It’s 0905hrs on a Sunday morning.
The career firefighter is sleeping soundly in his favorite recliner, enjoying the freedom to nap indiscriminately on a weekend, but also ready to get to work when the tones drop. He is “living the dream.” You know, that dream, the one you always hear about: Insurance, benefits and steady pay to do something you would probably do for free.
The volunteer firefighter is sleeping equally soundly, enjoying the freedom to stay in bed on a weekend, children permitting. Just like our career firefighter, he is ready to go to work when the tones drop. He is exhausted after working overtime Monday through Friday, but he knows when he wakes up he will get to spend irreplaceable time with his family in the comfort of his own home.
What’s the difference?
There are differences, I can assure you of that. These differences, however, are not as glaring as the Facebook Fire Department would have you believe, and the positives and negatives on both sides mostly cancel each other out. In all of the infighting, backbiting and criticisms that often arise between career personnel and volunteers, we constantly forget about another class of firefighter. These men and women make up the oft-ignored third party of the fire service.
Our red-headed stepchildren; The part-time firefighter.
I have been a volunteer, a part-timer and a career firefighter, I am familiar with the struggles of all sides. I can tell you, without hesitation, that the hardest role to fill is that of the part-time firefighter. You can mistakenly be viewed as not as invested as the career guys, not as dedicated as the volunteers. Scab or hired gun are equally unsavory perceptions of your role.
Would you like to know what the part-time firefighter is doing while both the career and volunteer firefighters sleep? Probably commuting to any one of his or her three-plus jobs. Most of them work varying combinations of full-time and part-time positions, both Fire/EMS and otherwise, to make ends meet. How long has it been since their last day off? Who knows. Somewhere between a dog’s age and a really-freaking-long-time. Home? Nah. The part-time firefighter might as well just live in his car, for all the time he gets to spend at his mailing address.
But why be a part-time firefighter at all if it sucks so bad?
- Some don’t have a choice. Maybe they don’t have any seriously marketable skills outside of public service. I certainly fit that bill, myself.
- It can be hard getting a career position on a fire department, any number of life choices or events can extinguish your dream.
- Maybe life just got in the way. Sometimes the reality of your situation doesn’t necessarily mesh with your career aspirations. Timing is everything.
- Many are younger individuals, just getting their start. Not everybody walks onto a full-time job after class ends. The experience they are gaining makes them much more desirable volunteer and career employees.
- Lastly, some simply have no interest in pursuing a Fire/EMS career. They probably already have gainful employment in another field and just want to enjoy a living out a childhood dream (while being paid for their time, of course).
Arguments are frequently made that nobody forced them to be part-time firefighters, and that they can give up whenever they want and get a better job. Whatever their reasons, the public service community as a whole needs them more than they need us. Most of these guys and gals can certainly make more money elsewhere, but they chose a life of service instead. For now, at least.
Dragging themselves from department to department, sleep deprived and half-dead, but still ready to go; where I’m from, these are the people that keep both career and volunteer departments afloat.
Volunteer engine response constantly coming up light? It’s understandable. With increasingly demanding schedules, not many people have time to volunteer. Part-timers are here to save the day.
Department making the transition from all-volunteer to combination? Those part-timers are super handy when you need to fill out a schedule.
Need shift coverage for that big fishing trip? PT’s got your back.
If they seem grouchy, it’s probably because they haven’t seen their families for days on end. If they seem unhealthy, it’s likely because they don’t have the luxury of good insurance, or can’t afford to take sick days. Their schedules lead many of them to down energy drinks by the case. If they seem disinterested, I would venture to say that it’s because they work at three or four departments, each with their own sets of training, rules, tempo and drama. Burnout is real.
And finally, if they seem tired, it’s because THEY ARE.
Be thankful that they are here, and be nice to your part-timers.
A long time ago I was given the advice of “Inc.” yourself. Sounds kind of strange, but let me explain.
You see, in order for a company to grow and survive in the economy they must continue to create and give value to customers and investors alike. Without offering them any value, they aren’t worth much to anyone.
Nowhere is this analogy more important than for the aspiring firefighter. There are thousands of potential candidates going for only a few spots at career fire departments. Among other things, you will have to articulate why a department should spend the time, money and effort on hiring you onto their department?
If you don’t have a good answer to that, then you’re really going to struggle in the interview, but more on that later.
A better, or perhaps easier, way to think of this is to think of what valuable skills or knowledge would you bring to a department. If you don’t have any skills or value, what can you begin doing to create value for yourself and a future department?
If you can’t think of any, here’s some to get you started…
- Become an EMT-B
- Become a Paramedic
- Get your Firefighter 1 & 2 and beyond
- Become extremely fit
- Make friends in the fire service
- Get a job working in an ER (where you’ll be exposed to a lot of firefighters)
- Pick up useful hobbies (being mechanical, building construction, diving, ropes, radios, etc.)
The best way to boost your perceived value is experience, and at this point, you should be doing everything you can to get on a volunteer/part-time department or at the very least somehow become involved with one.
The next best way to boost your value to a department is to get some kind of EMS certification. As with most things, the more you do, the more valuable you become.
In short, fire science degrees look great, but I’ve never seen a department that required one to get hired.
Unfortunately, if you go to any school counselor, they will put you on an educational track that takes a lot of time, and doesn’t necessarily get you the results you want.
If you are looking to stand out in a sea of average applicants the best way to do that is to be a Paramedic. A lot of departments don’t require you to have your Paramedic certification ahead of time, but like it or not, today’s fire service is moving more and more towards integrating Fire and EMS protection into one service.
Staying ahead of this curve not only makes you smart but allows you to stand out.
If you’re wondering where you can go in your area to get started on an EMS certification a quick google search of “EMT classes in ______” should point you in the right direction.
While a lot of the larger departments out there will send you to their own fire academy whether or not you have experience; I don’t recommend putting all your eggs in the one basket of getting hired at a large department and going through their fire academy.
A lot of smaller departments will require you to have some form of fire education.
This is where I highly recommend going to a Fire Academy. Fire Academies are usually a few months in length and will give you the necessary education and training (for your particular state) to be certified as a firefighter.
The main difference between this and a Fire Science program is that a Fire Academy is more direct. They give you all of the classroom and hands-on experience to be a firefighter in the shortest amount of time possible. Degrees in Fire Science usually take more time (at least 2 years) and may or may not give you the necessary certification to get hired (depends on the school and the program).
Other ways to separate yourself from the crowd is to acquire special knowledge or skills. This isn’t as important as your EMS certifications, but having excellent mechanical skills, knowledge of construction, plumbing (or any of the trades), ropes or really any sort of skills that would be used daily at a fire department can go a long way.
Regardless of your skills, knowledge, and experience, you must be able to articulate these in a way that is unique and memorable to a panel of interviewers. Mastering the Firefighter Interview will show you exactly what is necessary to stand out from the sea of other candidates and get hired. Click here to grab your free cheat sheet to get you on your way!