10 Essential Skills Needed to Become a Firefighter

Silhouettes of two firefighters working at a fire scene fouroaks / Depositphotos.com

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 jeopardise 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 on the fireground 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.

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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 recognise, 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, specialised 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. Visualisation 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. Visualisation 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.

Visualising 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 colour of the smoke can signal backdraft 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 stabilisation 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.

All firefighters, regardless of their position in the chain of command, can benefit from leadership skills. In the chaos of a fire or natural disaster, you may get separated from your group or lose communications. You need to be able to remain calm and decisive, and quickly earn trust from victims so you can guide them to safety.

Have you started on the path to becoming a firefighter? Which of these skills do you think are the most essential? What important firefighter skills have we missed? Join the discussion below and let us know!