Part one of this series: The Application Process

Part two of this series: Understanding the Testing & Interview Process

Part three of this series: Application Acceptance & Advanced Career Opportunities

This article is the fourth and final installment of a four-article series around the process of becoming a firefighter. From the application process and testing requirements to getting the right certifications and understanding the job market outlook, we hear from a 25-year veteran about what to expect.

Author: Dennis K. Howard

With the application, testing, and training portions of your new fire service career now complete and in the books, it’s time to turn to the future and look at what might be in store for you and the fire service. 

New technology in firefighting and emergency medicine, new concepts in training and professional development, and a greater focus on firefighter health and safety are all trends that promise significant changes in the coming years.

There are also your prospects to consider. You have just started down what should be a long and prosperous career that will give you many different opportunities, depending on where you want to go and what different career paths you might want to pursue. The future is bright for the fire service and the emergency medical service. 

The Current Outlook – Trends, Numbers and Truths

The big question is always what is on the horizon as far as jobs, promotion opportunities, and career choices. While it is hard to predict, there are certain things statistics can tell us about the current situation and, based on historical data, the outlook for the future of the fire service.

According to Data USA:

  • In 2012 the fire service supported 307,000 jobs
  • In 2014 the number of fire service jobs was 327,300
  • The predicted growth in firefighter jobs from 2012 to 2014 was 4,000 jobs
  • The fire service experienced growth of 20,300 jobs during this period, 5.2% more than predicted
  • In 2018, there were 332,400 fire service jobs
  • The Department of Labor predicts a 5% annual growth in the number of jobs in the fire service

The addition of new jobs in the fire service tends to grow at about the same rate as job growth in general across the country. The truth is that as communities grow, and as the population of the country grows, the need for more firefighters and paramedics also grows. 

Local governments must keep up with the need to provide enough firefighters and paramedics to meet the needs of their communities.

Career Trends In Firefighting – Will there be a place for you to grow?

One other career trend that you should also consider is the age of the fire service. DataUSA provides this information about the members of the fire service in the USA:

  • The average age of male firefighters is 38.7 years old
  • The average age of female firefighters is 36 years old
  • The average retirement age of firefighters is 57 years old

The numbers show that the possibility of career advancement in the fire service is looking good for a long while. Each time a fire department expands its ranks by creating new firefighter positions, it not only creates new job entry positions, but it also creates new positions up the ranks. A new firehouse requires a completely new complement of firefighters, chauffeurs, and officers. 

As cities expand, fire departments grow, and the opportunities expand for firefighters to promote and advance. Add that to the growth factor, the expected retirements inside the fire service and the prospects for advancement are looking even better.

The Competition – Facing the Best of the Best

You should have a good understanding of the quality of the men and women who are now your brothers and sisters in the profession. You competed against them to get this job and now you will be competing with them for the rest of your career for promotions and advancement in the fire service. You are, quite literally, competing with the best of the best.

The knowledge of the level of competition you face should be an inspiration to plan your career carefully, layout goals and milestones that you want to accomplish and make your preparations to meet those goals a regular part of your life and your career. The opportunities for your career are there, and it is up to you to work to prepare yourself to take advantage of them.

How Technology Has Changed The Firefighting Profession of Today 

When I started fighting fire many years ago, the use of SCBA was relatively new, and the kinks with the technology were just beginning to surface. The staffing of the engine company to which I was assigned officially counted two firefighters, a chauffeur, and a lieutenant. 

That meant that most of the time, due to holidays, leave time, or sick leave, we ran a three-person engine company in a territory that consisted mostly of single-story residential structures with some strip mall style storefronts.

I rode a Ward LaFrance engine that could pump 750 gallons per minute (GPM) and with a gasoline engine as a rookie. The fire department purchased the engine before the advent of jump seat-mounted SCBA. 

Retrofitting the jump seats with SCBA racks made the jump seat a tight squeeze for a fully bunkered firefighter. Consequently, most of the time, we rode the jump seat, standing and looking over the top of the cab.

By the time I retired, all of our apparatus were powered by diesel engines and had automatic transmissions. The cabs were fully enclosed, including the jump seats. No more standing up and waving at everyone as we rode down the street.  The last engine company to which I was assigned pumped 1500 GPM. 

The significant change I experienced as my career progressed was the increased focus on firefighter safety. Gone were the days of shucking the SCBA and the bunker coat to do overhaul and salvage. No riding in open cab jump seats. Hearing protection, regular medical evaluations, and baseline testing, new tactics and procedures intended to make operations safer were a continual situation. 

However, the biggest change was the mandate by the NFPA that firefighters never work alone. The OSHA “two in two out” rule brought a host of staffing updates. No more three-man engine crews. Our fire stations were now manned by enough firefighters that even with leave time and sick leave, there are always two firefighters riding the engine. There is strength and safety in numbers.

So Much for the Past – What About the Future?

The future for the fire service and firefighting is loaded with great expectations. Technology continues to evolve in ways that will make firefighting safer. New technology always requires new training and new procedures, which means fire training must evolve as well. 

Each great technological advance means new challenges for firefighters. For instance, when I was riding fire trucks, I can never remember fighting a fire in an electric car. Now, firefighters face that challenge almost every day. It’s a new world and it is changing rapidly. The fire service must change as well.

The Trends To Look For in the Future

Firefighting Equipment

Look for technology to continue to enhance firefighter safety and the ability to address the technical aspects of fire fighting. These changes will involve almost every aspect of firefighting, including:

  • Enhanced communications through the use of integrated communications systems that allow communication equipment to become a part of the PPE of firefighters, allowing them hands-free communications. 
  • Advances in communications will also greatly increase the fire ground commanders’ ability to track and locate individual firefighters in real-time through the use of radio-based tracking equipment.
  • New fibers and materials will allow turn-out gear to evolve, becoming lighter, more heat and fire-resistant, and, perhaps, even monitor a firefighter’s physical condition and report back to the incident command post.
  • New materials and designs of fire fighting equipment such as nozzles and master streams will be lighter and more versatile, making the physical job of firefighting less taxing.

Continued Training in Technological Advancements 

New equipment and technology create a constant challenge to keep firefighters and fire officers skilled in the use of these emerging technologies and opportunities. Training will continue to grow in importance as the technical issues of firefighting continue to develop.

  • The means of delivering training to firefighters and fire officers will evolve as the use of technologies based on the internet and remote meetings become the norm. Training will become decentralized and focus more on the fire station than on a central training academy.
  • Training will become more technical. The old technologies in fire fighting like a halligan tool or a pick-headed ax were simple to teach and understand. Emerging technologies and techniques now require a sophisticated understanding of fire dynamics, chemistry, and, in some cases, electronics. A great emphasis on technical training is in the future for the fire service.
  • The rapid advances in technology and techniques require a training staff that can not only teach but can also research and learn as well. A fire training staff that is capable of rapidly assimilating new data and turning it into useful techniques and procedures for their fire department will become essential.

The Role of The Cloud As A New Way of Getting Information 

The opportunities to make a fire department more efficient and more productive, both in the administration and the firefighting areas, will become a bigger part of the fire service. 

These innovations include most of the administrative functions of the fire department as well as dispatch and the opportunity to have information available to the incident commander at the scene of a fire instantaneously. These changes open a number of new possibilities in the fire service.

  • Better control of administrative functions such as budget, payroll, logistics and support services that streamline and offer tighter controls and the better allocation of tight budgets and assets.
  • Rapid data acquisition and deployment for fire fighting operations will be part of the evolution of communications and technology. Many departments already employ mobile data terminals. As technology improves, the amount of data available and the way it is collected will also improve and expand.
  • The need for firefighters trained in the management and use of these sophisticated electronic devices will increase. Fire departments will likely see the need for their own IT staff who are not just versed in technology but also understand firefighting and how the technology is integrated into the fire department systems.
  • The use of drones and other robotic devices will be the next big evolution in fire department operations. A huge challenge for officers making decisions at large complex fires is the ability to see and understand the entire picture. Drones and other robotic devices can provide fire officers and incident commanders new tools for making strategic and tactical decisions at these types of incidents. Who knows, there may be departments that will have a new rank, Drone Pilot.

Executive Development – The Need for Sophisticated Officers for a Sophisticated Future

As technology and fire departments grow and become more complex, the management challenges grow as well. The need for fire officers who have training and education to meet these challenges will see a need for a new class of fire officers who are focused more on the administrative side than the operational side of fire fighting. 

Trends will turn toward the following:

  • The need for a broader range of training. Emergency management functions, as well as medical functions, will continue to grow in importance to the management of fire service operations.
  • More importance will be placed on the development of leadership, and professional development will be seen as the administrative side of fire department management grows. Senior fire officers will face bigger demands of more extensive education and training in business and management areas than ever before.
  • Increasingly, firefighters at all levels will look outside their department for training and certifications. The growth of training programs for both specialty teams and professional development has been on the increase in the past few years. Expect this trend to continue.

What does the Future Hold For Firefighting?

In many respects, what the future holds for you is entirely up to you. The possibilities are almost endless and the opportunities are there if you are willing and able to step up and grab them as they present themselves. 

Your career will be yours to make. Whether your choice is to be a career station officer or you aspire to wear the five crossed bugles of a Chief Officer, the attainment of your goals depends on you. From this point forward, you are in command of your own destiny. 

Author Bio: 

Dennis K. Howard is a retired firefighter. He worked for 25 years with the Lubbock Fire and Rescue Department in Lubbock, Texas. During his career, he achieved the rank of Lieutenant. At his retirement, he was the ranking Lieutenant at his fire station and oversaw an engine company and the two other shifts serving at the station. His training included stints as a member of the hazardous materials response team and serving as the President of the professional firefighter’s association. 

Dennis also has a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Education and a Master of Business Administration. His off-duty activities included starting and operating several businesses, including a software development firm, a consulting firm, and, after his retirement, a retail sporting goods store. Part of his retirement involves teaching at the university level in the undergraduate business management program of a local, regional university. Dennis now spends most of his time freelance writing, working in his garden and greenhouse, and entertaining his grandchildren.