How to get my job: Firefighter

There are many jobs in this world. Some are so bizarre you probably don't know they exist; some you might have had no idea people actually make a living at. In an effort to highlight some of these jobs, we've started a new series detailing the origins of people actually working in the field. This week, we've tapped a once local and recent transplant Phillip Carlson to help us better understand the hoops one must jump through to become a firefighter -- and the hoops they jump through every day when they're working as one. Phillip trained in and lived in Denver for several years, leaving a few months ago after getting a job in Santa Fe.

Westword: Tell us a little about your history as a firefighter, the schooling it took and a little about the job-searching process. Phillip Carlson: I'm basically at the bottom of the firefighter hierarchy, known as the "probie" which is short for probationary firefighter. I only have a few months experience in the field, but if you want to become a firefighter, the place to start is by getting your EMT-Basic license. I recommend the Denver Health night class program through CCD. The next thing I did was take a Firefighter I course at a local fire department through Red Rocks Community College. These certificates help but nothing is as big a shoo-in as becoming a paramedic.

WW: Why did you want to become a firefighter, and when did you know it was what you wanted to do? PC: I was working for a dirt bag company, knew it was going nowhere and had done all I could with the opportunities it presented -- I felt really empty. I was always downtown and saw the firefighters helping people out, and they just seemed like they were living it up. I looked into the hiring process and found out that there were physical tests, written tests and oral interviews and that the entire process was based on your scores from each. As someone who has always had a hard time getting to the first interview, the meritocracy of the testing was a definite plus.

WW: Can you talk about the steps it takes to get started, the schooling you had to do, the training? PC: Step one: Get the certifications I mentioned earlier.

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Step Two: Apply everywhere. Every test you take, no matter how hopeless getting hired may seem, is practice for the test that gets you hired.

Step Three: Volunteer and juice up your resume. Some volunteer fire departments have bad reputations for sloppy techniques, so be choosy. Volunteer in your community doing whatever you can.

After you get hired, you'll be put through an academy where you'll learn all the firefighting and EMS skills over again. The academy will vary from department to department. My academy was run like a boot camp. We all had to dress alike, use the same pens and drink from the same type of water bottle. I never thought I'd have to iron military creases into a Dickies shirt so many times or spend countless hours polishing boots. Be ready for pushups, more pushups and punishing workouts that include running up towers in full bunker gear.

After academy you'll be out in the field as the "probie." Be ready to clean everything in the firehouse. You'll also be the butt of pretty much every joke involving saran wrap, powder in your hat and chicken bouillon cubes in the shower head.

WW: What's the best part of your job? PC: All we do is help people. We show up and people are happy to see us. It's really great to help save a person's life, but it also feels good to show little kids the fire truck or cut off a kids bike lock using the jaws of life. There's so much variety and all of it is positive.

WW: How about the biggest misconception? PC: There aren't very many structure fires. Ninety-five percent of what we do is emergency medical service. I was fortunate enough to get a two-unit structure fire fully involved on my first shift. Unfortunately, it was just a couple of porta-potties that we put out in about two minutes. Some firefighters work a few years without even being on scene at an actual structure fire.

This is what a couple of porta-potties look like after they've been burned to the ground
This is what a couple of porta-potties look like after they've been burned to the ground

WW: Can you describe an average day at the job? PC: I get in at 7 a.m. and begin the 45 minute-long process of checking everything on our ambulance. Then I head up into the firehouse to do some cleaning, which lasts until our first call. Sometime before lunch, the fire engine crew will go grocery shopping. In between calls, we hang out, eat meals, et cetera. Then we sleep, hoping that no calls come in. The next day I wake up first (because I'm the probie) and wait for calls, work out and train or whatever.

WW: Do the hours feel tedious? Is it difficult to get accustomed to them? PC: The hours fly by. I can't even keep track of time accurately, and I think that helps with the middle of the night calls. The first day-off shift can be pretty rough. One of my first tours, I got five hours of sleep in the 48-hour time period. I slept the whole first day off, woke up for dinner then went back to bed for the night.

WW: So, honestly -- how badass do you feel on a daily basis? What's it feel like to get gawked at when you're all at the grocery store together? PC: Honestly, not very. We do get gawked at, and women throw themselves at us, but I just want to focus on doing my job well. I'm new at it and it's all still just coming together for me. Maybe someday I'll feel really badass, when I am allowed to grow a huge mustache.


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