Firefighters, also known as firemen, are highly skilled men and women who work to combat and extinguish fires. They also take steps to prevent fires, act as emergency medical technicians (EMT), and investigate the causes of fires. Firefighters are almost always the first officials "on the scene" of fires, car accidents, or other emergencies, which is why they are also sometimes called "first responders." Some firefighters are career professionals, while others volunteer for duty within their communities.
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The responsibilities of a firefighter include four primary duties in addition to many secondary duties. They put out fires, rescue and care for the sick and injured, work to prevent future fires, and investigate the sources of fires, especially in the case of potential arson.
Fighting fires is a firefighter's primary duty. After receiving notification that a fire is in progress, firefighters suit up in the appropriate safety gear before climbing aboard or driving one of several different types of fire trucks. Some of the trucks carry or pump water, some are "aerial ladder" trucks that raise ladders to the upper floors of buildings, and some are rescue trucks that transport fire victims to emergency medical centres. Each has an important function once the firefighters reach the site of the emergency.
After reaching the site, each firefighter works under a commanding officer and has a specific task to perform. Hose operators, for instance, connect hoses to fire hydrants, and then direct the flow of water towards the fire while a pump operator controls the water flow. Those who guide the aerial ladders are known as tillers. Others are responsible for entering burning buildings to rescue potential victims. While all firefighters must have EMT certifications, some specialize in the task of stabilizing victims once they are brought out of the burning structure.
In the case of an automotive accident that does not involve a fire, firefighters use their EMT training to care for the injured and secure the scene before ambulances and police arrive. They also act as rescuers in the case of natural disasters such as tornadoes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Firefighters treat victims of these disasters or search for the missing.
Firefighters also educate the public and work as inspectors to prevent fires. Inspectors ensure that local businesses meet fire codes and make sure fire escapes, alarms, and sprinkler systems are in place and are in good working order. Some firefighters are trained as investigators to locate the source of fires and find evidence if arson is suspected.
In addition to firefighting responsibilities, firefighters must maintain fire apparatus and engage in regular drilling or training. They must also stay in excellent physical shape in order to endure the physical demands of their job.
Firefighters must be high school graduates or obtain an equivalent diploma. There has been a recent trend towards requiring prospective firefighters to obtain an associate's degree in fire science, or even a four-year degree. In addition to the required education, firefighters must take and pass a fire exam, though requirements will vary by state, region, or country.
A medical examination and drug screening must also be passed before a firefighter is admitted into a formal training program at a fire station or academy. Sometimes candidates will work in an apprenticeship program for three to four years before being granted a position.
Experienced firefighters will go through practice drills to maintain their skills and knowledge. Some take fire science classes in order to gain a promotion or specialize in fire investigation or another job requiring advanced training.
In addition to being knowledgeable and competent, firefighters must be physically and mentally capable of performing the demanding work of fighting fires and handling emergency situations. Because of the critical nature of their jobs and the amount of disasters and tragic situations they witness, firefighters must exhibit continued and stable mental focus. They must make split-second decisions that may affect the lives of others around them. Physically, firefighters must be able to move heavy objects, operate unruly equipment, and carry victims from burning buildings while wearing cumbersome safety gear. Being in top physical and mental shape is absolutely essential for those pursuing a career in firefighting.
With the exception of part-time, volunteer firefighters, most first responders live and work in fire stations for extended periods of time. Shifts typically last for 24 hours, so that a full team is always present in the event of a fire. Monthly, a firefighter works between 9 and 11 total shifts. In addition, they work during holidays and weekends to ensure their community is safe from fire. In the event of a natural disaster, firefighters may work even longer hours in order to keep the public safe and rescue victims. Many of the situations they encounter are life-threatening; numerous firefighters have lost their lives while on the job. Volunteer firefighters undergo the same risks, but typically do not live at the fire station and are only called out when an emergency situation arises.
The median annual wage for firefighters is around $44,000. Salaries vary widely based on experience, job specialty, and location. The lowest earners bring in around $22,000 while the most experienced firefighters earn $72,000 or more. Those who work their way into managerial positions in the fire department can expect to earn $53,000 to upwards of $100,000 annually. Most receive health benefits and pensions.