A firefighter has many responsibilities, the least common of which is putting out fires.
Is a job in firefighting and EMS right for you?
Have you ever wondered what it's like to ride in a fire engine with the lights and sirens blaring as you respond to an emergency incident? Have you ever sat in traffic, crawling past a fire station, watching as the firefighters washed the fire engine, smiling and having a great time as though it wasn't really work at all?
I have been a firefighter/EMT in a medium metropolitan fire department for the last five years. I can tell you that even though there are some tough, stressful times, it truly is the best job in the world. I am not here to tell you how to become a firefighter (I might save that for another article), but to give you a glimpse at the lifestyle to see if it is right for you.
Are you the type of person who doesn't mind taking orders from people more knowledgeable and experienced than you? Do you work until the job is done, and never quit? Are you a problem solver and try to use all of your resources, despite not having enough of them readily available? If so, you just might love this job.
I am going to tell you how it works in my department. Yours might be a little different, but generally this is how most departments do things. After a 21 week recruit school that includes such grueling training as operating hoselines, SCBA (your air pack so you can breathe in a fire) training, ladders, HAZMAT operations, daily physical training, EMT certification, and much more, you finally get assigned to an engine company. When you first arrive at your new assignment, you're the new guy, the beloved rookie, the "probie." While times have changed and hazing is not as common anymore, you are still expected to take initiative when it comes to cleaning the station, the apparatus, asking for training drills, and you had better not let anyone beat you to answering the phone. It is a rite of passage and sort of an unwritten rule that it's the price you pay for getting trained from those above you. Learn to love the playful ribbing that comes along with being the new guy and you will get along great with your new coworkers. That, and everyone else before you had to go through it. What makes you so special that you should be exempt?
Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the operations part of the job. Eighty-five percent of the calls we respond to are EMS calls. People call 911 for every reason under the sun and it is our job to respond. The old adage is "people call 911 because they don't know who else to call." Someone has to do some of the most unglamorous jobs out there so it might as well be us!
You had better love to help people because there isn't enough money in the world that makes it worth helping a 400lb lady off the ground, who has been laying there for 2 days and defecated on herself three times since she's been there. She will be humiliated when you arrive, and it is your job to have some empathy and improve the situation somehow.
You will run calls with diabetics whose blood sugar is so low that they are so confused and think they are superheroes or famous historical figures. You will laugh after almost every incident, but you will learn something after every call too. Are you excited about the job yet?
Oh yeah, occasionally we get dispatched to fires as well. Structure fires, brush fires, car fires: I love them all. They are what we train for but they happen so rarely. It is not like the movies where every call is a two-alarm fire with multiple victim rescues to be made. In big cities, you will run those fires more frequently, but in the suburbs you will be lucky if you get two good fires a year where you actually open the nozzle on a hoseline. Victim rescues? You might see those once or twice in an entire career, or more if you are assigned to a ladder truck or rescue. If you are excited about this job because you want to fight fire, I just hope you like EMS because that is the bulk of what the job entails. (The exception is departments that keep EMS and Fire response separate, but like I said, I am just talking about my department.)
Other responsibilities include public education. We travel to the local elementary schools and talk to children about fire safety; stop, drop, cover your face and roll; smoke detectors, and escape plans. While some may groan at having to talk to a second grader that has a million unrelated questions, I always get a chuckle out of hearing their stories and seeing their faces light up when we show them the fire engine. By the time we leave, ninety percent of the class says they want to be firefighters, and that feeling is priceless. Nevermind when we drive down the street, children and adults alike wave to us. The public trusts us and has a great respect for us, and it is people like you who are going to receive that trust and must take it seriously. It's people that came long before me that built that trust and we are charged with continuing to earn it.
One last thing. When we are not running calls, we are training. We have to because the skills we learn as firefighters are perishable and we won't be able to perform if we aren't constantly practicing them. Training takes up a few hours each day and can be anything from street drills (memorizing the streets around you), EMS drills like rapid trauma assessments, to advancing a 2 1/2" attack hoseline while flowing water in the back of the fire station. We do not just play cards or surf the web all day, and those who do that all day are a danger to themselves and others because they are letting their skills degrade.
The fire department has a long and proud tradition to be upheld. It is important to constantly train and keep our skills sharp. While we have a lot of fun, we take it seriously because lives are at stake, and even when they aren't, it is still someone's worst day when they call us. Our job is to make their day a little better somehow. If you still feel like this might be a career path for you, consider doing a ride-along at your local fire department. After you sign a waiver, most departments will be happy to give you a tour of the station, the fire apparatus, and let you ride along on a few calls during a shift. While it can be a dangerous job at times, it's an exciting and fun job the vast majority of the time and no day is ever the same.