4 reasons you shouldn't become a firefighter

Pursuing a firefighting career with misguided motives will make for an unhappy career choice

Several times a week, I get an email or a phone call from someone who wants to become a firefighter. Working in the fire service is a noble calling and something that many still seek out.

However, just because the quantity of candidates is there doesn't mean the quality is there. There are a number of candidates who may want to become a firefighter when, in fact, they should not.

Obviously, what one fire department or fire chief may be looking for in a firefighter can be slightly or even drastically different than the next fire department. Taken a step further, a leadership change at the top of a fire department or jurisdiction could change the type of candidate a department may hire.

Photo/Joe Thomas of Greenbox Photography

However, we can make some generalizations. Here are four reasons why you should not become a firefighter.

1. You're only in it for the wages

Too many future firefighters get mesmerized by the dollar signs. Salaries for firefighters vary greatly around the United States, and it is important to get paid a fair wage for the work you perform.

In some regions, firefighters are barely paid minimum wage. In other areas, firefighters are paid very competitive salaries that allow them to live comfortably (I didn't say extravagantly, just comfortably) if they make wise financial decisions over the course of their career.

Salaries can and do change, based on a number of reasons, most of which are out of your control. What may be a low salary at the start of your career may change for the better over time, or it may change for the worse.

Don't do this career to get rich. If you're all about the money, find a higher-paying career.

2. You're only in it for the benefits

Many consider becoming a firefighter for the retirement and healthcare benefits. Anyone who has had their finger on this checker has seen that pension costs and healthcare costs continue to skyrocket every year, sometimes at the rate of 10% or more per year.

Many cities, counties and states have had to drastically modify their benefits packages so that they can continue to pay their employees without going bankrupt. Most communities are not swimming in revenue. With employee wages and benefits typically making up over 90% of a fire department's operating costs, there is not a lot of wiggle room when the expenditures are exceeding the revenues.

Many firefighters have to pay more out of pocket to keep their current benefits, especially if they also want to keep their salaries intact, not to mention getting raises in the future. In short, realize that benefits can and will change, and often not for the better.

Do what you can to ensure you are part of the solution, not the problem. That means don't complain about your department reducing the benefits when you know the costs are rising, especially if you don't want to pay more out of pocket for them.

3. You're only in it for the schedule

Firefighters typically work 10 24-hour shifts per month in some form. There are a number of different schedules that can and may change over the course of your career. No one schedule is better than the other.

When I got hired 20 years ago, we were on the 3/4 schedule: work a day, off a day, work a day, off a day, work a day and off four days. Some departments work a day and get two days off. Other departments work two days in a row and get four days off.

They all usually average the same number of hours that most firefighters typically work, which seems to be about 56 hours per week. I honestly didn't care what schedule I worked when I got hired because I just wanted to be a firefighter.

It's funny when I talk to firefighters around the country and we get on the subject of schedules. Some think we're crazy for doing two days on, four days off when they are working one day on, two days off. Or, they are working 10-hour and 14-hour shifts as some East Coast departments do. When I ask our personnel about those schedules, some think those firefighters are crazy.

Realize that the "great" schedule you have when you get hired may change for the better or worse. And you may not have a choice in your schedule, because the fire chief typically has the right to alter schedules to best meet the needs of the department.

4. You're only in it to fight fire and save lives

I hate to be the person who bursts your bubble, but the average firefighter may only see fire once a month, and may never grab someone from the clutches of death.

In most fire departments, EMS responses make up over 70% of the dispatched calls. Of those medical events, the overwhelming majority only require basic life support or EMT-level skills, if even that.

In most fire departments, fires make up less than 10% of the calls. Actual working fires may even make up less than 5%. Ask most firefighters who have been on the job for at least five years and I'll bet the majority have never rescued anyone at a fire.

If you're getting into this line of work to fight fire and save lives, you're going to be disappointed and possibly unhappy with your choice of occupation. Seriously, I have seen it happen when firefighters with a year or two on the job say how unhappy they are because their department doesn't fight that much fire and because they have yet to save anyone's life.

Didn't they do their homework or research? Or were they too focused on the sexy image of what firefighters do that is often portrayed in the movies or on TV? Were they too focused on the dollar signs and the 10 working days a month?

While it is true that we do save many lives directly and indirectly through aggressive fire prevention and public education efforts, we typically don't get to see the fruits of our labor.

Consider your choices

Please remember that these are just my opinions, and as everyone knows, opinions are a dime a dozen.

Ultimately, if you choose to get into the fire service for reasons other than the aforementioned four, there is a great chance that you will have a long and successful career and that you are happy with the choice you made. 

This article, originally published in April 2015, has been updated.

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