The Job and What's Involved

Fire EngineFirefighters/officers are responsible for reducing the risk of death and injury, and damage to property, in emergencies and disaster situations. Increasingly they are concerned with preventing incidents, rather than reacting to them, and fighting fires can be just a small part of their everyday work.

Their work in responding to emergencies may involve:

  • Putting out fires and rescuing people and animals.
  • Providing casualty care at road accidents and freeing people who are trapped.
  • Rescuing people from disasters, such as floods and rail or air crashes.
  • Dealing with the spillage of chemicals or other hazardous substances.
  • Responding to bomb alerts and incidents involving biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

Their work in community fire safety may involve:

  • Giving talks and demonstrations to groups in the community, eg in schools, offices and factories.
  • Advising individuals in their homes on fire safety and conducting fire safety checks for those seen to be particularly at risk.
  • Inspecting premises such as factories, hotels and shops to make sure that they meet fire safety requirements.
  • Working with children and young people involved in fire-related crime and anti-social behaviour.
  • Advising organisations, eg hospitals, nursing homes and schools, on fire safety.

They would also be involved in routine station duties, which may include:

  • Inspecting, cleaning and maintaining appliances and equipment.
  • Carrying out practice drills.
  • Physical training.
  • Studying or learning new techniques.

Senior officers lead in emergency situations, but their work also includes management and policy work.

Firefighters work with appliances (fire engines), which carry a wide range of equipment, including axes, hoses, ropes, cutting equipment, ladders and lifting gear. Firefighters also use equipment such as portable breathing appliances, personal radio sets and thermal imaging cameras to help locate victims. In dealing with injured people, firefighters use first aid techniques.

Firefighters may work full time (known as wholetime), or part time as 'retained duty system' firefighters. Retained firefighters usually combine their work in the fire and rescue service with their main job.

Wholetime firefighters work an average of 42 hours a week, with a variety of shift patterns. Duties include day and night shifts, as well as weekend and bank holiday work. Retained firefighters are on call on agreed days and times.

Wholetime firefighters spend most of their time at the fire station, training, maintaining the equipment and doing routine office work.

Working conditions can involve:

  • Extreme heat and cold.
  • Working at heights.
  • Working in enclosed spaces.
  • Entering smoke-filled buildings.
  • Working in all weather conditions.
  • Exposure to danger from buildings collapsing, vehicle fumes and explosions.

Firefighters wear protective clothing and a helmet. They wear special protective suits when working with chemical spills.

Newly-appointed wholetime firefighters earn at least £19,918 a year. Retained firefighters are paid an annual fee (a retainer), plus a turnout fee for each emergency attended. They are also paid for training sessions and for duties like equipment maintenance.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

Firefighters are employed throughout the UK. Most work for local authority fire and rescue services. Over 38,000 wholetime firefighters and just over 16,500 retained firefighters work for these services. Around 630 people work as volunteer firefighters in Scotland. The number of firefighters has decreased slightly since 2004.

There is a lot of competition for entry to wholetime work, with many more applicants than vacancies. There is, however, a serious national shortage of retained firefighters.

People interested in this work should contact local fire and rescue services.

There are other fire services that employ firefighters. They include the British Airports Authority (BAA), which provides fire brigades at airports, and the Defence Fire Service, which provides fire services to military and other defence sites. Non- BAA airports and some large private organisations have their own fire services. The RAF also employs firefighters.

Education and Training

There are no set exam qualifications needed for entry. Applicants have to pass a written entrance test that involves working with numbers, understanding information, situational awareness and problem solving.

Candidates must also pass a medical and tests of fitness and strength. They need good eyesight, with some services allowing spectacles or contact lenses, and normal colour vision. Some services require a full driving licence.

Apprenticeships may be available with some fire and rescue services, but are not offered by all services.

Apprenticeships and Advanced Apprenticeships provide structured training with an employer. As an apprentice you must be paid at least £95 per week; you may well be paid more. A recent survey found that the average wage for apprentices was £170 a week. Your pay will depend on the sector in which you work, your age, the area where you live and the stage at which you have arrived in the Apprenticeship.

Entry to Employment (e2e) can help to prepare those who are not yet ready for an Apprenticeship. In addition, Young Apprenticeships may be available for 14- to 16-year-olds. More information is available from a Connexions personal adviser or at

There are different arrangements for Apprenticeships in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For further information visit My World of Work, Careers Wales; and for Northern Ireland contact

A Few More Exams You Might Need

Full-time induction training for wholetime firefighters usually takes place at a central training centre. It lasts between 12 and 20 weeks, depending on the fire and rescue service, and includes theory and practice. It may involve study at home during evenings and weekends. Trainees learn fire safety standards and protective measures for fire safety education and enforcement work. They also learn how to make buildings safe from fire and develop the skills necessary to teach and advise people.

Training includes:

- Fire behaviour and basic firefighting rescue techniques
- Using protective clothing, including breathing apparatus
- Entering smoke-filled rooms
- Using foam and other fire extinguishing media
- Using ladders, hoses, knots, hydraulic and other equipment
- First aid

Trainees also learn how to deal with road traffic accidents and incidents involving chemicals, as well as biological, radiological and nuclear materials.

After completing the induction training, entrants join a fire station for a probationary period of up to two years, learning from experienced firefighters. During this time their performance is continually assessed.

Firefighters in some services are encouraged to work towards NVQ/SVQ Level 3 in Emergency Fire Services - Operations in the Community. Some firefighters are encouraged to gain specialist qualifications, for example a Large Goods Vehicle (LGV) licence for driving fire appliances.

Retained firefighters undertake induction training over a series of weekends and attend weekly practice drill nights. Occasionally, they may attend short training courses held during the day. They learn the same procedures and techniques as wholetime firefighters.

There is a training and development system for all firefighters, known as the Integrated Personal Development System (IPDS).

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

A firefighter/officer should:

  • Have stamina and a high level of physical fitness.
  • Be able to react quickly, but keep calm in hazardous situations.
  • Have courage, determination and resilience.
  • Work well as a member of a close-knit team.
  • Be able to follow instructions.
  • Be good at problem solving.
  • Have a high level of personal discipline.
  • Have good practical skills.
  • Have strong communication skills.
  • Be assertive.
  • Be able to inspire confidence when dealing with members of the public.
  • Have good writing skills for preparing incident reports.

Your Long Term Prospects

All entrants start as firefighters. They have the opportunity to advance to crew manager, then to watch manager, station manager, area manager, group manager and finally, brigade manager. Promotions are decided by tests and demonstrations of potential at assessment centres.

Firefighters may move into training or other departments.

Get Further Information

British Airports Authority (BAA)

Communities and Local Government,
Eland House, Bressenden Place, London SW1E 5DU
Tel: 020 7944 4400

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service,
1, Seymour Street, Lisburn, Co. Antrim,
Northern Ireland BT27 4SX
Tel: 028 9266 4221

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