Anyone who has decided to become a firefighter knows that there is a lot of hard work ahead of them. It starts early, with a rigorous selection process that includes a written exam, a physical agility test, a background check, a medical and psychological evaluation, and a final interview. Then there’s academy training, where you’ll learn and practise firefighting and prevention techniques, survival training, and emergency medical procedures.
You’re probably more focused on the value and rewards of this career path, however. After all, bravely facing danger and saving people’s lives makes firefighters heroes to kids and adults alike. Before you sign on to all the challenges this role brings, however, be sure you have what it takes to succeed. To help guide you, we’ve compiled a list of 10 essential skills needed to be a firefighter.
1. Teamwork skills
Teamwork is an essential skill for most career paths. Employees that trust each other, take their share of the responsibility and respect each other’s strengths can tackle projects more quickly, efficiently and successfully than a bunch of people trying to go their own way. This is exponentially truer in the realm of firefighters, where a fracture in the group dynamic can jeopardize everyone’s safety.
Going through the firefighting academy offers the perfect opportunity to practise your teamwork skills with other aspiring first responders. Leadership and initiative are important skills for a firefighter to have, but remember that you will always need backup to tackle emergencies.
2. Working under pressure
Fearlessly running toward a burning building or vehicle is only one part of being a firefighter. You’ll need to carry out your assigned tasks once you get there, as precisely and efficiently as possible. Responsibility to your fellow firefighters, dangerous conditions, including smoke and unstable floors, and a very short time limit can add up to an immense amount of stress.
One of the questions during your interview for an entry-level firefighter position is likely to be how well you work under pressure. You’ll want to assure them you thrive in tense and chaotic situations. You will also need to explain how you keep the nerves at bay and retain laser focus in dire circumstances. Be prepared with examples of your stress tolerance skills from your training or internship.
3. Adaptability skills
A huge aspect of the job is dealing with the unexpected. You might be doing routine equipment maintenance at the firehouse one minute and be called to an industrial fire the next. Once at an emergency scene, the plan of attack could be derailed by weather, the sudden instability of a building, or unpredictable actions by victims, bystanders or perpetrators.
Whether in the foreground or off, firefighters need to remain calm, ask the important questions about the situation and be able to quickly switch from an expected course of action to an alternate solution.
Easily transitioning to a different squad and setting new goals to excel there or planning alternate routes out of a rapidly burning building are two ways you can demonstrate adaptability skills on the job.
4. Problem-solving skills
This skill goes hand-in-hand with adaptability. Being willing to change your perspective and roll with the punches is the first step. Next is having the ability to recognize, analyse and overcome obstacles.
Firefighters must learn to gather all pertinent information, inventory available resources, use logic to find a potential solution, and weigh the costs and benefits of each plan. You may need to find a substitution for malfunctioning equipment, figure out how to compensate for too much weight on an unstable staircase, or find a way through or around a blocked exit. The more knowledge, expertise and experience you have with all aspects of firefighting, the easier it will be for you to problem-solve in stressful situations.
5. Mechanical skills
Part of that necessary expertise is having mechanical skills. Firefighters use tools, specialized equipment, vehicles and machinery in all aspects of their work. It is essential to know how to operate, maintain and repair this equipment.
Fires and other emergencies can take place in all types of buildings and environments. Aspiring firefighters benefit from coursework in subjects like auto mechanics, welding and electronics. Knowing how a variety of machines work, and their related safety protocols, can greatly assist in emergencies at factories, construction sites and automotive accidents.
6. Communication skills
Don’t forget that firefighters spend a lot of time with their colleagues as well as with members of the public. So, in between strength and tactical training, you’ll want to brush up on your communication skills.
You need to know how to listen effectively and convey important information as quickly and clearly as possible. Practice and experience will help you tailor your communication style to different types of personalities and situations.
7. Visualization skills
This may be one of the skills needed to be a firefighter that you hadn’t thought of, but it’s no less important than the rest. Visualization is a more orderly way of using your imagination and is a key factor in getting you out of a burning building or other emergency situation to safety.
Firefighters need to be able to identify figures, objects and sounds amidst distracting elements. They need to quickly compare patterns in their surroundings. Firefighters must also be able to know their location within a building, in relation to their fellow firefighters, to potential dangers and to the exits.
Visualizing three-dimensionally in a chaotic environment is a skill that will require a lot of practice and experience to fully master.
8. Attention to detail skills
With so many variables possible in an emergency, a firefighter must be attentive to the things they can control. Those who check their equipment and safety gear every day, keep in physical shape, run drills with fellow firefighters and update pre-plans will be better prepared when the call comes. They’ll also be less likely to suffer dangerous setbacks from faulty equipment or being mentally unprepared.
This is also one of the essential skills needed to be a firefighter, because noticing every detail can reveal information important to your mission. Catching an unusual symptom from a victim can lead to a life-saving alteration of their treatment. Identifying a change in air pressure or the color of the smoke can signal back draft and other dangers in a fire. Firefighters can never be complacent; they must always be aware of all elements of their surroundings.
9. First aid skills
Firefighters and paramedics often work together and are considered two of the most rewarding jobs a person can hold.
Depending on local regulations, you may be required to take on both roles. In many jurisdictions in the US, for example, firefighters must be certified by the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians as EMTs or paramedics. You will need to complete formal medical training and pass the national exam.
Despite their job title, firefighters are often called to assist paramedics and the police in dealing with emergencies unrelated to fires. Firefighters have the tools, equipment and skills to break down doors, enter structurally unsafe buildings, and rescue auto-accident victims trapped in crushed vehicles. You’ll often be the first to reach the injured parties, so expert knowledge of first aid techniques like CPR and victim stabilization is essential.
10. Leadership skills
While teamwork is an essential part of firefighting, every team needs a leader. As you ascend to supervisory roles as a firefighter, you will need to develop a mastery of leadership skills to be successful. Leading a group of firefighters requires confidence, decisiveness, consistency and trust-building. You need all your expertise to earn that trust, because your team’s lives may depend on the choices you make and the orders you issue during an emergency.
Because the job is so important, it is wise to continue to value teamwork. Being a good leader means knowing you don’t always have all the answers and respecting your firefighters enough to ask their input when needed. Don’t be afraid to ask the advice of those above you in rank as well. Use their experience to supplement your own and make the best decisions possible.
11. Time management skills
It’s true, you cannot be an effective leader if you don’t take the time to lead, but you can’t be an effective firefighter if you’re not doing the other aspects of the job as well. This is where your time management skills will come to into play.
While there are emergencies that will pull you away from other tasks around the fire station or current projects you may be working on, in order to be capable of doing them all, you’ll need to have effective time management skills. Understanding how to manage your time while testing all the equipment and cleaning the fire engine, then running to giving a presentation at a local elementary will set you up to succeed in your role as a firefighter.
12. Emotional intelligence skills
The situations and emergencies you will face as a firefighter will require you to possess greater emotional intelligence skills than most other jobs. You’ll need the ability to manage your own emotions as you move forward with incidents, like communicating to an individual to evacuate a building that is currently on fire or defusing a conflict in order to get both individuals to safety.
Without the ability to manage your own emotions positively, it would be difficult to complete the duties of the job.
13. Creative thinking skills
You may think a firefighter’s job seems pretty cut and dry: rescue the people in trouble. What creativity could they likely need? Trust me, creativity is a transferable skill that every firefighter needs.
If you’re looking at different ways to stress the importance of fire safety to a second-grade class and have them really hear you, creativity is involved. As you evaluate different entry points for access to save the people from the burning building, you may have to tap into your creative thinking skills to do so.
Tapping into your creativity skills as a firefighter allows you to break through traditional barriers and think outside of the box to achieve a positive outcome for everyone involved.
Firefighters have a significant amount of courage to complete each aspect of the job, but with that courage comes assertiveness. Being more assertive is an essential skill needed to be a firefighter in order to handle the potentially life-threatening situation at hand. Often, there will not be much room for timidity.
Firefighters need to learn to trust their gut and be able to articulate those feelings calmly and positively when necessary. If there’s an active emergency and your directions are ambiguous, incomplete, or even incorrect, this puts people in danger, and it’s time to be assertive and respectfully speak up to solve the disconnect.
In that scenario, having assertiveness as a firefighter could speed up the assistance in a life-threatening emergency, which makes this skill absolutely critical.
As a firefighter, the things you’ll be faced with can be difficult, traumatic, and scarring, but the ability to feel empathy towards your victims is a professional skill no firefighter can be without. Showing empathy to someone suffering severe loss or someone actively in a dreadful situation can set each party on the path to a better recovery.
When people are saved by firefighters, they thank them repeatedly, but they aren’t just thanking them for saving their life. While that is obviously important, more often than not, they are also thanking them for their empathy. You’ll be remembered for going through the situation right alongside them and treating them with respect on one of their worst days.
All firefighters will benefit from taking the necessary time to polish these skills as they progress further in their career. It’s easy to get caught up in the requirements of the role or the responsibilities and duties and forget the necessary hard and soft skills that will truly set you apart. As you’re evaluating the skills needed to be a firefighter don’t forget those that may be easily overlooked:
- Creative thinking
- Emotional intelligence
- Visualization skills
All of the above skills will make you a better firefighter, grow these and you’re sure to see growth in your career.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on 2 December 2019 and contains contributions by staff writer Shalie Reich.