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Becoming a volunteer firefighter can be a rewarding and exciting experience. You can begin a long, wonderful career path into the world of emergency services and saving lives. Volunteer firefighters are the backbone of emergency services in rural areas. As such, many different fire departments will use their help to initiate emergency medical services, for public safety, and to aid the fire department when they are simply overcapacity to handle call volume.
To join a local fire department as a volunteer and take advantage of all these learning opportunities, you must pass several tests beforehand. In addition, your local fire department may have other requirements that you should ask them to provide to you in detail.
Making the Change
Before you consider joining a volunteer fire department, you should understand just how much time and effort goes into volunteer firefighting. Below are some of the personal changes you will have to consider before applying to be a volunteer firefighter.
Before applying to fire departments, understand that they will all require certain minimum hours for you to join their team. Make time in your schedule and provide a detailed list of hours that you can participate in firefighting to your local fire department. Some fire departments will require 16 to 20 hours of service per week or more.
In addition, firefighting and being involved in emergency medical services are incredibly stressful. Studies show that post-traumatic stress disorder is prevalent in emergency responders, wildland firefighters, and city firefighters alike. This stress can be felt years on the job, or even as a new recruit or volunteer.
Make sure you research ways you can manage stress and be prepared for the traumatic incidents you might come face to face with during your job as an emergency firefighter or medical responder.
A significant portion of being a firefighter involves responding to emergency calls in a variety of situations. You will be expected to lift patients of up to 200 pounds or more, work on little sleep (especially during times of crisis such as wildland fires), and also keep up with trained firefighters side by side with you. Ask yourself if you’re ready to take on the physical challenges of being a career firefighter or complete firefighter training.
Consider a Ride-Along
If you want to know more about firefighting and what it takes to be a volunteer or paid firefighter, you should schedule a ride-along with the local department you plan to volunteer for. Ride-alongs can give you a small taste of what is involved in everyday activities including:
- Essential paperwork
- Patient care
- Emergency vehicle maintenance
- Safe driving techniques
By participating in a ride-along, you can also begin to familiarize yourself with the local culture of your local department.
It’s important to check with your local fire department for any information on age requirements. In general, you must be over the age of 18 to work as a volunteer firefighter. In addition, certain local departments might also have other age requirements to be a fire service driver. A fire service truck might fall under a different category of auto insurance, meaning you’ll have to be over age 21 in some states or for specific local departments to drive an emergency vehicle.
However, certain departments also have programs for younger children between the ages of 14 to 17. These programs offer real-life, hands-on experience with emergency calls, tours of the fire station, physical fitness programs, and more. These junior volunteer firefighters have much to learn from older paid firefighters and can become valuable resources helping the fire station complete its day-to-day activities.
Junior volunteer fire service members are also given a uniform, helmet, and other safety equipment. This type of cadet program is an excellent choice for younger children who want to explore a career in fire fighting later on.
Before becoming a volunteer firefighter, you may also need to pass a background investigation. This investigation will determine if you are fit and trustworthy to work as an emergency medical responder or do volunteer fire fighting. They will check to make sure you:
- Have no felony convictions (usually within the past 7 years. Ask your department for more information)
- Are not on a sex offender list
- Do not have DUIs that can prevent you from driving a fire apparatus or other emergency vehicle
- Have not been convicted of assaults or crimes against other people
- Have United States citizenship or permanent residency
- Do not have outstanding warrants
Fire fighting knowledge is critical to have before going out into the field and helping with real-life emergencies. To be a volunteer firefighter, some departments may require you to complete your Firefighter 1 training.
A Firefighter 1 certification is a course that provides the essential skills, knowledge, and practical assessments used to help you become an entry-level firefighter. Some colleges will offer a course to help you complete your Firefighter 1 certification. After you complete the course and complete a minimum amount of working hours as a volunteer or paid firefighter, you can then be classified as a “Firefighter 1.”
In addition to your Firefighter 1 training, you can also obtain a college degree in fire science. An online fire science degree or another type of bachelor’s degree in this field can be useful in helping you get hired for a variety of fire fighting careers. These include jobs such as:
- Fire Chief
- Alarm Technician
- Safety Consultant
- Wildland Firefighter
- Fire Investigator
- Fire Marshal
- Fire Sprinkler Technician
- Fire Professor
It’s important to know that a fire science degree is a four-year degree, meaning you will have to attend a regular college that offers this type of program. However, you will learn the basics of fire starting, fire mechanics, and fire prevention. Even if you decide not to use your fire science education to become a volunteer firefighter, you can still earn a good salary with this education. For example, according to the United State Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for a safety consultant was around $74,000 per year!
Finally, you may need to finish specialized training once you apply to become a volunteer firefighter and are accepted to their program, or even beforehand. Some departments may require you to obtain an emergency medical technician license or EMT license. There are various levels of EMT training, including:
- EMT-B, or basic EMT course
- AEMT, or advanced emergency medical technician
- Paramedic, which is what all active firefighters need to work as an emergency medical responder with a local fire department
Fortunately, emergency medical technician training does not take too long and can be completed in as little as 3 months or sooner if you attend an accelerated program. There are also financial aid options and scholarships available to help you pay for this type of training.
Putting it All Together
To summarize, you will need to first make sure you are the appropriate age, have the appropriate background, and complete all required training before applying to a volunteer fire department. For younger candidates, check to see if your local department offers a junior cadet fire service program or something simliar.
You will also need to make sure you have taken the appropriate courses before applying. This can include Firefighter 1 training or obtaining a national emergency medical technician license.
You will also need to talk with your local fire unit human resource department about specific concerns and set up an interview time. During your interview, remember that the department wants candidates to volunteer for them that hold the same mission and core values, will be a great fit for their team, and can physically keep up with the pace of wildland firefighting, emergency medical services, and more.