Best Careers 2009: Firefighter

US News

Overview. Most prestigious careers require many years of higher education. One exception is firefighter. According to a Harris poll, after scientist and physician, the career that the public rates as most prestigious is firefighter. That's probably because in addition to their well-publicized bravery after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, firefighters are often first responders to medical emergencies. They save people trapped in burning buildings, hurt in car accidents, and endangered by earthquakes and floods, and also clean up hazardous spills. If another terrorist attack hits the United States, firefighters will assuredly be on the scene saving many lives.

This career's appeal goes well beyond prestige. Firefighters are truly in a helping profession, one in which success is frequent. Plus, typically only a high school diploma or two-year degree is required for entry into the career. That makes firefighting one of the rare jobs in which you get to assume great responsibility at a young age.

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And firefighters aren't limited to careers in the firehouse. They are, for example, employed at airports, manufacturing plants, and in forests.

Firefighting's danger might turn some away from this career. After all, every time a firefighter enters a burning building, he or she is exposed to flames and toxic smoke and the risk of walls toppling or floors caving in. In the United States, 92 male and one female firefighter died between Jan. 1 and Oct. 29, 2008.

And most firefighters must live a few days each week in a firehouse, where they're often awakened by a middle-of-the-night alarm. Firefighters' frequent exposure to stress, smoke, and hazardous materials can do long-term damage to their health. Firefighters have above-average rates of cardiovascular disease. Nevertheless, according to a survey by the National Opinion Research Center, except for the clergy, firefighters ranked No. 1 in job satisfaction.

A Day in the Life. This is far more than any firefighter would experience in a single day, but it will give an idea of this career's range of activities. You've just been off for four days, so now it's time for your three days of living, dorm style, in the firehouse. It's your turn to cook. Even though firefighters love to eat hearty, they're also starting to try to eat healthy. So, you pull out your copy of Fire Hall Cooking and pick out "Greens with Beef Teriyaki" as the lunch main course. You pick up what you need at the supermarket, and then you're the chef. It's like cooking for a hungry family of 12.

The alarm rings. The 911 dispatcher sends you to a reported fire in a college dorm. So, it's into your heavy protective gear, which you hate because in a burning building it could be well over 100 degrees and the protective gear is very hot. Wouldn't you know it, a false alarm -- a prank by a drunken student. (In fact, 1 in 10 fire calls are false alarms, and from 1997 to 2007, 33 firefighters died in responding to those calls.) After you return and finish a convivial lunch, three of you repair to your study group -- you're taking a required continuing education class. This one is on responding to a nuclear or biochemical attack. Next, you make a routine inspection of a manufacturing plant to ensure that the building is up to code.

A few hours later, the alarm sounds again, but this time it's for real. Not a fire, but an apparent heart attack. All the firefighters are EMTs, but you're a full-fledged paramedic. Your captain assigns you the lead on this call. You do all you can, but the victim dies in your arms. That had happened to some of your buddies, but this is a first for you.

You lie in bed, unable to fall asleep. Finally, you do -- and the alarm rings. One of the city's boarded-up buildings is an inferno. You enter it to see if any squatters are there. Amid flames and smoke, you see a woman, physically fine but paralyzed by fear, and you hustle her out and then help your comrades put out the fire. You search for signs of arson.

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Salary Data

Median (with eight years in the field): $49,300

25th to 75th percentile (with eight or more years of experience): $40,400-$70,500

(Data provided by PayScale.com)

Training

A high-school diploma has been the traditional standard, but, as with many careers, education requirements are being ratcheted up as society sends ever larger proportions of students to college. Today, a two-year college degree in fire science or fire prevention is becoming the norm, with a four-year degree often a plus. A list of colleges and universities offering fire programs is at usfa.fema.gov.

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