Firefighters - What They Do

Firefighters carry out firefighting and fire prevention activities, and assist in other emergencies. They are employed by municipal, provincial and federal governments and by large industrial establishments that have internal firefighting services.

Job duties

This group performs some or all of the following duties:

  • Respond to fire alarms and other calls for assistance, such as automobile and industrial accidents, bomb threats and other emergencies
  • Rescue victims from burning buildings and accident sites
  • Control and extinguish fires using manual and power equipment, such as axes, water hoses, aerial ladders and hydraulic equipment and various firefighting chemicals
  • Administer first aid and other assistance
  • Ensure proper operation and maintenance of firefighting equipment
  • Prepare written reports on fire incidents
  • Inform and educate the public on fire prevention
  • Train to maintain high level of physical fitness
  • Assist the public, the police and emergency organizations during times of major disasters
  • May participate as members of a trauma or emergency response team and provide paramedical aid to accident victims or ill persons
  • May supervise and co-ordinate the work of other firefighters
  • May conduct building inspections to ensure compliance with fire code.

Job titles

  • airport firefighter
  • fire captain
  • lieutenant, firefighters
  • firefighter
  • firefighter, shipboard
  • industrial firefighter
Employment Requirements

This is what you typically need for the job:

  • Completion of secondary school is usually required.
  • Completion of a college program in fire protection technology, fire science or a related field may be required.
  • Firefighting and emergency medical care training courses are provided and vary in length depending on the requirements of different fire departments or services.
  • An apprenticeship training program for firefighters and voluntary trade certification is available in New Brunswick.
  • Experience as a volunteer firefighter may be an advantage.
  • Physical agility, strength, fitness and vision requirements must be met.
  • Several years of experience are required for senior firefighters, such as lieutenants and captains.

Essential Skills


  • Read text entries in log books and maintenance records to ensure their equipment and supplies are in place before fire calls. (1)
  • Read handling, storage and usage instructions, warnings and first aid procedures on equipment and product labels. They read text on labels to understand the products' uses, maintenance requirements and safe handling procedures of hazardous materials to remind themselves of the actions to be taken in case of accidental contact. (2)
  • Read memos and letters from supervisors regarding fire safety instructions, and branch and station decisions. (2)
  • Read magazines like Firefighting in Canada to check the availability and prices of new equipment and supplies, and read newsletters and bulletins from various government sources like Transport Canada and Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada to learn new and best firefighting practices. (2)
  • Read incident and accident reports to understand what has occurred and to verify their recollections are consistent with those of other firefighters who were present. They may be asked to sign reports to acknowledge their agreement. (3)
  • May read excerpts of the National Building Fire Code and the National Electrical Code to familiarize themselves with the identification of common code infractions and to advise homeowners and business owners of safe practices like the proper storage of flammable liquids. (3)
  • May read books and longer reports. For example, they may read reference books such as the Fire Protection Handbook to understand and apply fire fighting techniques to specific emergency situations like aircraft fires and may review federal government reports that outline chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear terrorism threats and how best to deal with them. (3)
  • Read standard operating procedures to identify courses of action for specific emergency situations. For example, they may refer to automobile fire procedures that describe first responder duties, minimum safe firefighting distances and communication protocols for contacting superior officers and backup firefighters. Standard operating procedures contain highly detailed and complex technical information in multiple sections and firefighters may have to make inferences when they do not have appropriate procedures to address unique situations. (4)
  • Read training and operations' manuals such as the International Fire Service Training Manual and fire truck operating manuals during training sessions. They also read manuals that cover all aspects of firefighting and that detail the standard operating procedures that are employed by their departments. (4)

Document use

  • Use schedules and lists. For example, they locate information on their work schedules to determine their assigned working times, duty assignments and scheduled training sessions. They also read lists to ensure consistent, frequent and thorough maintenance of firefighting equipment. (1)
  • Use tables and graphs. For example, they may use graphs and charts in the National Fire Protection Association Standards document to understand and apply guidelines for the use of fire protection materials and tools. They also use graphs to learn community population numbers and to record data like total kilometres travelled to fire scenes and total usage of water, foam or other firefighting compound. (2)
  • May interpret assembly drawings while assembling firefighting equipment. For example, they may consult an assembly drawing of a complex breathing apparatus to properly change the air filter or replace hoses. (2)
  • Review maps and plans of buildings, facilities and vehicles to ensure they show the locations of emergency equipment, meet fire code regulations and identify obstacles for persons approaching and entering during emergency situations. For example, firefighters may use these documents to identify locations of airbags in vehicles and presence of fuel sources such as oil tanks in buildings. (3)


  • Write reminders of tasks they must perform, short entries in station logs to document significant occurrences during shifts, and notes and e-mail to inform other firefighters of meetings and training sessions. (1)
  • Write short notes on incident, medical, training reports and inspection forms. For example, they may detail the number of occupants in a fire-damaged residence, numbers and types of injuries sustained by the occupants and the number of firefighters that responded to the call. These forms are often filed for reference by other firefighters and senior firefighters and chiefs. (2)
  • May write short letters and memos to municipal administrators and funding authorities. For example, supervisors of firefighters compose requests to municipal councillors to solicit funds for equipment and sponsorship of events. (3)
  • Write summary reports of a page to two pages in length documenting their actions in responding to fire and emergency calls. These reports are often recorded in narrative form and are forwarded to senior firefighters and chiefs who may integrate them into more detailed reports to administrators. The reports must be accurate, detailed and able to stand up to any resulting review by administrators. (3)
  • May write detailed sections of response plans and actions to be taken in their jurisdictions before, during and after natural disasters, such as earthquakes, floods and major winter storms. For example, they may document addresses of buildings and structures susceptible to heavy damage or loss of life from certain disasters including hospitals, seniors' homes, parks, fields, stadiums or theatres where large numbers of people may be congregated. They also identify buildings or locations which store large amounts of hazardous materials on site, including gas stations. These plans may be integrated with emergency plans of local hospitals and police forces. (4)
  • In supervisory roles may write formal evaluations of those under their command. They include performance assessments and recommendations for further training in these evaluations. (4)


Money Math

  • May add invoice amounts and cross check quoted prices to verify correctness of invoices and sign off for equipment and supplies. (2)
  • May add amounts on bills. For example, supervisors of firefighters may total the costs of items used in transportation of hazardous materials including gloves, tape, suits and chemical compounds to clean spills and forward the completed financial summaries to their accounting departments. (2)

Scheduling, Budgeting & Accounting Math

  • Develop schedules for maintenance and operational chores. For example, firefighters may schedule daily, weekly and monthly cleaning tasks for themselves and other firefighters. (1)
  • Add up hours worked to take inventories on schedules. They may also schedule firefighters into existing time slots for work training and drill sessions. (1)
  • In supervisory roles may develop budgets and cost forecasts for equipment and supplies. All firefighters are responsible for ensuring that stations are fully stocked to meet their demands and help other response areas. (2)

Measurement and Calculation Math

  • Measure volume of various chemicals used to create firefighting solutions. For example, firefighters may have to double or halve solutions or divide and measure chemical ingredients into containers to counteract gasoline spills. (1)
  • Calculate the water pressure lost between the pump and the end of the water hose to assess the amount of pressure that must be used to effectively fight a fire. They enter two variables into a predetermined formula to perform the calculation. (2)
  • May measure concentrations of firefighting foam components. For example, airport firefighters may use conductivity meters and refractometers to determine the concentration of firefighting foam to ensure correct proportioning of foam concentrate. (3)

Data Analysis Math

  • Take inventory of materials and supplies that have been used and are needed during daily operations. (1)
  • Calculate and analyze average response times. For example, firefighters calculate the averages of response times in minutes over thirty-day periods and analyze these results over successive months to identify areas where improvements can be made to decrease response times. (2)

Numerical Estimation

  • Estimate travel times. For example, firefighters estimate the times of arrival of first responders and multi-unit call-outs to emergency scenes. (1)
  • Estimate distances, sizes, pressures and quantities of materials and pieces of equipment. For example, firefighters estimate the lengths of hoses, heights of ladders and pressure requirements for fighting fires on upper floors of tall office buildings. (1)
  • Estimate the size and extent of fires to determine the required number of response people and emergency units to effectively contain and control emergency situations. (2)

Oral communication

  • Interact with their superiors and other firefighters. For example, firefighters speak to co-workers to learn about events on other shifts and to question them about tasks that still need to be completed. (1)
  • May lead discussions and educational sessions. For example, they may review fire safety plans with homeowners and business operators, point out structural areas of homes and businesses that do not meet accepted fire safety codes and suggest ways to achieve compliance. They also lead individuals through fire prevention and safety demonstrations and conduct fire station tours for visiting groups. (2)
  • May speak with providers of supplies and services relevant to emergency response providers. They discuss the quality, prices and their availabilities. (2)
  • Lead group training activities. For example, they may encourage other firefighters and emergency first responders to share experiences, participate in simulations and deliver training presentations. (3)
  • May make formal presentations on behalf of fire services and other emergency responders. They may speak persuasively to solicit financial support from administrative and legislative bodies and provide expert input at public consultations to increase community awareness and the effectiveness of emergency services. (3)
  • Give clear and concise verbal instructions to other firefighters, superiors and emergency responders during emergencies. They talk with paramedics and police officers to share vital information, co-ordinate their work with other responders, offer directions to incoming emergency response units, direct bystanders and witnesses, and actively monitor emergency locations to ensure the safety of all persons involved. Communication may take place face-to-face or over two-way radios. (4)


Problem Solving

  • Are unable to fight fires effectively because pumps and other equipment do not work properly or utility services such as electricity and water supplies are interrupted. For example, firefighters may experience drops in water pressure during emergency situations. They report malfunctions to their superiors, look for the sources and switch to alternative equipment and service. (2)
  • Arrive at scenes of emergencies to find obstacles such as cars parked by fire hydrants and live electrical wires on the ground. They call towing services to remove parked vehicles or utility workers to remove downed power lines. In all situations they must quickly and effectively determine to remove or refrain from removing dangerous objects. (2)
  • May find that they are short-staffed or encounter conflicts between staff. For example, they may find that they do not have enough firefighters to handle a large fire. They immediately call other firefighters scheduled for vacation and may contact other nearby stations. Firefighters working as supervisors may face reduced staff due to sickness, injuries, personality conflicts and grievances. They may refer to their departments' prescribed human resource guidelines to resolve conflicts between workers, and contact union representatives to gather information on grievances. They may also refer complex personnel problems including positive drug testing, sexual harassment and hostile work environments to their fire chiefs and municipal authorities. (3)
  • May lose communication with other emergency responders during crisis situations. For example, they may use bullhorns and shout when two-way radios are not working properly and try to switch radio channels. They must quickly re-establish communication links to ensure all firefighters from their stations are accounted for. (3)

Decision Making

  • Decide which cleaning duties and administrative chores may be skipped in favour of other activities like extra training or reading. (1)
  • May decide to participate in new occupational safety training exercises. They consider their current skill levels, opportunities to upgrade and industry demands for the acquisition of new skills. (2)
  • May decide to close and condemn derelict homes and buildings that do not meet fire code regulations and pose fire hazards to nearby structures. Firefighters suggest steps that property owners can take to have their buildings demolished, and recommend how to renovate their establishments to meet fire code regulations. (3)
  • Make decisions to adequately contain and control fires. For example, they may decide how firefighters and equipment should be deployed at fire scenes, and decide which levels of emergencies should be declared. They consider the intensities of fires, dangers posed to surrounding areas, available firefighters and their past experience in similar situations. Decisions are critical to protect buildings and personal safety of public and other firefighters. (4)

Critical Thinking

  • Judge the safety of newly constructed, occupied, vacant and fire damaged buildings for potential hazards and to assess their fire detection and extinguishing capabilities during routine and special inspections. For example, they assess the locations and numbers of sprinkler heads in large restaurants to ensure they comply with fire codes. (2)
  • May assess present and future needs for firefighting equipment and supplies in their stations. For example, firefighters in the roles of inspectors and supervisors consider the equipment currently available, any training required to advance staff skills in the uses of new equipment and the number and types of buildings in the areas they serve before purchasing them. (2)
  • May evaluate the effectiveness of firefighting methods and materials in order to identify potential areas of improvement. They may review response times, completeness of assigned jobs and tasks, adherence to action plans and standard operating procedures and personnel's ability to operate equipment to determine the strengths and weaknesses. (3)
  • Judge the safety and risks or dangers of businesses and buildings against established fire code regulations. Firefighters judge whether buildings and businesses meet regulations, can be renovated and be brought up to code or should be condemned and demolished. (3)
  • May assess the severity of fire and accident victims' injuries to determine the most pressing medical problems. They consult victims and witnesses, triage the victims until emergency medical services arrive, communicate symptoms to medical staff and determine risks to victims' lives. (4)
  • Assess the gravity and hazardousness of fires. Firefighters judge the danger of fires moving to other floors and the potential for oxygen back drafts that quickly increase the intensity of fires. They increase safety precautions by immediately communicating the escalating situations to all emergency personnel and may recommend the evacuation of all firefighters from burning buildings. (4)

Job Task Planning and Organizing

Own Job Planning and Organizing

Firefighters work in very organized, structured and hierarchical environments. When they are not responding to emergency calls, firefighters follow set schedules to complete chores and duties, monitor firefighting and safety equipment, verify station supplies and check current inventories. They also answer and attend to emergency calls through strict protocols within highly structured management systems. While firefighters develop and follow operational procedures for most emergency situations, they must often adapt plans to suit unique sites and emergencies. (4)

Planning and Organizing for Others

Supervisors of firefighters set their own work routines and are responsible for the day-to-day scheduling of tasks for all firefighters under their command; however, those working in smaller departments may set their own work schedules. They encounter significant variety in their work activities, as every incident is unique. Short-term planning is used to best respond to the emergency situations. On the scene of an emergency, firefighters must prioritize tasks quickly and efficiently. Firefighters encounter many disruptions in the course of duty. For example, a building's conditions may deteriorate, resulting in an abrupt change in their approach to fighting the fire. Their work is always integrated with the emergency plans of others, such as paramedics, police officers and medical staff. Firefighters may report to supervisors and fire chiefs who have higher levels of authority. Their success is measured against standards and norms within the service. (4)

Significant Use of Memory

  • Remember the fastest ways out of buildings and the locations of streets and major buildings in the communities they serve.
  • Remember emergency medical response protocols and acronyms such as Airway, Breathing, Circulation (ABCs) to treat critically injured casualties.
  • May memorize important sections of firefighting standards such as fire codes, the National Fire Protection Act and their departments' standard operating procedures.
  • Remember common formulae used in calculations. For example, firefighters recall the formulae for calculating friction loss of water pressures in hoses where the flow rate, sizes and lengths of hoses and the heights of targets are variables.

Finding Information

  • Find information on completed standard incident reports and hazardous occurrence investigation reports to determine persons involved and actions taken during maintenance and emergency calls. (2)
  • Gather information from witnesses, other firefighters and emergency responders and from personal observations when they arrive at emergency situations with little to no information. They must use the information to rapidly develop plans to contain and control the situations. (2)
  • Find information about the assembly, maintenance, repair and use of firefighting equipment by referring to manuals, lists and information sheets. (3)

Digital technology

  • Use word processing software. For example, they write memos and incident reports to keep records of firefighters' and stations' activities. They also write purchase requisitions for requests. (2)
  • Use databases. For example, they review chemical manufacturers' databases to determine chemicals' characteristics and may enter daily information in Firepro, an Access database used to record trends found at emergency scenes. (2)
  • May use spreadsheets. For example, supervisors of firefighters may enter data such as overtime, regular and training hours into spreadsheets such as Excel. (2)
  • Use communications software. For example, they use e-mail programs such as Outlook to communicate within and between fire departments. (2)
  • Use the Internet. For example, they search Internet sites to find information on products and best practices. (2)
  • Use other computer and software applications. For example, they use training software to simulate real emergency situations. (2)

Other Essential Skills:

Working with Others

Teamwork is essential to successful firefighting and efficient responses to emergencies. All members of fire services are well trained in their jobs and how to work together to be successful and safe. More experienced firefighters may lead team efforts but all must understand the chain of command in their departments and collaborate in chores and emergency situations. (4)

Continuous Learning

Firefighters take part in many continuous learning opportunities to develop skills in new firefighting practices and participate in regular exercises to practise standardized firefighting techniques and demanding physical manoeuvres. They participate in continuous learning and professional development activities like advanced First Aid, CPR, First Responder training, WHMIS training and specialized firefighting skills including those requires for airport and harbour fires. They obtain this training primarily through opportunities provided by their local branches and larger professional associations but also identify training opportunities of personal interest or those that may benefit their station, community and jurisdiction. In most cases, firefighters are responsible for identifying and for attending training and developing their skills, but the costs and materials associated with continuous learning activities are often covered by their respective municipalities, departments and associations. Firefighters engage in physical learning activities as well as on-line and paper-based educational development using manuals from professional associations like the International Fire Service Training Association. The quality of their training has a direct correlation to their own safety and that of the general public during emergencies. (2)