How to become a firefighter

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Fire engine parked in a fire station

Do you imagine that firefighters spend all day drinking tea while they wait for the alarm to sound, before they throw on their uniform and slide down the fireman’s pole ready to put out a fire or rescue a kitten from a tree?

There’s actually a lot more to this demanding, challenging job than that. Firefighters control fires and rescue people in other emergencies too, including explosions, bombs, building collapses and road accidents.

They also educate people about fire safety and prevention, and spend a lot of their time working in the local community and learning new skills and techniques.

A career in the fire service can be extremely challenging and also rewarding. If you’re physically fit, enjoy talking to people, and the idea of being stuck behind a desk all day doesn’t appeal, it’s a career worth considering.

In this guide we'll look at how to become a firefighter in the UK, including the skills you'll need, what firefighter training involves, and how much do firefighters get paid in the UK. 

What do firefighters do?

Firefighters outside

The main role of a firefighter is to control and put out fires

Firefighters attend emergencies – the obvious one is a fire, but there are other events when fire crews are needed to work alongside other emergency services too, like road traffic accidents, chemical spills and floods.

But this is only one part of their job and a lot of their time is taken up doing other, just as important, tasks like talking to people in their community about fire safety and prevention.

Firefighters visit organisations (like schools), businesses and people in their own homes to carry out fire safety visits and give advice.

They are also constantly learning and practicing – training in new skills, going to lectures and keeping themselves physically fit.

A wholetime firefighter is someone who does the job full-time whereas a retained firefighter is on call and only attends the fire station when there’s an emergency. Retained firefighters have other jobs but must be prepared to drop everything and report for duty within minutes when needed.

What skills do I need to become a firefighter?

Firstly, it goes without saying that you need to be physically fit and you’ll be tested on this as part of the application process, so you need to be committed to keeping this up throughout your training and career.

You’ll be talking to, and advising, lots of different people in your community, from children to the elderly, so you’ll need to have excellent communication and people skills, and a sensitive approach. Being able to work as part of a team and to follow instructions is also absolutely essential.

You’ll need to be able to stay calm and professional under pressure, even when dealing with people who are badly injured and incredibly distressed. This is definitely not a job for the fainthearted.

You’ll also be the sort of person who can think on your feet, using your initiative to solve problems. 

According to fireservice.co.uk the main personal attributes needed to become a firefighter are:

  • Confidence.
  • Resilience.
  • Adaptability.
  • Ability to communicate effectively.
  • Integrity.
  • Commitment to diversity.

What qualifications do I need to become a firefighter?

Girl studying outside

Each fire brigade sets its own entry requirements

You need to have achieved 9-4 grades in GCSE maths and English language, or a level two equivalent (like a vocational qualification). You’ll need to provide your qualification certificates as part of the application process.

You don’t need to have done A-levels, a degree or any further vocational qualifications although some applicants will have done.

But check with your local fire service for their specific requirements as they may vary. The London Fire Brigade has a useful careers website which gives you lots of handy information about how to become a firefighter.

What firefighter training is involved?

All new firefighters are required to undergo extensive training that normally lasts between 12 and 16 weeks. Even firefighters who have been doing the job for a number of years are required to do ongoing training to ensure they're at the top of their game.

Training involves getting to know more about the physical and practical aspects of the job as well as learning more about the causes and behavior of fires. As part of your training as a firefighter, you'll learn about:

  • Coping with smoke inhalation.
  • Using firefighting equipment properly.
  • How fire behaves in different types of buildings and environments.
  • Resuscitation techniques and first aid.

Once you've completed your firefighting training, for a period, you'll be required to shadow other experienced firefighters, so you can improve your learning even further. Most fire services require new firefighters to have a probation period of 2 years where your development is monitored closely. Throughout this time, many firefighters also study towards gaining additional qualifications like a Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Emergency Fire and Rescue Services Operations in the Community.

  • fire behaviour and firefighting
  • basic rescue techniques and entering smoke-filled rooms
  • putting on protective clothing and using breathing apparatus
  • handling foam and other types of fire extinguishers
  • using ladders, hoses, knots and other equipment
  • first aid, and health and safety
- See more at: https://nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk/advice/planning/jobprofiles/Pages/firefighter.aspx#sthash.lOAV77Dg.dpufOnce you've completed your firefighting training, for a period, you'll be required to shadow other experienced firefighters, so you can improve your learning even further. Most fire services require new firefighters to have a probation period of 2 years where your development is monitored closely.Throughout this time, many firefighters also study towards gaining additional qualifications like a Level 3 NVQ Diploma in Emergency Fire and Rescue Services Operations in the Community.
  • fire behaviour and firefighting
  • basic rescue techniques and entering smoke-filled rooms
  • putting on protective clothing and using breathing apparatus
  • handling foam and other types of fire extinguishers
  • using ladders, hoses, knots and other equipment
  • first aid, and health and safety
- See more at: https://nationalcareersservice.direct.gov.uk/advice/planning/jobprofiles/Pages/firefighter.aspx#sthash.lOAV77Dg.dpuf

What else do I need to know before I apply?

You don’t need any previous firefighting experience or qualifications to apply but you’ll need to have the right to live and work in the UK.

You must be at least 17.5 years old when you apply, so that you’re 18 by the time you start your training.

You’ll need to have a full UK driving licence and to have completed a Large Goods Vehicle (LGV) theory test by the time you start training.

You will need to pass medical and eye examinations (you may still be able to apply if you wear glasses or contact lenses – click here to find out more).

Firefighters work unsociable hours – this is not a 9-5 job. Your shifts will include nights, weekends and public holidays. During emergencies, you may find yourself working for several hours without any breaks.

What is the application process?

Girl completing an application form

There are several stages to becoming a firefighter

Check with your local fire service to get information about the application process. Some (but not all) may require you to have lived in the area for three years before you can even apply, and you’ll need to provide proof of address.  

There are several stages to becoming a firefighter. If you get past the application form, you’ll be invited to attend an assessment, interview, and physical and medical tests. Your references will also be checked.

The assessment is usually a mixture of tests like group exercises to see how you work in a team and to assess your leadership skills. There will also be visual estimation and dictation tests. You can download a sample written test here to get an idea of what this bit will entail.

The physical tests will include things like a ladder climb, casualty evacuation, ladder lift and equipment assembly. You will also have to negotiate an enclosed space with a gas mask on to see how claustrophobic you are.

You could fail at any stage of the application process, so you must make sure that you’re fully prepared – both physically and mentally. Becoming a firefighter is tough and there’s a lot of competition for jobs so make sure that this is definitely the right career for you.

What do firefighters get paid UK?

According to the Royal Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service the average salary for a trainee firefighter is around £22,000.

As you progress in your career you could climb up the ladder into management, earning up to around £55,000 as an area manager.

Where do I start?

Firstly, find your local fire service – you can search on the Chief Fire Officers Association website.

Make sure that you read all the information on the individual fire service’s website about the recruitment and application process so that you fully understand what’s required of you.

Image credits

Main image by Carl Spencer via Flickr; firefighters by starmanseries via Flickr; student by Francis via Flickr; paperwork by Madeleine Burleson via Flickr.

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