How To Become A Wildland Firefighter – Training Schools, Salary & Jobs

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Wildfire suppression in the United States is administered by the U.S. Forest Service, and other related land management agencies. The forest service recruits approximately 10,000 wildland firefighters every year. The primary job of a wildland firefighter is to contain and prevent fire outbreaks in the forests and wildlands. Additionally, they are also responsible for rescuing the victims, providing medical assistance, and patrolling the fire area in order to prevent it from further damage. This article will enumerate details about how to become a wildland fighter, highlighting their roles and responsibilities, educational and physical requirements, training and skills required, career ascension program, remuneration package, and pros and cons of being a wildland fighter.

Wildland Firefighter Job Description and Duties

Mentioned below are some of the major job duties of a wildland firefighter:

  • Quick response to emergency calls
  • Rescue victims from hazardous situations and supply them with medical aid
  • Assist other firefighters as a crew member
  • Patrol the area to locate and eliminate hot spots
  • Maintenance of tools and equipment like fire engines, chainsaws, mowers, etc.
  • Clear brush, fallen trees and building trails using axes or shovels
  • Educate the local public regarding fire safety and prevention
  • Maintain a high level of physical fitness
  • Participate in various drill sessions conducted
  • Drive vehicles in an emergency to transport victims and equipment
  • Inspect forest areas to locate potential fire threats
  • Prepare reports and documents related to firefighting, as needed

Wildland Firefighter Education Requirements

To apply for a wildland firefighter role, the candidate must be of at least 18 years of age, and physically fit, with a high school diploma or equivalent. Furthermore, the candidates are required to pass both, physical as well as written test issued by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG).

Minimum education requirement:

As a minimum education requirement for an entry-level wildland firefighter, the following courses are offered by many community colleges, vocational schools, and universities:

  • Survival Training
  • Fire Behavior
  • Incident Command

Advanced education requirement:

To have an advanced degree proves beneficial for the applicant during the hiring process. It not only makes you more suited for the job but also makes you stand out from the competition. Also, having higher qualification can have financial benefits as well. Many universities provide two-year and four-year degree programs in:

  • Fire Science
  • Forestry
  • Fire Ecology
  • Fire Technology
  • Wildland Fire Management

Physical Requirements

Fitness is the key to become a successful firefighter. As most of the firefighting work is done outdoors, a wildland firefighter is required to maintain a healthy physique. They must be able to endure various environmental challenges and climatic conditions. To ensure that the candidate is physically fit for the profile, the NWCG requires them to pass the Work Capacity Test (WCT).

There are three tests conducted under WCT test:

  1. Arduous Pack test: A 3-mile hike with 45 lb. pack; has to be completed within 45 minutes. (No jogging or running)
  2. Moderate Field test: A 2-mile walk with 25 lb. pack; needs to be completed in less than 30 minutes. (No jogging or running)
  3. Light Walk test: A 1-mile hike with no pack, within 16 minutes. (No jogging or running)

The candidate must pass the WCT test on the very first day of work. If one fails to pass it in one go, they can apply for the second test in two weeks. If they fail again, most probably they will not be selected for the position. So, if you feel that you are not in proper shape, it is the right time to begin your physical training.

Wildland Firefighter Skills

As a firefighter aspirant, one must inculcate the skills mentioned below to qualify in an interview:

  1. First Aid skills: Apart from suppressing fires, a firefighter job also requires to provide immediate medical attention to victims during a crisis. Therefore, you must have expert knowledge of basic first aid skills, which includes CPR, cleaning and dressing wounds, basic assessment, etc.
  2. Equipment knowledge: A firefighter must be skilled in handling sophisticated tools and tackles related to firefighting.
  3. Judgment and Decision-making skills: You must be creative in approach and quick in decision making at the time of emergency.
  4. Coordination: As a firefighter, you should be able to act and synchronize the efforts with other team members.
  5. Flexibility and Adaptability: A forest firefighting job demands to work in adverse climatic conditions and life-threatening situations. To survive and work under such severe circumstances, a firefighter must be flexible enough to eat, sleep, and work along with being adaptable to the constantly changing
  6. Active learning: A firefighter must be open to learn and apply new skills.
  7. Time management: Time is the essence in a firefighter profession. Every firefighter must learn time management skills to respond to emergency calls and efficiently utilize the time.
  8. Technical skills: A fire personnel must be technically sound to handle issues related to tools and equipment.
  9. Problem-solving skills: A firefighter must be competent in analyzing issues at hand, formulating effective solution around it and implementing the same in an efficient manner, taking into account all the necessary conditions including technical, situational, operational, managerial, etc.
  10. Great Communication skills: Communication is essential in every profession. A firefighter must possess good communication skills to manage the situation at hand, exchange information with all the stakeholders, handle victims, educate people on fire safety, etc. Verbal and written communication is equally important. Lastly, a firefighter must be an active listener.

Hotshot Firefighter

A Hotshot firefighter is an elite team of 20 wildland firefighters, specially trained to work and deal with wildfires in remote regions with little or no logistical support. They are practiced to contain the fire with whatever equipment they can carry in their hands without any help of bulldozers, or hoses. Similar to wildland firefighters, the interagency hotshot fire crew must also meet the minimum physical qualifications required and must be willing to work in remote and steep terrains. Typically, the crew members spend one hour daily to exercise and maintain their fitness regime, when not assigned to any field assignment. They go on long steep hikes and run several miles.

Their job is demanding, both physically and mentally, as they have to work in a team, contain the fire, construct lines, clear the brushes away and stop the fire from spreading further. Especially during fire season, the crew works for almost 24 hours a day, which can sometimes even extend up to a 48-64 hours shift.

Wildland Firefighter Career

Wildland firefighter can have a career progression ranging from entry level to senior management positions and grade ranging from GS-3 to GS-9. By joining GS-3 position, one can start his/her career either as a hotshot, hand crew or engine crew member, which requires a minimum of 6 months volunteer wildfire firefighter experience. As you process through the career, qualification requirements for the position get stringent. Higher grade level may even require the appropriate National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard to qualify for the post.

Operations: If the candidates wishes to advance the career in the field of operations, they can choose from any of the following position:

  • Crew Supervisor
  • Fire Operations Specialist
  • Fire Management Officer
  • Assistant Fire Staff Officer
  • Fire Staff Officer

Aviation: In Aviation firefighting, one can begin the career as a smoke jumper. Smoke Jumpers are deployed to the remote areas through parachutes to contain the fire. Gradually, one can advance their career as:

  • Helicopter Module Squad Leader
  • Smokejumper Spotter
  • Unit Aviation Officer
  • Helicopter Manager
  • Pilot
  • Base Manager
  • State or Regional Aviation Manager
  • National Aviation Manager

Fuels Management: One can start their career as a fuel crew member, and gradually with the experience, they can move towards:

  • Fuels Technician
  • Prescribed Fire Monitor
  • Prescribed Fire Manager
  • Fire Planner
  • State/Regional Prescribed Fire Manager
  • National Fuel Program Manager

Dispatch: As a Dispatcher, one can work locally, with the Geographical Area Coordination Centers, or the National Interagency Coordination Center. With experience, they can further advance their career as:

  • Assistant Center Manager Local Dispatch
  • Logistics Coordinator
  • Intelligence Officer
  • Emergency Operations Coordinator
  • Intelligence Coordinator
  • Coordination Center Manager( Local, Regional, or National)

Other career tracks can be:

  • Prevention
  • Fire Ecology
  • Training
  • Safety
  • Fire Business

Wildland Firefighter Salary

The average annual wildland firefighter pay in the United States is $20,000 to $60,000. Per hour salary of an average wildland firefighter is $15 to $17. A wildland firefighter with several years of experience and advanced education often receive higher remuneration. The earnings also differ from state to state.

How to Become a Forest Firefighter?

Step 1: Know basic job requirements

The first and foremost step is to know whether you meet the basic job requirements, i.e., educational and physical requirements as well as the skills mentioned above. There are different criteria for different countries so you can proceed accordingly. Secondly, brush up your skills, if required. Take out your shoes and go for a hike, assemble a tent, take a variety of courses offered, and improve your chances of selection. Maybe working as a volunteer firefighter or learning from a wildland firefighter would help you get a firsthand experience.

Step 2: Ensure physical capabilities

As a forest firefighter, one has to handle physically excruciating tasks. So, in order to fulfill the responsibility, you have to be physically fit and mentally agile. Whether you meet the required physical standards or not, it will be tested through the Work Capacity Test (WCT).  Before appearing for the WCT, you can start training sessions or hire a personal trainer. Also, consult with a physician and ensure that you are medically fit to carry out such tasks.

Step 3: Apply and get qualified

The last step is to search and apply for the position of a forest firefighter. Fill out the application form, and pass the written and physical exams. Furthermore, the applicants are also required to become certified or complete a few training courses. For example, in Colorado, firefighters have to earn the “Red Card” by completing the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Basic Firefighter course (S-130) and the Introduction to Fire Behavior course (S-190). This way, one can advance their career by pursuing additional training courses.

Wildland Firefighting Training

Entry level wildland firefighters receive various training classes related to basic fire safety rules, fire prevention techniques, and emergency medical procedures. Through theoretical and practical training, firefighters learn about the basic safety drills, know-how about the tools and equipment used, and chemistry of fire and firefighting. Also, there are many advanced courses designed for the senior personnel as well. Below mentioned is the list of various specialized courses offered to the wildland firefighters before they join their respective duties.

Wildland Firefighter Courses

These courses are offered by the National Wildland Coordinating Group (NWCG) and Nebraska Forest Service.

  1. Nebraska Wildland Firefighter
  2. Wildland Aviation Operations
  3. Leadership 101
  4. S-130 Firefighting Training
  5. S-190 Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior
  6. S-131 Advanced Firefighter
  7. Firefighter Math

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Wildland Firefighter

Being a wildland firefighter helps to serve the community and make a difference, but at the same time, it can also be a difficult and tiresome job too. If you are thinking to build a career in wildland firefighting, you should first look at some of the pros and cons of this profession:

Pros

  • An opportunity to travel and work in different places
  • Exhilarating outdoor assignments
  • Meeting new people
  • Additional overtime and hazard pay
  • High school diploma or equivalent certificate required as a minimum qualification
  • Great way to help people and serve the land

Cons

  • Seasonal work
  • Experience earned can be applied to limited professions
  • Family time compromised
  • Sub-optimal growth within the industry
  • Physically and mentally challenging tasks
  • Hazardous operating conditions

References:

1. https://www.doi.gov/sites/doi.gov/files/migrated/pmb/owf/upload/Career-Opportunities-in-Wildland-Fire_031813.pdf

2.  http://www.nationalfirefighter.com/blogihq/How-to-Become-a-Wildland-Firefighter-INFOGRAPHIC

3.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interagency_hotshot_crew

4.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Work_Capacity_Test