Firefighter – Mentor, Stan May
Stan is a second generation firefighter who has worked for the Tulsa Fire Department for 24 years. During that time he advanced from Firefighter to Captain and was elected to a two-year term as President of the Firefighters Union. He has also served as an Assistant Fire Marshal in Code Enforcement and is now the Public Information Officer for the TFD. In his article, Stan talks about the requirements you must meet to be accepted as well as the training you receive at the fire academy. He also describes how firefighters work together to protect the citizens and each other when fighting a dangerous fire. Because some firefighters are not physically able to do the job once they are past their late fifties, firefighters receive good pension benefits beginning after 22 years of service with maximum benefits of 75% of their pay after 30 years. Because a fireman’s schedule is one 24-hour shift and then two days off, there are opportunities to advance your education, work other jobs or start a business. These are things many firefighters do to supplement their income and it also helps firefighters transition into a second career when they retire from the fire department. Stan points out that the department promotes from within and that there are now many opportunities for women in the fire service. This article will be of interest to anyone considering firefighting as a career or anyone wanting to learn more about how firefighters protect our lives and our property.
Both my uncle and father were firefighters in Wichita, Kansas. My father was injured on the job when I was young, and used some of his retirement to buy a dairy farm. Dairy cattle require attention every day and my father brought me up with a strong work ethic. When I graduated from high school, both my father and uncle encouraged me to join a fire department, but instead I spent ten years working in the construction industry before I decided to follow my uncle’s advice and applied to several fire departments. My uncle advised me to go with a larger department because there were more opportunities for advancement and I took his advice and joined the Tulsa Fire Department in 1991. I went through a four-month cadet academy which has now been expanded to five months. Tulsa runs their own cadet academy but someone can also obtain the same types of firefighter certifications through Oklahoma State University Fire Service Training for those seeking employment in smaller departments.
The academy teaches a number of subjects including:
- Fire Suppression
- Hazardous Material Response
- Search and Rescue
- Structural Collapse
- Confined Space Rescue
- Swift Water Rescue
- Vehicle Extraction
- High Angle Rope Rescue
To be hired by the Tulsa Fire Department you must be 21 years of age, have a high school diploma, and be an Emergency Medical Technician. Requirements vary for different cities with some hiring firefighters as young as 18 years old. Tulsa fire apparatus carry the same types of equipment and supplies as many ambulances and firefighters are expected to be able to provide a number of emergency medical services on the scene like measuring the levels of oxygen, blood sugar and carbon monoxide in the bloodstream as well as being able to administer breathing treatments and those who are paramedics administer a variety of life saving drugs. Tulsa firefighters can provide all the EMS services but they do not transport the patients. That is currently entrusted to EMSA.
Search and rescue efforts during a fire when firefighters have to go deep inside a house or building to rescue people whose escape routes have been cut off can be considered the most dangerous part of firefighting. Firefighters always operate in pairs or groups when fighting fires in structures because of the danger involved. Federal law also requires firefighters be ready on the outside, in case something goes wrong, to rescue the rescuers. The only time firefighters can enter a burning building without backup is when there is a confirmed rescue involved. Firefighters will risk everything to save a human life. While we will make every reasonable effort to protect property, it is not worth the lives of firefighters, property can be replaced, lives cannot. While Tulsa has had firefighters injured we have never lost one at a fire scene, which a record we are proud of since the fire service averages over a hundred firefighter deaths per year except for the over three hundred lost at the World Trade Center.
Like everyone else, my first assignment was as a firefighter was at a firehouse. My cadet class included the first two female firefighters hired by Tulsa. Since then, the new fire stations have all been built with separate facilities and locker rooms for women. The older stations only had one locker room, one shower, a kitchen, a common living area or day room, and an apparatus bay. The stations continue to evolve and now have separate cubicle areas for each firefighter to allow each individual the privacy needed during a 24-hour shift and are designed to accommodate women with separate sleeping, bathroom and shower areas.
Tulsa operates on a three platoon rotation, firefighters work a 24 hour shift followed by 48 hours off. One of the benefits of this type of schedule is you know which shifts you will work for the next year allowing you to plan your personal life around the weekends and holidays you will be required to work. How busy you are and the types of calls you make during your shift often depends on the district where you are assigned. In Tulsa, there are areas with smaller older houses, some with larger houses, areas with large apartment concentrations and those with heavy retail and industrial developments. Firefighters in an older area of town may see several house fires a shift during the winter months while those protecting an area with large houses or apartment complexes may be out all night on a single large fire. EMS runs will go up near expressways and areas with a denser elderly population.
The first truck on the scene of a fire has the option of managing the scene or beginning a fire attack, which often means entering a building, searching for trapped victims and possibly saving lives. There are normally a total of seven companies deploying around 25 firefighters deployed to a house or apartment fire to ensure there are enough firefighters and equipment to provide for the safety of the citizens and the firefighters. The first ten to fifteen minutes of a fire response are the most critical and a fast, effective response by the fire department is imperative if lives and property are going to be saved. Tulsa has 30 fire stations, 675 sworn members, divided into five districts to insure a quick effective response to all areas of the city.
Beside house fires, I have also fought fires in office and high rise buildings. One notable fire was the Petroleum Club, a downtown high rise with the 16th and 17the floors on fire. The first companies on scene set up on the 14th floor to keep one floor between the staging area and the fire. It was obvious after we arrived that we were not going to be able to save the club and restaurant and put all of our efforts into saving the building, which we were able to do. We have also been called to fight refinery fires, and to do other kinds of search and rescue.
I was promoted to captain after nine years. Each fire apparatus is manned by three to five firefighters under the command of its captain. The captain or company officer is responsible for his or her crew and their actions both on scene and at the station. Unlike police officers, who often are forced to work on their own, fireman always work in teams that are directed by an incident commander because of the danger involved during any fire response. Coordination of the fire scene is necessary to insure the safety of the citizen and the responders.
Additional Training and Opportunities
There are other areas in the department you can pursue after you first gain experience by operating as a part of a fire company. I served as training officer for three years, the union president for two years and a code enforcement officer in the Fire Marshal’s office, and I am currently the Public Information Officer for the department.
Firefighters can also serve on OKTF-1, Oklahoma’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue Team, which has been deployed to tornado and flood incidents across the Midwest. It is staffed by firefighters from departments around Tulsa and Oklahoma City. We responded to tornado incidents in Joplin, Moore and Tulsa areas and to the flooding in the Coffeyville, Kansas. The team continues to train and prepare to be certified for national and international responses.
You can also train for other specialties like the Hazardous Materials Response Team, Airport Firefighting, Code Enforcement, Public Education or Fire Investigations.
Compensation and Benefits
The 24 hours on and 48 hours off schedule means you average about 56 hours per week. Firefighters start receiving overtime after 52 hours. In order to reduce overtime a firefighter receives and extra shift off each six weeks. A firefighter for Tulsa with ten years of experience earns about $60,000 per year. You can advance through the ranks from Firefighter to Fire Equipment Operator, to Captain. Beyond the rank of Captain, you can become a District Chief in charge of one of the five fire districts in the city, an Assistant Chief and Deputy Chief as well as the Fire Chief. The TFD promotes everyone internally including the Fire Chief who in other departments can be recruited from outside the department. You have opportunities for more responsibility and higher pay if you want to purse these positions.
You also get paid vacation and are usually able to trade days with other fireman. This makes it easier to manage your personal life and do things like attend your children’s activities compared to many other jobs where the work schedule is not as flexible.
Requirements to Apply
You have be 21 with an Emergency Medical Treatment (EMT) certification, and a High School Diploma or GED. Tulsa VoTech offers an EMT program that will prepare you to obtain your EMT license. Beside the classroom, you will do ride a longs with EMSA and hospitals and will also be required to pass a national registry test.
During the hiring process we look at your work history and education beyond High School. We are looking for candidates that display the attributes that will make them successful during a long career in the fire service serving the public. As part of this evaluation, admissions will look at your high school grades. Good grades in high school are everyone’s first record of achievement. We also want people who we think will stay. Because we thoroughly screen candidates, the TFD’s retention rate is high with 96% of the people we accept staying on until retirement.
The department does understand that people do make mistakes and will give serious consideration to those who have proven the ability to change their behaviors. Being a firefighter is a sworn position so you cannot have a felony conviction and be considered for employment.
I have enjoyed my career as a firefighter. I liked the excitement of the job and have been able to advance within the department. I was able to stay involved in my kids’ lives while they were growing up because of the 24 hours on and 48 off schedule and because I was able to easily trade days with other fireman when I wanted to go to some of their activities. This schedule also allowed me and many other firefighters to have second jobs to supplement our income, get additional education as well as start our own businesses. The same opportunities are available for women now that the fire stations are women friendly. The TFD just promoted its first female District Chief this year. If you can meet the physical requirements, enjoy being part of a team and the excitement of fighting a fire, being a member of the TFD is a career you should consider.
US Department of Labor Salary Statistics for Firefighters
There were 307,000 people employed as firefighters in the US in 2012, the year of the last census, with a median salary of $45,250 with the top 10% earning over $79,150.
The lowest-paid firefighters in the Bureau’s survey were those in entry-level positions. It’s true that in each jurisdiction new firefighters earn less than their experienced peers, but the variance between municipalities makes a greater difference. For example, firefighters in New York City start at $39,370 per year. This is comparable to smaller cities such as Louisville, Kentucky, at $40,339, and the regional Cobb County, Georgia, fire department at $38,355. However, Boston starts its firefighters at $60,000, while starting pay in Seattle is $62,856. So there are large regional differences. This is not only true for starting salaries but also average pay. For example, California was the highest-paying state at an average of $34.15 per hour or $71,030 per year. New Jersey, Washington, New York and Nevada also offered above-average salaries, while Utah, Wisconsin, Maine and Louisiana were among the lowest.