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Firefighting isn't just about battling blazes. Most calls firefighters respond to are actually medical emergencies. That's why most jurisdictions require firefighters to obtain certification as an EMT or paramedic. Once they've completed basic medical training, firefighters also need to complete fire academy courses and apply for state firefighter certification. Becoming a firefighter can take four years or more of training and apprenticeships.
Firefighters need certification as an emergency medical technician. EMT-Basic training requires about 100 hours of instruction, including practice in a hospital or ambulance. EMT-Basic students must pass an exam testing the ability to assess patient condition, handle trauma or cardiac emergencies and clear blocked airways. They also learn to immobilize injured patients and give oxygen. EMT-Intermediate, or Advanced EMT, entails an additional 1,000 hours of education in the care of critically ill or injured patients, including use of complex airway devices and administering medications. To earn paramedic certification, firefighters need to achieve both Basic and Advanced EMT levels.
Fire departments increasingly look for candidates with certification as a paramedic. Certification programs typically require at least 1,300 hours of training in advanced medical skills, such as stitching wounds or giving intravenous medications. It can take up to two years to earn credentials. Firefighters learning paramedic practices usually perform hospital rotations that emphasize emergency-department skills and train them to provide advanced life support to patients. Aspiring firefighters learn to defibrillate patients, insert breathing tubes and catheterize major veins and arteries to monitor blood pressure and take blood samples.
To prepare for state firefighter certification, entry-level firefighters must complete training in a fire science program. Instruction lasts several weeks and teaches building codes, emergency medical procedures and prevention techniques. Plus, programs train students to fight fires with standard equipment, such as fire extinguishers, ladders, axes and chainsaws. After academy training, firefighters need to complete an apprenticeship of up to four years. Some fire departments send students for additional education with the National Fire Academy in Maryland, where they learn disaster preparedness, public education and how to handle hazardous materials.
After finishing medical and fire-academy training, most firefighters must earn state certification. In Florida, for example, paid firefighters must complete the state’s 398-hour Firefighter Minimum Standards Course and pass written and practical exams. Firefighters in Washington must earn at least 80 percent on the state’s written exam, and pass a practical-skills test. Most states adopt certification criteria established by the National Fire Protection Association.
To qualify for firefighter training, candidates must meet several physical and academic conditions. They usually need a high school diploma or GED, and they have to pass a physical exam that screens them for general health and drug use. Plus, academies test applicants’ math and reading skills. Each candidate must also pass a timed physical-ability assessment, including a sledgehammer swing, a stair climb, an equipment carry, a ladder raise and extension and a fire-hose drag.