently looking to promote to the next level and take on more responsibility. When you hire a veteran, you are not merely hiring a firefighter, you are hiring a future fire officer or fire chief.

Integrity...It may be a word to some, but for veterans, it is a critical trait. Always doing the right thing... Choosing the hard right over the easy wrong...conducting oneself in a manner which will make the organization look professional. Veterans have high moral standards and a commitment to doing the right thing. As a public employee, this is critical.

Exemplary leadership skills...from a very young age, military service members are given increasing levels of responsibility and leadership. In basic training, leadership is highly studied and everyone is taught the characteristics of an effective leader. Leadership by example is key and the "do as I say not as I do" ethos is rejected outright. No veteran in his/her right mind would ever ask his/her subordinates to do something that he/she would not do him/herself.

Critical thinking and decisiveness under stressful situations...no matter the branch of service, veterans are trained to make decisions under stressful situations and with limited information. They come to the fire service experienced in these situations and are thus able to quickly size-up a scene and take action.

Tenacity and the ability to work in austere and adverse conditions...whether it's a week long exercise in Twentynine Palms in 115F heat, a hike to go do a machine gun shoot in cold and snowy conditions, or the Quigley at Marine Corps Base Quantico, veterans are used to working long hours under extremely adverse conditions with at times little sleep. In the fire service, veterans are prepared to take on the physical and mental challenges of firefighting.

In short, veterans come already prepared and proven to handle the rigors of the fire service!

I am getting deployed. How do I notify my fire department and what are some things I should be aware of?

The process is slightly different for every department, however, you must notify your officer and human resources department as soon as possible. Normally, if you are being deployed overseas, you should get a "Letter of Intent to Deploy" from your reserve unit. This is not your orders but does officially state your reserve unit's intent to activate and deploy. It should have approximate dates of deployment, which will help your department make preparations for your departure and arrival from work.

When you get your official orders, bring them to your human resources department. Although this is not legally required to do, this will help your department officially move you to an inactive status and put you into a new pay status. When you are activated, some departments will pay you the difference between your pay grade salary and your fire department salary (for example, if your monthly salary is $5000/mo and you are an E-5 with a $3000 month salary, the department may pay you $2000/mo while deployed. Base and housing allowance, combat pay, and other benefits may or may not be factored in). Other departments will pay you your full salary for 30 days, after which you will no longer be paid. If your department handles deployers this way, it's important to know because when you stop getting paid, you also stop making contributions to your medical and dental insurance, which means you might be dropped from medical and dental coverage while you are deployed. This shouldn't be a problem because when you are activated, you should be enrolled in an active duty medical and dental coverage plan. However, when you return and come off orders, you will need to notify your human resources department so that you can re-enroll in medical and dental coverage, and not have a gap in coverage when you come back to work.

Retirement contributions might also cease while you are deployed, as you might stop making contributions. It is important to check with your human resources department on this. Unions will also stop collecting dues, however you are still entitled to representation by the union if you are terminated wrongfully for reasons having to do with deployment. A very important law to be familiar with is the Uniformed Services Employment and Re-employment Rights ActThis protects your rights as a deployed veteran and military reservist in the workplace. Unbelievably, many returning veterans do face difficulties with employers and worker rights when coming back into the workforce. In most cases this is not out of malice, but rather lack of knowledge and unfamiliarity with the law. Ensure your department is familiar with this law before you leave. 

How do I use my GI Bill during my employment as a firefighter?

Believe it or not, you can use your GI Bill during your first few years as a firefighter! As the California Joint Apprenticeship Committee (CJAC) recognizes the fire service as a trade (not unlike being an electrician, ironworker, pile driver, or pipefitter) this means that your first few years as a firefighter are an apprenticeship, and therefore, part of your schooling. Because you are attending a school of sorts, this means you can be paid by your GI Bill. Be aware however, that the amount and time of pay that you receive depends on the amount of active duty time you have served. You must have served 36 months of active duty to qualify for full GI benefits. This means if you are a reservist who has served 24 months on active duty (such as on basic military training and/or ADOS orders) you will only qualify for 67% of the total GI benefits. 

Your last DD-214 should list the total amount of time you have spent on active duty. Another resource is your branch's on-line personal information portal (such as Marine On-line or MOL). This is extremely important paperwork to retain as you will use this when you contact the CJAC so you can enroll in the GI benefits program and be paid. Be aware though, that the pay you receive for your apprenticeship might be less than the pay you would receive if you were attending a full-time school. So the option to be paid for your apprenticeship might not be the right choice if you plan to attend school later.