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What does a firefighter do?
A firefighter is sometimes also called a fireman, firewoman or fireperson.
There are two types of firefighters in the UK: wholetime firefighters and retained firefighters.
- Wholetime firefighters – have a permanent full-time role in the Fire and Rescue Service and typically work in urban areas.
- Retained firefighters – are on-call and need to be based in a location where they can get to the fire station within five minutes of being alerted. Most are in rural areas and usually have other jobs alongside their firefighting role, i.e. being self-employed or having an understanding employer.
Some wholetime firefighters may take up retained duties, but this will depend on the requirements of their role.
As the name suggests, firefighters are mainly associated with fighting fires, but they are much more than that. They attend other emergency incidents, including floods, road traffic collisions, bomb alerts, rail and air crashes and chemical spills. They also have many other duties, including inspecting and maintaining equipment, rescuing people and animals, undertaking drills and conducting building inspections. Therefore, what a firefighter does will depend on whether they are permanent or on-call and the day-to-day tasks and incidents they face.
A firefighter’s main aim is to protect the public, but they also help animals and wildlife and protect property and the countryside. They also have an important role in preventing fires and other types of accidents by promoting fire safety to the public and schools in their local communities. Overall, being a firefighter is about saving lives and keeping people safe from fires and other incidents that could cause harm.
Firefighters work with many different people, including other firefighters in their crew, managers, fire investigators and support staff, e.g. control operators. They will also liaise with external stakeholders, including the public in the local community, other emergency services (e.g. the Police and the Ambulance Service), schools, voluntary organisations, the NHS and businesses.
Firefighters mainly work for one of the Fire and Rescue Services (run by fire and rescue authorities) in England and Wales (46 in England and 3 in Wales). Scotland has a single service, the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS). In Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) has four command areas. Firefighters can also work for the private or public sector.
A firefighter’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including whether they are wholetime, retained or both, where they work, their seniority and the incidents that may occur during their working day.
Every day will be different, but some examples of a firefighter’s duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Ensuring their own and others’ safety at all times.
- Responding to emergency call-outs immediately and safely.
- Attending emergencies, such as fires, road traffic collisions, floods, chemical/hazardous substance spillages, acts of terrorism, and air and rail crashes.
- Researching local roads, routes and access to ensure a prompt and efficient response.
- Providing first aid whilst waiting for paramedics to arrive.
- Cleaning up and inspecting a site after an incident.
- Fighting fires to get them under control and extinguished.
- Using a range of firefighting and rescue equipment.
- Carrying out search and rescue operations.
- Rescuing trapped people and animals from buildings on fire and other incidents, e.g. traffic collisions.
- Inspecting and maintaining equipment regularly, such as the appliance (fire engine) and associated equipment.
- Maintaining the required fitness level to undertake all of the necessary firefighter duties.
- Inspecting buildings and equipment to ensure they meet the necessary fire safety regulations.
- Carrying out practice drills and undertaking training.
- Educating the public on fire hazards, prevention and safety, e.g. giving presentations to schools and community groups.
- Being involved with community fire safety initiatives.
- Carrying out home visits to provide advice and sometimes to install equipment, such as smoke/heat detectors.
- Working with the local community and having regard to equality and diversity issues.
More experienced firefighters, e.g. those at a management level, are less likely to be involved in the operational side of firefighting. They will usually be responsible for managing incidents and staff, completing incident reports, investigating fires, controlling finances and budgets, and allocating resources.
A firefighter can expect to work around 40–48 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work, their role and their day-to-day tasks. Some Fire and Rescue Services may offer part-time, job-share or flexible jobs, e.g. on-call.
Being a firefighter is not a 9–5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working unsociable hours. There is usually a requirement to work different shifts, including evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays.
The firefighter role can also involve long shifts, i.e. up to 12 hours. The shift system for most Fire and Rescue Services is a rota shift pattern of two days followed by two nights and then four days off (rota days).
Travel is a requirement for firefighters. Not only will they be responding to different incidents, but they will also have to return to the station at the end of their shift, which may lengthen the working day.
What to expect
Being a firefighter is not easy and not for the faint-hearted, but it is a rewarding career choice, as they protect people, animals, property and the countryside. They assist those in an emergency and can also save lives. Firefighters can go home at the end of the working day knowing they have made a difference to their local community. They are also classed as key workers and are respected and appreciated in society.
Firefighters must maintain a certain fitness level to enter the profession and carry out their roles properly and safely. This mandatory fitness requirement helps individuals to keep motivated to exercise, which is likely to have overall health benefits.
Boredom will never be a problem for firefighters, as their work is very varied and fast-paced. No two days will be the same, as they will have various day-to-day tasks and deal with different incidents. One moment they may need to help get a trapped person out of their vehicle after a collision, and the next, put out a fire.
There are firefighting roles available nationally throughout the UK. Some also give firefighters the ability to travel to a variety of locations and explore some new areas. There may also be opportunities to travel, including overseas and overnight stays, but these are uncommon.
The salary and benefits package for firefighters, even at entry level, is competitive compared to other career choices. The support, training and career development are also attractive, so there is plenty of opportunity for growth and progression in this career.
Even though there are positives to being a firefighter, there are challenges and cons, e.g:
- Entry requirements and competition – becoming a firefighter is not easy. There are specific entry requirements, the training is intensive, and individuals will need to pass tests, medicals and exams. It can be fiercely competitive, and some will not be successful. Individuals must be prepared to work hard to become a firefighter.
- Physical demands – being a firefighter is physically demanding, hence why a certain fitness level is required. Firefighters will need to operate heavy equipment and may need to lift and carry people, animals and objects. They may also need to climb and enter confined spaces. The shifts can be long and unsociable, increasing fatigue, and some may find swapping from days to nights difficult. Firefighters must wear full protective clothing, including breathing apparatus, which is heavy and can get hot and uncomfortable. They will also need to work in all types of weather conditions.
- Mental demands – being a firefighter can be mentally and emotionally demanding. They will have to deal with some distressing scenes involving fire and accidents and may witness fatalities and severe injuries. They are also likely to face emotional situations with casualties, families and witnesses. Babies and young children may also be involved and this can be too much for some people. If an individual cannot cope with distressing scenes or emotional situations, being a firefighter would not be the right career path.
- Hazards and dangers – there are many health and safety hazards associated with the firefighting role. The obvious are fire, smoke and toxic gases. However, there will also be other hazards, including collapsing buildings, falling objects, hazardous substances, extreme temperatures, work at height, manual handling, water, electricity, moving vehicles, inclement weather, violence, etc. While employers must assess and control the risks, individuals must be aware of the potential dangers.
The number of women and ethnic minority firefighters is relatively low. According to the last fire and rescue workforce and pensions statistics (England), only 7% of firefighters were women, and 4% were from ethnic minorities. It has risen slightly since then, but it should not put off people who want to enter the profession. The Fire and Rescue Service is encouraging applications from these groups as part of their positive recruitment strategies.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective firefighters must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. There is no doubt that working in emergency services is challenging and stressful. It is also physically and mentally demanding, the hours are long and unsociable, and there are many dangers associated with the role. However, there are many positives too, and preventing and mitigating fires and accidents, helping people/animals, and saving lives is extremely rewarding, despite the challenges.
When considering whether to be a firefighter and the type of role, individuals should weigh the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a firefighter
Some of the personal qualities a firefighter requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- A passion for helping people and animals.
- A good level of physical fitness.
- A reassuring and composed approach.
- Sensitivity, understanding and patience.
- Honesty and integrity.
- Assertiveness, resilience, courageousness and confidence.
- Knowledge of public safety and security.
- Knowledge of fire safety and health & safety.
- Knowledge of training and presenting information to the public, including school children.
- Excellent communication skills.
- Organisation and time management skills.
- Problem-solving skills.
- Active listening skills.
- Customer service skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- Being flexible and adapting to changing situations and demands.
- Having cultural awareness and respect for equality, diversity and inclusion.
- Having a methodical approach.
- The ability to work well with the public.
- The ability to remain calm in challenging, high-pressured and stressful situations.
- The ability to follow instructions.
- The ability to make decisions, sometimes quickly, even in difficult situations.
- The ability to work well under pressure.
- The ability to take criticism, be open-minded and act on feedback.
- The ability to work well in a team and sometimes alone using own initiative.
- The ability to be emotionally resilient and professional in distressing situations.
- The ability to maintain, inspect and use a range of equipment.
- The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices.
There are several different routes to becoming a firefighter. Individuals can enrol on a relevant university or college qualification or an apprenticeship.
Course levels – undergraduate degree.
Two or three A levels or equivalent.
- BSc (Hons) Fire & Rescue Degree (the University of Wolverhampton in partnership with West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service).
- BSc (Hons) Fire and Leadership Studies (the University of Central Lancashire in partnership with Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service).
There are also foundation degrees and postgraduate degrees.
Course levels – Level 2 and 3 courses and intensive courses.
Level 2 – two or more GCSEs at grades 9 to 3 (A* to D) or equivalent.
Level 3 – four or five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent.
Example courses –
Level 2 or 3 Diploma in Public Services.
Firefighter Development Programme – an 8-week intensive course.
There is an apprenticeship route to becoming a firefighter, e.g. the operational firefighter advanced apprenticeship.
Intermediate level – some GCSEs, usually including English and Maths or equivalent.
Advanced level – five GCSEs at grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent, including English and maths.
Opportunities are found on the Government’s Apprenticeships website and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.
There are also apprenticeship opportunities in the Royal Air Force (RAF).
Individuals do not need specific qualifications to become a firefighter, so it is not the only route into the role. They can also apply directly to the Fire and Rescue Service but will probably need some GCSEs, e.g. maths and English, or equivalent. The entry requirements will depend on which Fire and Rescue Service an individual is applying to, as they each have their own entry requirements. What is important is that individuals have the right personal qualities for the role. It is very competitive, so standing out from the crowd is essential.
Before applying, individuals should be aware that they must:
- Be over 18 years old.
- Possess a full driving licence.
- Pass a fitness test and medical checks.
- Pass enhanced background checks.
The selection process is intensive and can take up to 12 months.
Direct applications are usually online, and then individuals must (these steps may be different depending on the requirements of the specific Fire and Rescue Service):
- Complete an application form.
- Pass online assessments/tests.
- Pass functional fitness/job-related tests.
- Attend an assessment centre.
- Attend an interview (sometimes included during the assessment centre step).
- Pass additional fitness tests, e.g. swimming.
- Pass pre-employment checks, e.g. medicals, criminal records and references.
If individuals are successful in the selection process, they are offered a place as a Recruit Firefighter. They will then begin on a recruit training course, usually 12–15 weeks, before becoming a firefighter.
Typically, they advertise for new recruits every 12 months, so individuals should check when the next recruitment drive is with their chosen Fire and Rescue Service. Some may only take on people based locally or within a certain distance of the station.
Work experience and volunteering
Having relevant work experience can help individuals get a job as a firefighter and give them an idea of what the role entails. Unfortunately, work experience as a firefighter is not possible due to safety reasons, but individuals could become emergency call handlers or work in fire safety. Some local fire stations have open days and may allow individuals to observe what goes on and speak to firefighters about the role.
There is no substitute for practical experience. Volunteering as a firefighter or becoming a retained firefighter can pave the way for a permanent wholetime role. Individuals could also volunteer in the community with the public, e.g. charities, community schemes, religious groups and schools. It would be good if volunteering roles involved working with people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and ethnicities. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.
There is also a Fire Cadets Programme. The programme is open to young people (usually aged 13–18). It helps them to gain appropriate skills and knowledge and provides an insight into what it is like to be a firefighter. They can also achieve qualifications, including the BTEC Certificate in Fire and Rescue Services in the Community. Individuals should contact their local Fire and Rescue Service for more information about programme lengths, costs and entry.
Any work experience relevant to fire safety and working with the general public can be beneficial and help an individual work towards becoming a firefighter. More relevant work experience will boost an individual’s application and give them a competitive edge when applying for firefighter roles.
Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help firefighters enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training providers can provide training courses.
Some examples of relevant courses that may be useful for prospective and current firefighters include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Legislation, e.g. fire, building regulations, and health and safety.
- Fire safety, including prevention and protection (e.g. firefighting and detection equipment).
- Investigation skills.
- Health and safety, e.g. risk assessment, manual handling, confined spaces, hazardous substances, electricity, working near water, working at height, ladder safety, work-related violence and stress, PPE, etc.
- Equality, diversity and inclusion.
- Spill response.
- Environmental protection.
- LGBTQ+ awareness.
- First aid.
- Conflict management.
- Customer service skills.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- IT skills.
Professional bodies, charities, unions and associations, such as the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), the British Fire Services Association (BFSA), the Fire Fighters Charity, and the Fire Brigades Union, can advise on relevant training courses. Some also provide events and support to help individuals become firefighters and give those in the role the means to continue their professional development.
The training a firefighter requires will depend on the Fire and Rescue Service or another employer they want to work for, if they desire to work in a specialist unit, and the continuing professional development (CPD) requirements. As well as looking on professional body/association websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify any qualifications and training that can help to become a firefighter and those needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on individual Fire and Rescue Service websites, RAF recruitment, Fire Magazine Jobs Board, UK Fire Service Recruitment Job Alert, Nationalfirechiefs jobs, GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and other job sites. Also, look on social media channels for job alerts.
More relevant work experience, training and competence will open up more opportunities. Refresher training will also be required, as laws and standards are constantly changing, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Individuals will need to undergo enhanced background checks. Therefore, it is essential to declare any previous spent and unspent convictions. Failing to supply details during their application may mean it is not accepted. Some minor offences may not automatically exclude an individual from joining, but employers will decide this during the selection/vetting process.
Fitness, health and eyesight
Individuals who want to become a firefighter will require a good fitness level and pass fitness tests, which includes being able to swim a certain distance and tread water.
They will need to be medically fit and meet the minimum acceptable medical standards for entry. They must also meet certain eyesight standards to be a firefighter.
Firefighters must have a full UK manual driving licence. A good driving record and a clean licence will be preferred, as this will be in the vetting process. Some may also stipulate a maximum number of points, so it is important to check before applying.
There are other entry requirements, including:
- Eligible to work in the UK.
- No phobias affecting their and other people’s safety, e.g. fear of heights or confined spaces.
Each Fire and Rescue Service will detail its requirements on its website. Individuals should check the eligibility criteria carefully before applying, as some may have additional requirements. It will also depend on whether the role is wholetime or retained.
Where do firefighters work?
Firefighters can work for many different employers, including (this list is not exhaustive):
- One of the Fire and Rescue Services in England and Wales (46 in England and 3 in Wales).
- The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS).
- The Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS).
- The Royal Air Force (RAF).
- Airports and port fire services.
- Forestry industry.
- Ministry of Defence (MoD).
- Industrial organisations, e.g. the chemical, nuclear, gas and oil industries.
- Local authorities.
- Private businesses that contract out services.
- Firefighting and service contractors.
Firefighters can work in many different locations, including:
- Fire stations.
- The appliance (fire engine/truck) travelling to incidents and events.
- Various indoor premises, e.g. residential, public, commercial and industrial.
- Outdoor locations in all weathers.
- Confined spaces.
- At height.
Some firefighters may also work overseas or be self-employed (if on-call).
How much do firefighters earn?
A firefighter’s salary will depend on the Fire and Rescue Service they work for, whether they are wholetime or retained, and their experience, seniority and location.
There is a nationally agreed salary structure for wholetime firefighters, e.g:
- Trainee firefighters – £24,191 per year.
- Development firefighters – £25,198 per year.
- Competent firefighters – £32,244 per year.
Salaries for more senior roles, e.g. crew and station managers, can be found on the Fire Brigades Union’s website. London firefighters earn more to include the London weighting.
There is also a structure for retained firefighters, for example:
- Trainee firefighters – £ 2,419 per year.
- Development firefighters – £2,520 per year.
- Competent firefighters – £ 3,224 per year.
Retained firefighters also receive a fee for every incident attended, which is the same for all levels.
These figures are only a guide, are subject to annual changes and may differ between Fire and Rescue Services. Firefighters also receive many benefits, e.g. employee assistance programmes, pensions, annual leave, private healthcare schemes, parental leave and support, and training and development.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW).
Types of firefighting roles to specialise in
As stated earlier, there are two types of firefighters: wholetime and retained. Therefore, individuals can choose to work as permanent or on-call firefighters. They can work for different employers, and some on-call firefighters might also be self-employed.
Some Fire and Rescue Services have specialist units in which firefighters can work, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) – carry out search and rescue operations in response to major unstable or collapsed structures and major transportation incidents.
- Incident Response Unit (IRU) – have specialist training to deal with incidents with the potential to contaminate large numbers of the public, e.g. the release of chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear contaminants.
- High Volume Pumping Unit (HVPU) – provide large volumes of water for fighting fires and can also be used to remove flood water.
- Water Rescue Teams – specialise in rescues from water and use various equipment, including boats. They typically respond to people and animals trapped by floods.
- Environmental Protection Unit (EPU) – specialises in mitigating chemical/ hazardous substances and natural agent (e.g. milk) spills.
- Rope Rescue Teams – are trained to use specialist rock climbing equipment to rescue casualties trapped at height, e.g. quarries, rock faces and cranes, and in confined spaces, e.g. sewers and silos.
- Animal Rescue Teams – have specialist training and use equipment to rescue various animals.
All different firefighting roles in specialist units will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. However, all firefighters must be courageous, confident and assertive in potentially dangerous situations. They also need to use sophisticated equipment when dealing with various incidents and protect people, animals, property and land. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what an employer is looking for and the type of work a firefighter wants. Further training will usually be necessary for specialised units, and competition can be fierce, as opportunities are limited.
If firefighters do not carry out their role correctly, they can put themselves, their colleagues and the public at serious risk. Incompetence can worsen a dangerous situation and even cost lives. Therefore, whatever the type of role, firefighters must have the necessary competence and personal qualities to carry out the work professionally, safely and effectively. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Standards, codes, technology, equipment, techniques and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, firefighters must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes to remain legally compliant and competent and to carry out their roles effectively and safely. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives firefighters the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them to be the best possible firefighter and progress in their career.
Professional bodies, charities, unions and associations can help prospective and current firefighters enhance their skills and overall career. The Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA), the British Fire Services Association (BFSA), the Fire Fighters Charity, and the Fire Brigades Union offer support, guidance, CPD and events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for firefighters. With more qualifications, training, experience and promotion, a firefighter can move up the ranks or transfer to other Fire and Rescue Services. They could progress to crew manager, watch manager, station manager, area manager, a brigade manager or a chief fire officer. They can decide to work in specialist units, e.g. search and rescue and rope rescue.
Knowledge, skills and experience can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could become involved in fire safety and prevention work and undertake professional qualifications by becoming a member of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE). They could also become fire safety managers, risk assessors or self-employed consultants.
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