HOT STUFF: What's it like to be a firefighter?

When people are fleeing a burning building, it takes courage to face a fire. Temperatures can reach 800 degrees centigrade, thick smoke kills visibility and it’s easy to get lost, even in a two storey house. “Every human instinct tells you to run in the opposite direction,” says Adam Joyce, a firefighter with West Midlands Fire Service. “It’s not like in the movies – you don’t see bright orange flame. But we’ll never just stand and spray water if people are trapped inside.”

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Why would you become a firefighter?

"It takes months of training, physical and mental stamina," says Joyce, "and some incidents are truly distressing.

“We’re a particular breed - ordinary people doing an extraordinary job,” says Joyce. “Firefighters are masters of make a square peg fit in a round hole. We always come up with solutions to many rescue situations.” Teamwork, camaraderie – words bandied around in many different workplaces – carry particular weight in the fire service. A team will typically spend days and night on shift together, training, socialising, eating - and attending emergencies. “You learn about each others’ personalities, their moods. You develop a bond – absolute trust,” says Joyce. “Your crew becomes your family.”

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He’s seldom felt real fear. “I’m confident in my own ability and in that of my team. In difficult situations, your training kicks in. In all my years I don’t think I’ve ever confronted a situation I don’t feel is manageable.”

But he has encountered danger. One callout saw him and a colleague enter an enclosed market hall. A huge rolling plume of smoke above caught fire, and his crew outside warned him to get out fast. “That’s probably the only time in my life I feared for my life. I thought if we don’t get out in the next 30 seconds, we’ll be in trouble.”

“That’s probably the only time in my life I feared for my life. I thought if we don’t get out in the next 30 seconds, we’ll be in trouble.”

Training is extreme, but so are conditions in a real fire. “You can’t be claustrophobic,” says Joyce. “In a fire, it can be 400 degrees cooler on the floor. We’ll often search entire buildings on our stomachs crawling around.” So firefighters practise crawling through tight spaces and test for claustrophobia.  “You have to be trained just to be safe,” he says. Would-be recruits are sent through tight enclosures – some so narrow you need to breath out or you could feel wedged. Or they’re required to find their way through low mazes. “It doesn’t worry me,” says Joyce. “But if it makes you panic, then firefighting isn’t for you.”

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During their careers, firefighters will continue to train and keep their skills up to date. “We have a three storey house which we use to practise on real fires. And a high rise training facility to practise tackling fires at height.” Fires behave differently ten floors up, because of the wind. When a crew arrives at a fire, the team will try and identify a safe route into the building – and firefighters will work in pairs.

Of course, fire crew are called out to many different incidents – road accidents, bomb scares, chemical spills, animal rescue. They’ll also need to train up with equipment – huge pneumatic shears to cut metal, thermal imaging cameras and of course state of the art vehicles. They also educate people in how to prevent fire, and visit schools and the vulnerable to raise awareness.

But by far the most testing demands come from dealing with the human angle. “You’re coping with people who are having the worst day of their lives,” says Joyce. “You don’t ever get used to it. People might place unrealistic expectations upon you – sometimes, some lives just can’t be saved.” Joyce himself offers support for firefighters in the wake of traumatic incidents. “Because we wear this uniform people think we’re not affected by tragedy – that’s just not the case.”

Still want to find out more?

You must be 18 (but you can apply earlier if you’ll be 18 when you get the job).

You’ll probably need English and Maths GCSE grades 4-9 (C to A) and need to pass background security checks.*

Apply online for a competitive selection process; expect fitness and aptitude assessments and an interview. You can also apply to volunteer to gain experience.

Skills required – communication, leadership, problem solving, IT and report writing. You’ll also need a full driving licence.

You’ll also need to be confident with heights and enclosed spaces, happy to work shifts, prepared to follow instructions and deal sensitively with people in emotional situations. You’ll need to be physically fit.

Salary £22,000 - £29,500 with station managers earning up to £42,000

Find recruitment details from your local fire and rescue service with a postcode search at www.cfoa.org.uk

 Find recruitment details from your local fire and rescue service with a postcode search at www.cfoa.org.uk

CareersWeb editor