How to Become a Firefighter
What do firefighters do?
Firefighters today do much more than fight fires. They provide rescue services, handle hazardous chemical emergencies and conduct fire prevention, investigation and inspection activities. Firefighters also do most of the cleaning and maintenance work required to keep their tools, equipment, buildings and apparatus ready for immediate response. Many Illinois communities depend on their fire departments to provide emergency medical services and sometimes ambulance services. If you become a firefighter, you will be assigned to a team, called a "company," that provides some or all of these services.
In Illinois, firefighters usually work between 53 to 56 hours per week, arranged with one 24-hour work period followed by 48 hours off duty. Additional days off are provided periodically to comply with the Fair Labor Standards Act. Firefighters eat, sleep and work in a fire station with a team of firefighters.
Does Illinois law establish requirements for firefighters?
Illinois law requires that most cities and fire protection districts with full-time, paid firefighters have either a fire and police or civil service commission. These commissions handle the hiring, disciplining and promoting of firefighters. Illinois law sets some guidelines as to how this is done, but local communities, especially home rule units, have considerable latitude in accomplishing these regulations.
What are the minimum requirements?
In most communities, you must be at least 21 years of age. A few departments will hire 18-year-olds if they meet certain minimum requirements. To be considered for full-time employment, you must be between the ages of 21 and 35 and meet specific minimum requirements of the fire department. You will need a high school diploma or equivalent, and some departments may have higher education requirements. Some communities require you to be a resident, or become one, after joining the department.
How do I begin the process?
First, go to a fire department or city personnel office to see if they are currently hiring or plan to hire in the near future. Learn about the firefighter employment requirements in that area. Individuals from fire or city personnel departments can tell you which testing procedures will be administered during the employment process, and when this testing will take place.
Illinois law requires that candidate selection be based on merit, so most communities have specific written tests, physical agility tests and oral interviews to determine qualified applicants for the job. From these tests, an eligibility list of successful candidates is established. If you are considered for a position, these may be required: a psychological profile, a polygraph, a medical evaluation including drug testing, and a background check.
If I am hired, what's next?
If you are hired, you will begin a probationary period of at least one year. Most full-time firefighters are required to become certified by the State of Illinois during this probationary period. This requires participation in specified training programs at the local level, at a community college or at a state-approved academy. At the end of the training, the candidate must pass the state written and practical certification exam.
Communities that provide emergency medical services will also require that you become a state-certified emergency medical technician or paramedic. This training could extend your probationary period. If you pass this training and show aptitude as a firefighter during the probationary period, you will then become a permanent member of the fire department.
What can I do to improve my chances of becoming a firefighter?
Go to a college or university that offers programs in Fire Science and Emergency Medical Technician. Many departments prefer candidates who have already met state certification requirements for Firefighter II, EMT-B and/or Paramedic. If you are a recent high school graduate, and are not yet 21, you should enroll at a college that offers Emergency Medical Technician and Introduction to Fire Science. This is a good way to work toward educational requirements while waiting to meet the age requirements.
The State of Illinois will not certify anyone who is not currently a member of an agency providing fire or emergency services, so check with your local fire departments about serving as a part-time or voluntary firefighter. Many of these departments will accept members at age 18, if they are currently certified as an EMT-B, and many of them are looking for candidates. You may be able to complete some certifications while employed as a part-time or volunteer firefighter.
Where can I find more information?
Web sites such as www.firecareers.com and www.firehire.com, or www.publicsafetyrecruitment.com or any fire department web site, are very helpful. Or, simply type "fire fighting" in Google or another search engine to determine what jobs are available and where and when the hiring process will take place.
Please read the rest of the information on this site and learn about the programs and how to get started. After you have done this, go to the online Class Schedule and follow the prompts to search for classes. Registration begins approximately eight weeks before classes begin and continues until the first class meeting. Some classes have prerequisites and must be completed before you can register. Classes fill up quickly, so register early.
Fire fighting and emergency service is a rewarding career that requires a certain amount of sacrifice and a willingness to endure some unusual and difficult circumstances. You'll need to be a team player. However, a career as a firefighter also offers ample pay and benefits, as well as a sense of having made a difference in your community. It is a career well worth your effort.