Firefighters don't just put out flames. In some departments, more than half of calls firefighters go on involve medical emergencies. First-responder responsibilities for firefighters vary by incident. However, stabilizing victims and providing immediate first aid are usually at the top of the list, whether they respond to a fire, accident, medical emergency or other kind of rescue.
Though it’s no longer the biggest part of the job, firefighting is still a major first-response job of firefighters. When the alarm bells ring, firefighters drive trucks and gear to the scene, assess the fire and report conditions via radio to captains who decide on a blaze-battling strategy. Firefighters then move toward the flames’ source, using axes, crowbars and other equipment to create openings, and positioning and climbing ladders to get inside and rescue trapped victims. They then fight the fire with water hoses and pumps. Outside, they administer emergency aid to victims of smoke inhalation or burns, and arrange transport to the hospital.
Firefighters are often called to the scene of accidents, including car crashes and industrial mishaps. They use equipment, such as the jaws of life, to cut victims out of wrecked cars. They also clean up spills of flammable or combustible liquids such as gasoline or oil and secure the site to protect bystanders. Because fire stations are located strategically throughout neighborhoods, a fire truck and crew might get to the scene faster than a hospital-dispatched ambulance. So firefighters begin administering emergency medical treatment as soon as they rescue accident victims.
Because firefighters are typically trained as emergency medical technicians, they respond to medical emergencies. Fire trucks are equipped with life-saving equipment to help patients experiencing heart attacks, epileptic seizures and other serious problems. Firefighters are also called to treat people with asthma, diabetic sores, chest pains and shortness of breath. In 2009, The New York Times reported that in some urban centers, as many as 80 percent of calls to firefighters involved medical emergencies. Firefighters also work hand in hand with paramedic and EMT units to give CPR and assemble advanced life support equipment for critically ill patients.
Firefighters sometimes respond to unusual situations. They’ve been called to rescue livestock from ditches and tree trimmers stranded dozens of feet off of the ground. They also answer carbon-monoxide alarms, surveying the level of poisonous gas, clearing the scene, giving medical aid if they find unhealthy levels, and resetting the alarm if they get the all-clear. Other first-response calls include natural-gas leaks, water leaks, boating accidents, building collapses and natural disasters.
Responding to a broad range of calls requires specific training and skills. Many professional firefighters start with a postsecondary certificate in fire science or a related field. Firefighters must pass written and physical tests, including drug screening. They must earn their EMT certification and complete several weeks of training at a fire academy. Qualities the job demands include analytical skills to quickly size up an emergency scene, and communications skills to discuss conditions and give direction to other emergency responders. Physical strength and stamina are essential, as is the courage to put one’s own life in danger to save others.
- O-Net Online: Summary Report for Municipal Firefighters
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: What Firefighters Do
- Tri-City Herald: Wash. Firefighters Rescue Injured Tree Trimmer
- Miami Herald: Miami-Dade Firefighters Rescue Pregnant Cow from Ditch
- City of La Crosse (Wisconsin): Frequently Asked Questions
- City of Ennis (Texas) Public Safety: Carbon Monoxide Response
- The New York Times: Firefighters Become Medics to the Poor
- City of Torrance (California): Why Do So Many Firefighters Show Up for a Medical Emergency?
- City of Muskogee (Oklahoma): Frequently Asked Questions
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: How to Become a Firefighter
- Photodisc/Photodisc/Getty Images