There's more to being a firefighter than extinguishing fires, installing smoke detectors and rescuing kittens from trees

As a firefighter you will respond to emergency situations and protect people, the environment and property from all types of accident and emergencies.

You will work closely with the local community to increase their level of fire safety awareness in order to help prevent fires and accidents happening in the first place.

Promoting fire safety and enforcing fire safety standards in public and commercial premises, you'll act and advise on all matters relating to the protection of life and property from fire and other risks.

In the role you'll continually learn and update your knowledge through a series of lectures, exercises, practice drills and training, which are an integral and on-going part of the job.

Types of firefighter

  • Wholetime firefighters: work for the fire service full time and usually cover urban areas.
  • Retained firefighters: on-call responders who usually cover rural areas. You'll typically live or work within five minutes or one mile of the fire station and respond to pagers when an emergency call is received. You'll either be self-employed or work for an employer willing to allow you to leave work immediately to attend an emergency.

Responsibilities

Firefighters carry out a diverse range of tasks, some you'll do every day while others are less frequent. They include:

  • responding immediately and safely to emergency calls and requests for assistance;
  • attending emergency incidents including fires, road accidents, floods, terrorist incidents, spillages of dangerous substances, and rail and air crashes;
  • rescuing trapped people and animals;
  • minimising distress and suffering, including giving first aid before ambulance crews arrive;
  • safeguarding your own and other people's personal safety at all times;
  • cleaning up and checking the site after dealing with an incident;
  • taking time to become familiar with local streets, roads and buildings so you can respond to emergency calls with speed and efficiency;
  • inspecting and maintaining the appliance (fire engine) and its equipment, assisting in testing fire hydrants and checking emergency water supplies;
  • undertaking drills and physical training and taking part in training on techniques, use of equipment and related matters;
  • maintaining the level of physical fitness necessary to carry out all the duties of a firefighter;
  • educating and informing the public to promote fire safety by giving talks in schools and to local organisations, as well as home visits to offer advice, etc;
  • maintaining links with the local community.

At management level, you'll perform extra supervisory activities, which include managing operational incidents and directing the day-to-day tasks of personnel on fire stations. You'll find that the operational aspects of firefighting, although important, are a minor part of a senior manager's role in a large service. Responsibilities typically include:

  • assessing situations quickly and deciding on the best course of action;
  • directing the crew;
  • writing full incident reports;
  • fire investigation;
  • budget administration and control;
  • allocation of personnel and resources to achieve performance targets;
  • negotiating with representative bodies;
  • dealing with external agencies;
  • planning and resource management;
  • dealing with political aspects of the Fire and Rescue Authority (FRA).

Salary

There is a nationally-agreed salary structure for firefighters.

  • The starting salary for a trainee firefighter is £22,017. When full competence is achieved, this rises to £29,345. Higher rates apply for overtime.
  • Crew manager salaries range from £31,189 (development) to £32,533 (competent). Watch manger salaries range from £33,237 to £36,381.
  • A station manager's earning potential is between £37,842 and £41,737 plus overtime rates, subject to the officer's level of competence.
  • Further advancement to the role of group manager and then area manager attracts salaries of between £44,889 and £56,124, depending on the level of competence.

Retained firefighters are paid an annual retainer, dependent on their role in the service, plus a turn-out fee for each incident they attend. Retainers start at £2,202 for a trainee, while a competent retained firefighter receives £2,935. London firefighters are paid more.

Income data from The Fire Brigades Union. Figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

Hours of work typically include regular unsocial hours. You would usually work 42 hours a week in a shift pattern. Most firefighters work two day shifts followed by two night shifts and then have four days off.

However, different services employ different duty systems, depending on their needs. When necessary, paid overtime is worked.

Job-sharing and part-time work are possible.

What to expect

  • The work often takes place in dangerous and unpleasant conditions, for example in heat and cold, at heights, in enclosed spaces, in smoke-filled buildings, and in all kinds of weather conditions. You may be exposed to danger from collapsing buildings or vehicles, explosions and fumes. You need to be physically fit, as firefighters carry heavy equipment and breathing apparatus.
  • Although self-employment and freelance work may be possible, it's more likely after retirement in areas such as consultancy or training.
  • Women are currently underrepresented in the profession. However, the fire service is working to recruit more female, black and ethnic minority firefighters through positive recruitment strategies.
  • Jobs are available throughout the UK.
  • Smart appearance is important. Firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are required to be clean shaven to ensure the equipment can work effectively.
  • Travel within a working day is frequent. Absence from home overnight (other than rostered duty) and overseas work or travel is generally uncommon.

Qualifications

Personal qualities and physical attributes are more important than academic qualifications, though a good general education is required. A degree or other further education qualifications are not essential and entry without a degree or HND is common.

There are, however, a number of vocationally-focused, graduate-entry degree courses available:

  • BSc (Hons) Fire and Leadership Studies at the University of Central Lancashire - in partnership with Lancashire Fire and Rescue Service;
  • BSc (Hons) Fire and Rescue at the University of Wolverhampton - in partnership with West Midlands Fire and Rescue Service.

These courses don't guarantee entry into the fire and rescue service but aim to equip students with the skills needed to pursue a career in the fire industry, for more details see Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

Other related degree courses in areas including fire engineering, fire safety and risk management or fire and explosion are also available. Search for postgraduate courses in fire safety engineering for more options.

You need to be aged 18 or over to become a firefighter. After successful completion of an application form, you'll go through the standard national selection process called the National Firefighter Selection (NFS), as well as a Personal Qualities and Attributes (PQA) test to ensure you're suitable for the role.

Applicants then move on to physical tests carried out in full firefighter uniform. The next step's an interview, and towards the end of the selection process you'll be invited to attend a medical. Good vision in both eyes and good hearing are essential. For more information on the NFS process see Fire Service.

To improve your chances of entry, you need to keep fit and gain as much information as possible about both the role and the fire and rescue service in general. To keep up to date with relevant fire issues, join the UK Fire Service Forum.

Skills

As well as physical fitness, you need to show:

  • effective communication skills;
  • integrity, composure and a reassuring manner;
  • the ability to follow instructions;
  • the ability to work as part of a team;
  • problem-solving skills;
  • patience, understanding and sensitivity;
  • confidence and resilience;
  • adaptability and flexibility;
  • sound judgement, courage, decisiveness, quick reactions and the ability to stay calm in difficult circumstances;
  • the willingness and ability to learn on a continual basis;
  • an interest in promoting community safety, education and risk prevention.

You may also need a full UK driving licence.

Work experience

Due to health and safety requirements, work experience isn't possible although you may be able to be placed as an observer in a fire station or attend an open day, so contact the fire and rescue service you're interested in to enquire.

Depending on your circumstances, you may be able to work as a volunteer or retained firefighter. Experience of this nature could increase your chances of gaining a full-time position.

Employers

Fire and rescue services only recruit when they need firefighters to replace those who are retiring or leaving the service, and competition can be fierce. Each fire service recruits independently so contact services directly. The current economic climate and public sector cuts may affect the number of jobs available.

In England, there are 46 fire and rescue services run by fire and rescue authorities (FRA). For a list of services by region, see the Chief Fire Officers Association.

Wales has three services:

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Services (SFRS) is responsible for the whole of Scotland; while Northern Ireland is divided into four area commands and is overseen by the Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service (NIFRS).

Private and public sector employers include the:

  • civil airport and port fire services;
  • forest industry;
  • industrial fire services protecting private companies in the chemical, pharmaceutical, nuclear, oil and gas industries;
  • Ministry of Defence (MoD) - Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation (DFRMO);
  • Royal Air Force (RAF).

Look for job vacancies at:

  • Individual UK fire and rescue service websites.
  • Fire
  • Fire Service - offers a firefighter recruitment text service for a fee.
  • myjobscotland - register for alerts for SFRS vacancies.

Professional development

Initial firefighter training takes an intensive 12 and 18 weeks to complete. It's usually held at a specially-equipped training centre where you will be taught basic firefighting skills such as ladder safety, hose laying and how to use breathing apparatus. Training also involves learning about fire safety and the importance of getting the fire safety message across within the local community.

You'll be required to undertake regular study, both in the training centre and out of hours, and your progress will be regularly assessed. Once you've attained your first aid certificate and got to grips with the basic skills, you'll get to experience a simulated fire.

On successful completion of the initial training, you'll join a fire station on probation and your performance will be continuously assessed. This development programme typically takes around two years and focuses on learning about the community and the risks surrounding your station and showing competence in the areas covered at the training centre. Visit individual fire and rescue service websites for details of their training programme.

You'll be expected to undertake a CPD programme throughout your career, which includes attending lectures, exercises, practical training sessions and other forms of training to maintain your competence levels. You'll be responsible for developing your own skills and maintaining fitness.

A range of specialist courses are run by the Fire Service College, covering areas such as:

  • hazardous materials;
  • leadership and management courses aimed at middle and senior managers;
  • prevention and protection;
  • rope, water and associated rescue skills;
  • specialist operations.

Relevant courses are also run by the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Training Centre.

Career prospects

Promotion is earned on individual merit subject to demonstrating competence in each role and showing evidence of potential through attendance at assessment and development centres.

There's a well-structured career path, which gives real responsibility at an early stage. From the role of firefighter, career development typically runs as follows:

  • Crew manager - responsible for the fire appliance and crew, takes charge of smaller incidents and provides support to the watch manager.
  • Watch manager - leads a number of smaller teams at larger incidents and may have duties as a fire safety inspector.
  • Station manager - ensures the service's delivery at one or more fire stations and may take charge of larger incidents.
  • Group manager responsible for the service across a geographical area (e.g. London) or a specialist department, such as training.
  • Area manager - responsible for a larger geographical area or for heading a directorate.
  • Brigade manager - strategically responsible for departments and supports the chief fire officer.
  • Chief fire officer - responsible for ensuring effective delivery of all fire and rescue service duties.

Beyond the level of station manager, it's often necessary to move between services to get promoted.

It's possible to specialise in a particular area of the fire and rescue service and there are opportunities to study for a foundation, undergraduate or postgraduate degree in areas such as:

  • fire and risk management;
  • fire engineering;
  • fire safety engineering;
  • fire and leadership;
  • disaster management.

Other possible opportunities include study for membership of the Institution of Fire Engineers (IFE) for those involved in fire safety and prevention work, or study for a general postgraduate management qualification.