Wildland Firefighting - Career Advancement

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Have you considered working as a wildland firefighter? This field can be incredibly rewarding, but if you’re hoping to make a life-long career out of it, it’s worth starting to plan for the future now.

Many entry-level positions require a high school diploma or an equivalent level of education, but as you advance in the field, a bachelor’s degree or higher may be necessary. Take a look at the information below to learn more about advancing in your career as a wildland firefighter. Also, be sure to check out our blog post about job resources for wildland firefighters.

Overview of Wildland Firefighting Careers

Most entry-level wildland firefighters are hired as a GS-3 forestry technician, and you typically need six months of general experience, such as volunteer firefighting. Often, you’ll begin by working as a hand crew, hotshot, or engine crew member.

To hit a GS-4 level position, you’ll need six months of specialized experience or two years of education with coursework related to the field, such as a certificate or degree in fire science. To earn a GS-5 level position, one year of specialized experience or a bachelor’s degree related to the occupation is required.

As you advance from entry-level positions, you must meet National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards at each interval. As an advanced structural firefighter, you must meet NFPA standard 1001 for firefighter 2 or equivalency. As a driver, operator, engineer, or company officer, you must meet NFPA standard 1021 for fire officer 1 or equivalency. Finally, if you choose to serve as an experienced lieutenant, captain, or chief officer, you must meet NFPA standard 1021 for fire officer or equivalency.

Career Paths in Wildland Firefighting

Once you’re ready to move up, what positions are available to you?

Operations

After 1-5 years of experience in an entry-level position, those firefighters who choose to stay in the operations area may advance to a squad leader position as an engine or hand crew member. In mid-career — between 6-10 years — you can become a crew supervisor, fire operations specialist, and/or assistant fire operations officer. As you get into the latter part of your career, you can secure a position as a:

  • Fire management officer
  • Assistant fire staff officer
  • Fire staff officer

Aviation

In your early career in aviation firefighting, you can become a smokejumper, but as you gain more experience, you may choose to advance to the level of:

  • Helicopter module squad leader
  • Smokejumper spotter
  • Unit aviation officer
  • Helicopter manager
  • Pilot

After 10-25 years of experience, you may choose to become a:

  • Smokejumper base manager
  • State/Regional aviation officer
  • National aviation manager

Fuels

After your experience as a fuels crew member or technician, firefighters in their early career may choose to become a prescribed fire monitor. As time goes on, you may also advance to the level of a prescribed fire manager or fuels planner in your mid-career. Those firefighters in the fuels area may again choose to advance to become a state or regional prescribed fire manager or a national fuels program manager in their later career.

Dispatch

In the dispatch field, there are many opportunities to work locally or with the National Interagency Fire Center or at Geographic Area Coordination Centers. Jobs in the field include:

  • Assistant centers manager
  • Center manager
  • Logistics coordinator
  • Predictive services and intelligence
  • Emergency operations coordinator

Is Career Advancement for Everyone?

While there are many career advancement opportunities available to wildland firefighters, they aren’t for everyone. For instance, to become a smokejumper, you must pass a physical fitness test in which you complete seven pull-ups, 45 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and a 1.5 mile run in fewer than 11 minutes – which may not be attainable for every wildland firefighter. Other firefighters work on a seasonal basis and may choose to remain in their seasonal positions as long as they are physically able.

Regardless of your strengths and preferences, if you’d like to make a life-long career out of wildland firefighting, the opportunity is there. Simply identify the direction you’d like to go, and start working toward that specialization.

What type of position would you like to eventually hold in wildland firefighting?

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