Guide to College Majors in Fire Science

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
--W. B. Yeats

What Is Fire Science?

Working in the fire service profession is an exciting, challenging career with many opportunities for advancement. It is a highly valued public service, one that can be quite rewarding. Students interested in becoming firefighters, or working in the fire service field, should consider a major in fire science.

To become a firefighter, you must pass a qualifying exam and then undergo specific training in your location. Most fire departments today require at least a high school education, and some are beginning to require associate degrees or some college credits. Bachelor's degrees in fire science are available for firefighters and other students who are interested in the disaster planning and policy aspects of fire protection. Advanced degrees tend to focus on leadership positions in the field, from fire chiefs to government emergency services directors.

Fire science majors study many aspects of the fire service profession, including the behavior of fire, fire extinguishment, rescue, and relevant environmental policy. Students become familiar with the equipment used in firefighting and learn how to maintain it. In some programs, students may combine this classroom study with field training.

During field training, students often can fight controlled fires to learn methods and techniques in firefighting. Students may also have the opportunity to work shifts in a fire station, learning valuable skills and training while on the job with fire service professionals. This hands-on experience, combined with classroom education, provides experience and education that are important to obtaining a career in the fire service profession.

Becoming a firefighter affords many opportunities for advancement. A combination of experience and education is typically required for advancement. Advancement opportunities for an entry-level firefighter include fire inspector, fire investigator, and fire chief.

Advanced degrees in fire science often focus on management training or fire inspection skills. These degree programs usually are for the fire service professional seeking advancement in his career. These programs typically focus on one aspect of fire science, such as fire suppression or fire protection.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), careers in fire science are expected to grow at an average pace. Competition for jobs in this field is fierce. The minimum education required to become a firefighter is a high school diploma, which makes these positions highly sought-after among job seekers without higher education. The satisfaction of working in a public service profession often draws candidates to fire service professions as well.

People are also often drawn to fire science because of quality benefits. Aside from excellent health benefits, most fire stations offer guaranteed pensions upon retirement after only 20 years of service. Another benefit of working in the fire service profession is the infrequency of layoffs. Most fire departments resort to hiring freezes or purchasing embargos, rather than downsizing. Current employees' jobs typically are safe during lean times in a fire station.

Because of the keen competition for careers in fire science, the best opportunities for employment will likely be for job seekers with education beyond the high school level, and some on-the-job experience. Physical fitness and overall good health are also important factors in a fire service career.

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Career Education in Fire Science

College degrees in fire science are offered at many levels, from certificate programs to master's degrees. Degrees in fire science are sometimes general and sometimes specific to a particular field of fire science, such as fire suppression, fire prevention or fire services leadership.

Certificates and undergraduate degrees are typically designed for the newcomer or junior firefighter who seeks a desk job that requires field knowledge. Advanced degree programs are designed specifically for the experienced firefighter or related professional who wants a leadership or policy-making role in fire protection.

Online degrees in fire science have become increasingly common, especially among working fire service professionals who don't need field training. These flexible programs work especially well for firefighters in remote locations, without access to campus schools, and for older professionals who are ready to quit the field but not the fire protection sector. Focusing primarily on disaster planning and response, as well as long-term policymaking and general administration, these online degree programs enable firefighters to move out of the field and into administrative jobs if they so desire.

Certificate Programs in Fire Science

Undergraduate certificates in fire science are available to students who have completed at least a high school education. These short courses of study typically take less than a year to complete. Undergraduate certificates are often available at night, on weekends and online.

These programs often focus on one specific area of the firefighting profession, such as fire inspecting, arson investigation, or new firefighting methods. Undergraduate certifications are excellent educational opportunities for both firefighting professionals and for students seeking entry-level fire service positions.

Associate Degree Programs in Fire Science

Associate degree programs are two-year courses of study that require a high school diploma for entrance. An associate degree in fire science typically serves as preparation for an entry-level position as a firefighter.

Coursework includes fire behavior, rescue procedures, and the basics of fire extinguishment. Hands-on instruction or a required internship is common. General education classes are required in addition to subject-specific courses such as emergency medical technician (EMT) basics, the chemistry of fire science, and the uniform fire code.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Fire Science

Bachelor's degrees in fire science are often sought by current firefighting professionals interested in advancing their careers. However, a bachelor in fire science is becoming increasingly more common among candidates for entry-level firefighting positions as well. A bachelor's degree in fire science can often help a candidate for a position as a firefighter stand out above those without education beyond high school.

A major in fire science often requires hands-on instruction and/or an internship. Online courses, however, may focus exclusively on administrative and policy topics-or they may help students arrange field experience locally. Courses common to a bachelor's degree in fire science include fire prevention, emergency management, and fire investigation. General education courses, such as algebra and writing, are also required in order to improve students' professional skills.

Bachelor's degrees typically take four years to complete. Entry to a bachelor's degree program in fire science requires only a high school education, although an associate degree in a related field may be useful.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Fire Science?

  • Firefighters respond to emergency calls of all types, including car crashes, building fires, and emergency rescue operations. Their primary responsibility is to fight fires, but they are often called to assist with other emergency issues as well. They must have skills in both firefighting and emergency medical training.

    At the scene of a fire, firefighters have many duties. They use their equipment to ensure that water goes where it is needed. Firefighters rescue victims trapped in buildings or other structures, and provide emergency medical treatment when needed. They attempt to salvage the burning structure and any of its contents. When not responding to a fire or emergency call, firefighters clean and maintain equipment, perform fire drills, and complete paperwork relevant to emergency incidents.

    Firefighters also visit schools and child care facilities to teach children about fire safety.

    To qualify for employment as a firefighter, a high school diploma or GED is required. In addition, most fire stations require the successful completion of written, physical and medical examinations. An undergraduate certificate, associate degree, or bachelor's degree in fire science can further improve your chances of gaining employment as a firefighter.

    Firefighters' schedules vary from location to location, but they are often on duty for 24 hours at a time. They spend much of their time at the fire station, where they often live in dormitory-like facilities.

    Hazardous conditions are the norm for a firefighter, who might encounter life-threatening fumes, smoke, or fire during any work shift. However, the rewards are high; many firefighters are seen as heroes in their community, and are admired by children and adults alike. The chance to save lives on a regular basis is the primary draw for most firefighters.

    There is great potential for advancement as a firefighter. Within a fire station, a firefighter may move up the ranks from engineer to lieutenant, and further up the chain until becoming chief. Advancement usually is limited to those employees who have both experience in the field and higher education.
  • A forest fire inspector and prevention specialist is a special kind of firefighter who works in national forests and parks. They watch for fires from their watchtower and call in any sightings to the main station. These professionals fight fires in national parks and forests using a variety of methods.

    Prevention of fires is an important part of their job as well. They are responsible for ensuring that campers and visitors to the forests and parks follow fire safety precautions and rules.

    Requirements for becoming a forest fire inspector and prevention specialist typically are the same as requirements for becoming a firefighter. They must complete high school or earn their GED equivalency, and pass physical, written and medical examinations. Opportunities for advancement are improved with completed education.
  • Fire inspectors are responsible for examining the interior and exterior of buildings and structures for fire hazards. They ensure that fire codes are followed, and discuss with the builders or owners any changes that need to be made. Fire inspectors are also responsible for collecting fees for building licenses and permits. Fire inspectors test equipment, such as fire extinguishers, and ensure that it is working properly. If the changes are not made, the fire inspector may issue a citation. If the problems listed on the citation are not brought up to code, legal action can be taken against the building owner or developer.

    Fire inspectors usually are required to complete a certification program acknowledged by the state in which they work. Building codes and citation information may vary, and each state often has its own certification examination designed to test knowledge of its particular fire code. Certification is also available through the Uniform Fire Code Association.

    Fire inspectors are typically part of the fire department, and may be part of a team of fire inspectors. They typically have field experience working and are required to have a high school diploma or GED. Some states will accept an associate degree in fire science in lieu of experience as a firefighter.
  • Fire investigators work at the scene of a fire that is thought to be arson-related or caused by criminal negligence. The investigator's primary responsibility is to determine both the cause and origin of the fire. To do this, fire investigators take photos of the scene, examine the site of the fire, and collect evidence. They interview witnesses and the owner of the building or home that has caught fire. Aside from duties at the scene of a fire, a fire investigator is responsible for reporting any information obtained at the scene. Fire investigators can arrest suspects and carry out warrants. If the case is brought to trial, the fire investigator may be called to testify.

    Fire investigators must have a high school diploma or GED. They must pass written, physical and medical examinations. Fire inspectors typically work as firefighters before becoming fire inspectors, but an associate degree in fire science fulfills the experience requirement in many cases. Fire investigators typically are required to complete a certification program in the state in which they wish to work.

Certification, Licensure, and Associations

A license is not required to become a firefighter, investigator, or inspector. But in order to be hired by a fire department, a firefighter must pass a set of specific exams and undertake local training. Most states require certification to become a fire inspector in their state. State requirements vary, so checking with your local fire and safety board is important.

Voluntary certifications are available for fire service professionals through a variety of organizations. Voluntary certifications show the mastery of a skill set, and are useful in gaining employment or advancement.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) offers many voluntary certifications, including:

  • Certified Fire Protection Specialist
  • Certified Fire Inspector
  • Certified Fire Inspector, II
  • Certified Fire Plan Examiner
  • Certified Building Inspector
  • Certified Building Plans Examiner

All certification programs through the National Fire Protection Association require extensive experience in the field, as well as some relevant education. Certification is also available to fire inspectors through the Uniform Fire Code Association.

Related Associations and Certification Bodies

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