Firefighter 1 training: What prospective firefighters need to know about joining the ranks

We’re looking for fit, mentally tough individuals who can manage their time and demonstrate a commitment to serve


There is a national staffing shortage throughout the fire service. Scores of firefighters are leaving the service due to retirement or new opportunities; others are simply leaving the apparatus floor, proudly promoting into higher positions but leaving holes in the rank and file.

Volunteerism within the fire service has been steadily declining for years for myriad reasons – increased time and training commitments, lack of flexibility from employers and lack of interest in serving, to name a few. And the same decline in membership is now occurring throughout the career ranks.

The good news: This staffing crisis has created ample opportunities for people looking for a new career serving their communities. We are looking for people who are willing to live a life of service over self, commit to a team mindset, and work hard. If that sounds appealing, then we have the best job in the world for you, but be advised, there are some factors you should consider prior to attending a recruit school.

Students must possess honesty, integrity, and passion and carry those same values through recruit school and beyond into their careers.
Students must possess honesty, integrity, and passion and carry those same values through recruit school and beyond into their careers. (Photo/Trevor Frodge)

What we’re looking for

Let’s start with the basics – how to become a firefighter. In some cases, new members are selected through a rigorous testing process and then sent to their city’s internal recruit academy. This is the norm for most metropolitan cities, but in many other cases, prospective firefighters may attend fire school at a local trade school or college.

Regardless of the path, there are several factors to consider as you start your fire service journey:

  • Fitness: Learn the fitness standards and how to properly train for fire school.
  • Time management: As a prospective firefighter, you should also train yourself to have good time management skills so you can balance the many hours of program study.
  • Mental toughness: Students considering fire school should also consider their mental toughness for the scenarios placed on them and ensure they have a winning mindset to complete the mission.
  • Personal traits: Most importantly, prospective firefighters must have integrity, passion and humility. It’s important to understand that the job is more than a badge or a T-shirt; it’s a brotherhood of honorable men and women who have forged a path for you.

Let’s review these factors in detail.

Fitness first

I’ve been privileged to teach fire recruits for the past 10 years in trade schools, and it cannot be overstated that fitness matters. Many students enter a fire program and simply cannot function due to poor training. Some are out of shape, even obese, while others have done nothing in advance to train the important muscle groups used in firefighting.

In the case of the overweight students, the answer is simple: Work out and eat right. There are heavy firefighters, which is its own epidemic within our ranks, but there are also heavy-yet-fit firefighters who can perform any fireground task with pinpoint accuracy and proficiency because they are acclimated to the rigors of the job. Students have not gained that level of proficiency so they must start with fitness standards.

To prepare for firefighter fitness, do some cardio. Get used to running and build up your stamina, not only for your heart health but also to help your respiratory drive and ability to breathe.

Change up the cardio workouts by running hills and stairs to condition your legs as well. Our equipment weighs nearly 80-90 pounds, and that’s before you add the tools and hose we need to carry. Now combine that with breathing air out of a bottle strapped to your back (your SCBA) and you’ll quickly realize that without good cardio endurance, you’re going to run out of air.

Cardio fitness alone won’t cut it, though. Get into a weight room and lift. I believe total body fitness workouts do the best to mimic fireground performance. Consider CrossFit-style workouts or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for 20-30 minutes to build endurance and further improve your cardiovascular resistance. Free weights and targeted exercises help as well, but ditch the bench press. Focus on your legs, back and shoulders. These muscle groups are used constantly in the fire service, from carrying ladders to deploying hoselines to dragging victims. Get used to bear crawls, drags and farmer carries to begin training, then adjust your needs to what works for you.

Time management matters

One of the biggest pain points for students is time management. The beginnings of a career are truly forged within fire school and one of the largest pieces of the puzzle is how you manage time.

In the fire service, your time will be filled with everything from projects in the firehouse to reports and organizing your day for daily equipment checks, maintenance and training. The building blocks and fundamentals for time management starts in recruit training and with learning and reading the textbook. Firefighting is a highly technical process and there is more to it than just “putting the wet stuff on the red stuff.” There are tactical considerations, hoseline sizes, couplings, ladder placement, fire dynamics, search techniques, and a whirlwind of NFPA standards and codes that you must know. The only way to learn them is to read the book, take notes and study – and that takes time.

I often see students who wait to the last moment and cram study, then fail an exam or perform poorly on a practical. This builds terrible habits to take forward because poor performance and cutting corners are unacceptable in the real world. We don’t get a second chance to rescue a victim from a burning home or to resuscitate a child on the side of the road. We must work at 100%, and that starts with good study habits and time management.

Mental toughness

Speaking of working at 100%, a prospective student must have good mental toughness. Some recruits quit and that is OK. They discover that the fire service is simply not for them and move on to something else in life. Quite honestly, not everyone can perform our job. We need winners and fortitude within our ranks, not someone who will quit if it gets too hard, and believe me, there are times when our job is very hard.

In recruit school, we give students various drills to complete, drills that escalate in complexity as the training program moves forward. There are consequences to failure. In school, those consequences might include passionate lectures from instructors and re-running drills. In the real world, however, the firefighters’ actions could put themselves and others at risk; the consequences of failure are much greater.

Our job is inherently dangerous, and while not every fire is a life-or-death event, it can quickly become one if someone isn’t tactically proficient and mentally focused. Students must be mentally tough, not only for the complex scenarios and rippings from instructors, but also to be prepared to endure some of the awful things that firefighters and EMS providers are exposed to over the course of a career. They also must know how to deal with stress and trauma and to seek help if needed. Firefighters and EMS providers will see death, illness and grotesque injuries, but we also save so many more people than we lose.

Personal traits

Being a firefighter takes a certain personality. We need students who understand that the job is more than a cool T-shirt and (sometimes) a paycheck. The Maltese cross that adorns all firefighters’ uniforms has meaning and weight. Its lineage dates back to the Crusades, when soldiers from Malta carrying their crest, a cross, rushed into the flames to save their fallen comrades in battle. Your attitude matters.

Students must possess honesty, integrity, and passion and carry those same values through recruit school and beyond into their careers. We are the only profession where a mother will hand us her child with complete trust that we will care for that child and do our best to save them. We must never violate the trust that the public places on us.

Firefighters must be passionate about the job. This comes with time and exposure. To teach passion, we as instructors must show patience and understanding as new recruits begin diving deeper and deeper into the fire service. Passion is key because it breeds firefighters to be dedicated to the profession, and to not treat it as a hobby. Like the Maltese cross, our service has meaning, often with very high consequences for poor performance. Passionate new firefighters excel, and it is learned and introduced in recruit schools.

Recruits and students must also have humility and an understanding that the fire school or recruit program takes a raw student with very little knowledge of the fire service and turns them into a probationary, entry-level firefighter. Probies have been taught to search the same structures and to fight fire in a building that does not burn down. They’ve been supervised and have been provided safe training that may not match the realities of the street. For instance, in my state, the maximum timeframe to deploy an extension ladder to a window for rescue is 10 minutes. There is no time limit for deploying a hoseline for fire attack. These are unacceptable benchmarks in my opinion, so as instructors, we teach students to deploy ladders faster than 10 minutes and to deploy a hoseline within 60 seconds.

While our probationary members who graduate are skilled, they’re still very new and there is a whole world of the fire service that they must learn to navigate. Being humble and learning from veteran members, listening to their stories, and diving into the job will turn raw skills into sharpened instruments with peak fireground performance. It will also get you accepted into the brotherhood.

‘The best job in the world’

The fire service is a noble profession – one that’s often called “the best job in the world.” I would agree that it is, but I would add that it is not for everyone. However, if you find yourself wanting to serve others and to help your community, I encourage you to find a program or apply to join the ranks. It isn’t easy – because firefighting can be hard, laborious, and intense work – but it is good work. Being fit, being passionate, being mentally prepared, and being honest and humble will lead to not only a great school experience, but also a long and productive career with a lifetime of service over self.

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