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At Your Service: The making of a firefighter

By Sarah Higginbotham on April 30th, 2008 •

Every 19 seconds a bell rings somewhere in the U.S.

And tonight when that happens in a fire station down the street and in stations all over the country, thousands of men and women will wake up and step into boots and pants placed bedside in anticipation. Rushing down stairwells or sliding down poles to meet their crews below, they will grab their gear and climb into trucks. They'll hunker down and listen to headphones relaying in clip terms what's waiting for them. For many of us, a job with qualifications like "courage," "endurance," "a sense of public service," and "the ability to live and work with others under conditions of stress and danger for extended periods" is unlike any we will ever apply for. So who does? Firefighters like Dan Murray. While he is just one of over a million dedicated paid and volunteer firefighters in the U.S., he is also part of the elite 1.23 percent that made the cut for the Seattle Fire Department (SFD)--a place even more competitive to get into than Harvard.

Becoming a firefighter

Dan has been climbing towards a profession in firefighting for most of his 24 years--often burning the candle at both ends to get there. He harbors a rare kind of flame found in those who dedicate their lives to serving their communities; though, like most firefighters, he won't readily admit it.

So what does it take to join their ranks? How do they ever become ready for the unexpected? Dan's story isn't a bad place to start. Less than a quarter of all firefighters are under age 29, making Dan one of the youngest to serve at a large department.

The testing process

Depending on the department, testing procedures vary. Some departments, like SFD, require all of these elements, while smaller departments or volunteer positions may have abbreviated processes.

  • Application
  • Written & Oral Exams
  • Medical Exam
  • Training Program
  • Probationary Period
  • Psychological Exam
  • Employment Interview
  • Background Check
  • Physical Test
Getting in
  • Check the prereqs. Municipal firefighters usually must be at least 18-years-old with a high school diploma or GED.
  • Consider classes. Fire Science programs at community colleges can give you a leg up as you enter the job market.
  • Plan on EMT: Most firefighters need to have their Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) certification. Some departments will help new recruits or even applicants become certified, but you can also take courses at community colleges.
  • Hunt for jobs: Use newspapers, internet subscription services, firehouse.com, networking, city or county personnel offices, and individual fire departments to discover job openings.
Q&A with Dan Murray

Over one and a half million crews every year head to the scene of a fire they are expected to put out to save property they don't own and people they don't know. Roughly 15 million times a year they rush to provide medical aid, calming the anxious and helping the hurt. We wanted to know what that was like, so we asked...

Q. What was training in drill school like?
A. "Drill school is very, very physically, but probably more so mentally, tough on all the individuals that have to go through it. It's a huge deal, huge mind game because everything you do could cost you your job. In Seattle, we have time standards in drill school for certain evolutions. An evolution is whatever they deem a test. They give you 'x' amount of time, and if you can't do the evolution in under say, 2 minutes (1:59 to pass, 2 minutes is a fail), you get one more chance. And if you can't, then you're out."

Q. When did you decide you wanted to become a firefighter?
A. "Kindergarten. Captain (he's a captain now) Preston Bhang, who works in Seattle, came in on a show-and-tell day. His son, instead of bringing in like a toy or something cool, he brought in his dad who was a firefighter. And I just thought, man, this guy is the coolest guy in the world."

Q. You've been able to help people since you've been with the department--how does that feel?
A. "It feels good. It's really not about self-gratification. This job isn't meant to make you feel better. But it is an amazing deal when you can actually make a difference in somebody's life. Whether that's bandaging up a simple cut or bringing them back with CPR. It doesn't happen like you see on TV. People don't just pop up, so we typically don't know [they are okay] unless they come back to the station. But it's one of the most amazing feelings when somebody comes back and says, 'oh, thank you so much for saving me.'"

Q. Would you say that's one of the best things about what you do?
A. "Yeah, it's definitely right up there. Everything that we do, we're helping somebody out. People call us when they have no more answers--they don't know how to fix this problem whether it's a medical call, a fire call. We go out when people's pipes break and are leaking and flooding everywhere. We go on seagull rescues. We do everything you can imagine. We're the people that everybody calls when they don't have anymore answers. For me, the most important thing is that I like being depended on. I like people to know that they can call me and I can come there and fix their problem. I like the whole city, the whole community, depending on me 'x' amount days of the week to serve them whenever anything goes bad."

Dan is not alone in serving his community. Across the country, young people are applying in droves for public service positions that thrive on their energy and optimism. Whether it's teaching in a public school, enlisting in the military or joining programs like AmeriCorps, these new recruits face unique challenges and reap priceless rewards. To them, we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be paid in full.



bls.gov; 02138mag.com; usfa.dhs.gov; Thank you: Seattle Fire Dept. & Station 17