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Firefighters are among the frontline workers who serve and protect the public by responding to fires and other emergencies, including hazardous-materials spills, high-angle and rope rescue, disaster response (tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes), confined-space and trench rescue, vehicle extrication, terrorism response, water/ice rescue, and canine search and rescue. In addition to fighting structure fires, firefighters battle wildland blazes in forests and other areas where structures may or may not be involved.
Over the years, fire fighting has evolved from a profession that was once handled primarily by volunteers to one undertaken by well-trained career professionals. Perhaps one of the most important developments in firefighters' jobs was that providing emergency care to the ill and injured became a key responsibility. Most professional firefighters are not only trained in fire suppression but are also trained as emergency medical technicians (EMTs) or paramedics. Firefighters' duties also include fire prevention, fire investigation, fire education, and community relations.
The fire service is divided into two divisions: paid career firefighters and volunteer firefighters. Large cities may employ several thousand firefighters, while small towns might have only a few firefighters who are volunteers. Among the careers in fire fighting are fire chiefs, who are responsible for the administrative and technical work of planning, organizing, and directing the municipality's fire fighting and fire-prevention activities. Chiefs also are responsible for training, staffing, budgeting, and all other administrative matters. Fire administrative officers help with the department's business-management activities and sometimes assist chiefs. Deputy fire chiefs are responsible for the department's administrative and supervisory duties, including organizing platoons and scheduling shifts, dealing with departmental discipline and filling in for chiefs during absences. Platoon chiefs organize platoons, schedule shifts, and carry out administrative duties and clerical tasks. Battalion chiefs are responsible for commanding the personnel, equipment, and apparatus of one or more fire stations. They also coordinate apparatus maintenance. At an emergency scene, battalion chiefs command and instruct the firefighters. Fire captains or lieutenants command the various shifts.
Other positions within fire departments include: Driver/operators who drive fire apparatus to fire scenes; firefighter/paramedics have advanced emergency medical care responsibilities along with fire-fighting duties; firefighter/EMTs perform dual roles and can provide basic life support as well as fire-suppression activities; firefighters combat, extinguish, and prevent fires.
A specialty branch of fire fighting, wildland firefighters are trained in wildland fire fighting. They work to combat fires that occur in forests and work for the U.S. Forest Service. Fire rangers patrol areas of the forest to find and report fires and hazardous conditions, as well as to ensure that travelers and campers comply with fire regulations. When fires break out, an elite corps of firefighters, known as smokejumpers, battle the blaze by parachuting from airplanes to reach inaccessible areas.
Besides local, state, and federal governments, many private individuals and companies are involved in fire-prevention and protection efforts. Private companies develop fire-safety products, including fire extinguishers, specialized fire-fighting equipment, and sprinkler systems. Other professionals are specially trained to plan, design, install, and maintain fire-safety systems. Independent testing laboratories perform inspections on fire apparatus.
Employers of firefighters include airports, national forests, shipyards, and military bases. Insurance companies and building departments of state or local governments, whose responsibility it is to provide bases for evaluating fire dangers and to determine ways of minimizing damage from fire to buildings and their contents, also employ firefighters. Architectural firms often hire or consult fire-science professionals to examine the fire safety of proposed building designs. Many industries have their own fire-protection staffs and private fire brigades.
Firefighter employment is expected to experience limited growth in the coming years, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Due to budget cuts and financial constraints, there is keen competition among public service providers for funding. Employment prospects for firefighters are best in specialty areas, such as hazardous materials and technical rescue, and for those with postsecondary firefighter education and paramedic training.