If asked to imagine a firefighter, what do you see? Most likely it’s a strong and brave man emerging from the flames, covered in soot and carrying a small, scared child. However, though firefighting is nothing if not a noble profession, the gritty realities of the job don’t always leave room for firefighters to enjoy the valor of their work. Despite the risk of injury and death, it’s a profession that attracts many more qualified applicants than there are positions. In fact, the National Fire Protection Association, or NFPA, notes that in 2010, only about 30 percent of U.S. firefighters were paid professionals, while the remaining 70 percent were volunteers.
Due to the very nature of firefighting, physical injuries are probably the most obvious risk of the trade. Between 2006 and 2008, there were an estimated 81,071 firefighter injuries reported to the National Fire Incident Reporting System, or NFIRS. The NFIRS estimates that 82 percent of injuries were the result of building fires. Though burns, smoke inhalation, and other fire-specific injuries are possible, by far the leading cause of firefighter injury was strain, accounting for about 24 percent of all reported injuries. This was followed by wounds, at 18.4 percent, and burns, making up 14 percent of all injuries. The majority of injuries were caused by overexertion, at 25 percent. Fractures, dehydration, respiratory issues, dizziness and cardiovascular problems all made the list as well.
Tough Working Conditions
Working as a firefighter requires all sorts of stamina, including physical strength and the ability to be alert and respond to emergencies quickly. Firefighters usually need to perform labor-intensive work at the site of a fire or accident, including operating heavy equipment and carrying accident victims. On top of that, the gear that they wear can be heavy, hot, and all-around uncomfortable -- even if it is what’s ultimately keeping them safe from greater harm. Firefighters are generally expected to stay in shape for exactly this reason, and physical exams are a required part of becoming a firefighter.
While the physical demands of working as a firefighter are visible and more well-known, the mental stress is less obvious and sometimes even difficult to discuss. Firefighters need to be able to handle seeing the senseless destruction of property, often resulting in injury and death. As emergency first responders, they often carry a heavy sense of responsibility to the victims that they treat. Cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, in addition to alcohol and drug abuse, are not uncommon among firefighters.
It would be easy to say that at least the dangers are only on the job, but the lifestyle of a firefighter makes it difficult to avoid feeling the effects of work at all hours of the day. Firefighters routinely work about 50 hours per week on a varied schedule, sometimes working 24-hour shifts. A fire department in this country responds to a fire every 24 seconds, according to the NFPA. Not only does this mean that there’s no such thing as a regular sleep schedule, but the time committed to work takes firefighting personnel away from their families, and spouses and kids can’t help but worry about daily workplace dangers.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Firefighters
- Federal Emergency Management Administration: Fire-Related Firefighter Injuries Reported to NFIRS
- National Fire Protection Association: The U.S. Fire Service
- National Volunteer Fire Council: The PTSD Plague: How Firefighters Can Recognize – and Conquer – This Debilitating Condition
Samantha Ley writes career and education articles for various online publications. She also works in social media management and creates test materials and other educational content for various companies. Ley holds a B.A. in English and Spanish from Kenyon College and an M.Ed. from the University of Virginia.