Fire science majors study the physical properties, characteristics, and behaviors of fire, as well as the techniques professionals use to put fires out. Programs also emphasize fire investigation techniques and rescue skills, including reviews of pertinent environmental legislation and safe approaches for fire remediation.
Most careers for a fire science major relate to firefighting and rescue services. This guide examines a variety of fire science careers, along with options for continued career growth and professional development.
Why Pursue a Career in Fire Science?
Careers in fire science typically attract people with a strong desire to help their communities. Other important characteristics include dedication, a commitment to teamwork, adaptability, and the ability to perform under pressure. An aptitude for hands-on work with machines and technical equipment will also serve you well.
Many fire science majors go on to become firefighters, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), or paramedics. If these career paths interest you, keep in mind that you will also need to meet physical fitness requirements to pass entry examinations.
Fire Science Career Outlook
The median annual wages for firefighters in the U.S. are around $50,000. However, those who ascend to specialized or senior positions — like fire inspectors and top department administrations — can expect to earn higher wages.
Trained fire science professionals enjoy consistent demand, as fire departments provide essential emergency services and must remain fully staffed. In terms of job growth, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that the number of firefighter positions in the United States will grow by 5% between 2018 and 2028. This matches the average projected growth rate for all occupations in the U.S..
The following table summarizes the salaries typically earned by fire science professionals at various stages of their careers:
|Job Title||Entry-Level (0-12 months)||Early Career (1-4 Years)||Midcareer (5-9 Years)||Experienced (10-19 Years)|
|EMT and Paramedic||$35,180||$36,090||$44,580||$48,796|
Skills Gained With a Fire Science Degree
The skills needed to work in fire science depend on the career you choose. For example, firefighters must possess exceptional physical stamina and strength to handle heavy equipment and rescue victims. Alternatively, fire inspectors should have extensive knowledge of fire codes, strong investigative skills to uncover the causes of fires, and the ability to communicate effectively with witnesses and the general public. Fire science professionals develop these skills through training, work experience, and formal education.
- Planning and Code Review
Firefighters, inspectors, and investigators all need a thorough understanding of building and fire codes. This knowledge allows them to recognize violations and safety threats in existing buildings, navigate dangerous situations when responding to an emergency, and provide input to architects and builders as they design new structures.
- Evidence Collection and Analysis
Fire investigators must collect and analyze evidence to determine the origins of fires and prevent future fire hazards. This may involve reviewing building plans and fire inspection files, working with chemists and engineers to identify potential accelerants or explosive materials, and documenting evidence through photography or diagrams.
Physical evidence is not always sufficient to determine the cause of a fire. Fire safety professionals may also need to interview witnesses and other involved parties to better understand how and why a fire started, what preexisting conditions may have contributed to the blaze, and if negligence was involved.
- Criminal Investigation
In addition to uncovering the causes of accidental fires, investigators probe for signs of arson. Investigators must establish a chain of custody for all evidence so that prosecutors may ultimately use it in criminal proceedings. Fire science degree programs often feature coursework that covers criminal procedure and evidence management.
Firefighters and fire inspectors often provide fire safety training. They need to know how to design and implement curricula, teach effectively, and facilitate discussions. They must also be able to adapt their teaching or presentation styles for different audiences.
Fire Science Career Paths
You can pursue many rewarding careers with a fire science degree. Most jobs in the field involve direct, hands-on duties focused on firefighting, emergency response, and rescue operations.
Some programs offer niche concentration options. If a specialized branch of fire science interests you, seek a program that offers the opportunity to study that topic in detail. Examples of generalist and specialized fire science career paths include:
Firefighters provide first response services to active fires and other types of emergencies, including medical distress calls, car accidents, incidents involving known or suspected hazardous materials, and general calls for assistance. They undergo regular training and professional development to ensure their readiness and adherence to current best practices.
In many jurisdictions, firefighters must complete the same training and licensing that EMTs go through while preparing for active duty. Therefore, fire science programs offer the necessary academic background for those planning careers as EMTs or paramedics. Paramedics function much like EMTs, except they hold advanced emergency response certifications.
- Arson Investigator
People sometimes set fires deliberately through acts of arson. Arson can cause major property damage, injuries, and loss of life. If responders think a fire seems suspicious, authorities will call in arson investigators with the specialized knowledge and training needed to determine how the fire was set, who may have set it, and why.
- Forestry Fire Specialist
Forest fires can burn out of control, potentially causing enormous environmental and ecological damage. When they occur near populated areas, forest fires can also threaten the safety of human populations. Forestry fire specialists learn how to contain, control, and extinguish large-scale fires in vegetation-rich landscapes.
How to Start Your Career in Fire Science
Employers of fire science majors increasingly prefer candidates with at least a bachelor's degree, which provides the necessary knowledge base for the ongoing, long-term, on-the-job training firefighting professionals undergo. However, aspiring EMTs and paramedics may pursue required certifications and licensure after completing a two-year associate degree.
Individuals who want to become specialists, like arson investigators, and professionals who aspire to leadership positions in fire departments often choose to earn advanced degrees to further their careers in fire science. Master's programs examine specific, focused topics in comprehensive detail. Successful graduates of these programs are highly capable and deeply knowledgeable professionals with elite training and leadership skills.
Associate Degree in Fire Science
An associate degree in fire science qualifies you for both entry-level and mid-level roles in firefighting and fire inspection. You may need to supplement your education with additional on-the-job training or professional certification.
Associate programs typically combine general education coursework with foundational instruction in subjects like fire behavior and combustion, building construction for fire prevention, and the principles of emergency services. Most full-time students earn all 60 credits required for their degree in just two years. If you attend a community college, you can often transfer these credits easily into a bachelor's program at a four-year state college or university.
What Can You Do with an Associate in Fire Science?
Firefighters extinguish fires and respond to a variety of medical emergencies. They may also help clean up hazardous materials (e.g., oil spills and chemical accidents) and provide public education on fire safety issues. Applicants with some form of postsecondary fire education enjoy enhanced job prospects.
- EMT or Paramedic
These workers take care of injured or sick individuals in emergency settings. They respond to 911 calls and help transport patients to nearby hospitals in an ambulance. EMTs and paramedics usually have some form of postsecondary education and they must have a state-issued license.
- Fire Inspector
Fire inspectors ensure buildings and other structures meet local, state, and federal fire codes. Responsibilities include testing fire alarms and sprinklers, reviewing emergency evacuation plans, inspecting fuel or hazardous material storage, and maintaining fire inspection and fire permit files. Some employers require prospective fire inspectors to hold an associate degree or higher in fire science.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Bachelor's Degree in Fire Science
With a bachelor's degree in fire science, you can take on a role as a fire investigator or emergency management director. You may also need a four-year degree to advance beyond the rank of captain as a firefighter.
Most undergraduate programs consist of 120 credits, and full-time students typically earn their degree in four years. After completing general education coursework in areas like English and the humanities, students explore subjects like emergency services personnel management, legal foundations of fire protection, and principles of fireground strategies and tactics. Many colleges also require or strongly encourage students to complete an internship with a fire department in their community.
What Can You Do With a Bachelor's in Fire Science?
- Deputy Fire Chief
In larger departments, deputy chiefs supervise multiple firefighters and usually report to a senior chief or state-level fire commissioner. Deputy chiefs may also create departmental budgets, work closely with community leaders on matters of public safety and fire education, and oversee instruction at a fire academy.
- Fire Investigator
Fire investigators work to determine the cause of fires, explosions, and other public hazards. This process may include interviewing witnesses, reconstructing the scenes of fires through photos and diagrams, and collecting evidence like fingerprints or traces of accelerants. Fire investigators may also have the power to arrest arson suspects and often are required to testify in court.
- Emergency Management Director
Emergency management directors create disaster preparedness plans and lead emergency response efforts. They usually coordinate the work of elected officials, public safety personnel, and nonprofit aid organizations. Most of these directors hold a bachelor's degree, though some smaller municipalities may hire candidates with a high school diploma and significant professional experience.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
Master's Degree in Fire Science
A master's degree prepares you for highly specialized and senior leadership roles in fire science. Most graduate programs consist of 30-40 credits and take 1-2 year of full-time study to complete.
Along with coursework in subjects like government finance and strategic planning for public managers, master's degree programs often require students to complete a thesis or capstone project. Writing a thesis usually entails collecting and analyzing original research, while capstone projects typically involve addressing a practical challenge in fire science. For example, a graduate student may partner with a local school district to design a public safety education program for children in elementary school.
What Can You Do With a Master's in Fire Science?
- County Administrator
Emergency management leaders sometimes advance into executive roles in the public sector. A county administrator, for example, may manage a team responsible for regional fire protection, public works, education, and/or transportation. Some of these roles may be earned with only a bachelor's degree, though counties and larger municipalities may prefer to hire individuals with a master's.
- Postsecondary Teacher
Postsecondary teachers instruct students at vocational and technical schools, colleges, and universities. They may also advise students, chair college departments, and conduct research in their areas of expertise. Although most four-year institutions require professors to hold a doctoral degree, community colleges may hire fire science instructors who have only a master's.
Sources: BLS and PayScale
How to Advance Your Career in Fire Science
For practically all fire science careers, learning does not stop when you earn a degree. Continuing education and constant on-the-job training impact virtually every area of professional practice.
Many careers for a fire science major, including EMTs/paramedics, firefighters, and fire investigation specialists, require some type of formal credential. For example, if your planned career path involves the use of fire trucks, ambulances, or other specialized vehicles or equipment, you may need to undergo additional training to obtain the necessary state-issued operator licenses.
Read on to learn more about certifications, licenses, continuing education, and other ongoing training requirements for careers with a fire science degree.
Certifications and/or Licensure
Firefighters in most jurisdictions are required to be licensed as EMTs, although specific requirements vary by state. In most cases, fire science and postsecondary EMT training programs build these skills into the curricula, preparing students to earn licensure before they graduate. Additionally, departments often require job candidates to demonstrate their proficiency with critical core skills to confirm their job eligibility.
Aspiring firefighters must also pass physical examinations that test their fitness. Because they carry out search and rescue operations, firefighters must meet certain fitness requirements; for example, they must show the ability to lift and carry incapacitated individuals who are in need of assistance.
Specialists like arson investigators may also need job-specific credentials. For example, the International Association of Arson Investigators offers a certified fire investigator credentialing program with widespread industry recognition. Professionals who require these types of endorsements typically need to recertify every 2-5 years, depending on local department policies.
Additionally, remember to consider vehicle licensure requirements if your planned career path involves driving fire trucks, ambulances, or other specialized vehicles.
For firefighters, continuing education typically takes the form of ongoing on-the-job training. Fire departments constantly hold field-based fire and search-and-rescue simulations designed to keep their team members sharp and in full command of their emergency response skills. These become part of your standard job duties should you choose to become a firefighter.
Most employers require that EMTs and paramedics regularly complete recertification and relicensing programs. In some jurisdictions, state-level agencies oversee certification and licensing programs, while others recognize credentials issued by national organizations like the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians. Candidates may have to complete continuing education units as part of their recertification or relicensing requirements.
If you wish to advance into a specialized career or leadership position, you can also go back to school to upgrade your degree. Aspiring administrators can also supplement fire science schooling and professional experience with degrees or certificates in subject areas that support their long-term career growth, such as organizational management or business administration.
Firefighters require high levels of strength and endurance to perform optimally during crisis situations, so adhering to a regular physical fitness regimen will serve you well throughout your career. If you wish to learn new skills, most fire departments support ongoing learning and professional development programs. Training opportunities may exist on-site or through partner departments or educational institutions.
You can also use these learning opportunities to explore focused areas of professional practice or refresh old skills. Practicing fire science professionals can take courses and seminars in a variety of subjects that cover topics like equipment use, response logistics, firefighting techniques, emergency response techniques, and more.
How to Switch Your Career to Fire Science
While a growing number of aspiring firefighters choose to earn fire science degrees, most municipal fire departments in the United States do not count a college degree among their firm requirements. Instead, firefighters only need to hold a high school diploma (or the equivalent) and a valid driver's license to qualify for entry into training programs leading to employment. Even so, a fire science degree signals a high level of commitment to the profession and can lead to better job opportunities.
More specialized roles — especially those involving fire investigations — require formal fire science schooling. Many professionals choose to pursue advanced degrees in concentrated practice areas to enhance their mastery of core skills and concepts.
Where Can You Work as a Fire Science Professional?
A large majority of fire science professionals work for municipal or regional fire departments and emergency response services. Some also work for government agencies, helping create and implement policies and administer resources for fire departments and first responders. A limited number also establish themselves as independent, self-employed consultants. For example, some arson investigators work this way.
Less common work environments include facilities like airports and large factories, especially those that manufacture particularly sensitive, hazardous, or flammable materials. Some companies that handle shipping and transportation logistics for flammable or hazardous materials also maintain in-house fire science specialists to ensure the safety and legality of their operations.
Resources for Fire Science Majors
Emerging and established fire science professionals can take advantage of many different professional development and knowledge-building resources. These include open courseware, professional organizations, and specialized periodicals and publications.
- Professional Organizations
National Fire Protection Association: Founded in 1896, NFPA works to eliminate death, injury, and property loss associated with fire and related hazards. The association maintains a listing of codes and standards, conducts and disseminates research for emergency responders, and provides online and in-person training opportunities. NFPA also sponsors public education campaigns on topics like wildfire prevention.
International Association of Fire Chiefs: IAFC specifically represents the leaders of firefighting and emergency response organizations around the world. The association organizes conferences on subjects like community risk reduction, hosts an online knowledge center that allows fire chiefs to collaborate, and provides scholarships to first responders seeking a postsecondary degree.
Fire Department Safety Officers Association: FDSOA promotes safety standards and best practices in the fire, rescue, and emergency services communities. Members can attend networking and professional development events and earn a formal certification or online continuing education units. The association also publishes public safety career profiles, including advice on becoming a firefighter.
National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians: Firefighters and other fire science professionals often need to be licensed as EMTs. NAEMT works to advance the emergency medical service profession through state and federal advocacy. The association oversees public awareness initiatives on topics like mental health and injury prevention, as well as a series of publications for medical personnel and policymakers.
National Volunteer Fire Council: Roughly 70% of all firefighters in the United States are volunteers. The NVFC provides a wealth of services in support of these individuals, including a volunteer firefighter support fund, a behavioral health helpline, and an online learning center with classes on subjects like flawed situational awareness and what to expect from voluntary fire service.
National Association of State Fire Marshals: NASFM represents the individuals appointed by governors and legislatures to serve as state fire marshals. The association provides online training in areas such as crowd management, fire safety at construction sites, and integrated layers of safety. NASFM also convenes an annual conference of state fire prevention officials.
Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association: FEMSA serves as a trade association for public safety businesses, such as the producers of fire extinguishers and emergency lighting. The association organizes industry trade shows, creates standards for the design and manufacture of safety equipment, and keeps its members updated on new regulatory and technological developments in the field of fire service.
International Association of Arson Investigators: The IAAI represents roughly 9,000 arson and fire investigation professionals. The association offers four certification programs, including the certified fire investigator and fire investigation technician credentials. The IAAI also publishes a scholarly journal, offers accidental death and dismemberment insurance, and provides scholarships to students pursuing an associate degree in fire science.
International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters: The IABPFF works to increase the recruitment and career advancement of black firefighters and other black public safety professionals. In addition to organizing an annual research and networking convention, the association maintains a jobs board and recruitment partnerships with local fire departments in the United States, Canada, and the Caribbean.
National Emergency Management Association: Since 1974, NEMA has enhanced public safety through emergency preparedness and response. The association provides training to new state emergency directors, curates an online resource library covering topics like private-sector coordination and extreme weather, and hosts a web-based forum to help emergency professionals get advice and assistance from their colleagues.
- Open Courseware
The Effect of Fires on People, Property, and the Environment - University of Maryland, College Park: This course, delivered over the Coursera platform, introduces learners to the many ways in which fires impact property, ecology, and the people who survive and fight them. Content looks at the psychological, emotional, and economic effects of fire, as well as how fire professionals can deploy resources to relieve affected individuals and communities.
Improving Understanding and Collaboration Among First Responders - Johns Hopkins University: This noncredit professional development and training module requires registration but remains available to all learners at no cost. It examines the ways in which institutional structures affect various types of first responders, including police, firefighters, EMTs, public health departments, and private security providers. Lectures and class materials aim to identify ways in which members of these respective groups can improve their collaborative and cross-departmental communication skills.
Firefighter Math - U.S. Forest Service: During emergency response operations, firefighters must make complex estimations and calculations quickly, often in a matter of seconds. This course, offered by the United States Department of Agriculture's U.S. Forest Services, refreshes mathematics skills with regard to applications like water flow rates, humidity levels, flame lengths, and imperial-to-metric unit conversions.
The Journal of Fire Sciences: Issued by SAGE Publications, this peer-reviewed academic journal informs readers about the latest research findings, technological advancements, and process improvements shaping the world of fire science and emergency response.
Scientific Protocols for Fire Investigation: This seminal, widely referenced manual explores the applications of practical and theoretical fire investigation concepts. The work concentrates on the scientific methods and principles that underlie professional fire investigations, with a particular focus on identifying the causes of fires. The book's third edition is the most recent update as of 2020. It was written by John J. Lentini.
Fire Technology: Published by Springer, this periodical publishes original research and works of theory related to existing and emerging firefighting, fire prevention, fire engineering, and fire investigation technologies and techniques.
Fire Safety Journal: This international academic journal takes a broad approach to covering questions and issues specific to the world of fire safety engineering. It covers topics like the chemistry and physics of fire, fire safety methods, active and passive fire protection and prevention systems, and many other related areas. The goal of this publication is to help elevate fire safety engineering to equal standing with other engineering disciplines, such as mechanical and civil engineering.
Forensic Fire Scene Reconstruction: Authored by Dr. David J. Icove of the University of Tennessee, Gerald A. Haynes, and John D. DeHaan, this reference work was updated in 2013 and reissued in its third edition. The book's contents lay out a detailed, systematized, and complete approach to the forensic reconstruction of a fire scene for investigational purposes. It makes extensive use of case studies to deliver clear illustrations of essential points and concepts.
Frequently Asked Questions
- Is fire science a good degree?
While some fire science careers do not require a degree, employers and municipal fire departments increasingly prefer candidates and trainees who hold a bachelor's degree in a relevant subject area. If you want to become a firefighter or fire investigator, you will face fewer barriers to entry if you hold a specialized fire science degree.
- What can I do with a degree in fire science?
A fire science program can help form an excellent educational base for aspiring firefighters and fire investigators. You can also use your training to become an EMT or paramedic, a forest firefighter, or a researcher specializing in fire engineering and fire response best practices. Research-oriented career paths generally demand advanced degrees.
- Do firefighters with degrees get paid more?
Most fire departments pay employees according to fixed schedules that correlate salary with experience, but not necessarily training or schooling.
- What is the highest-paying firefighter job?
Generally, fire chiefs and administrators earn the highest salaries among fire science professionals. However, you can combine formal schooling with extensive professional experience to launch entrepreneurial ventures that fill gaps in current emergency response and fire management practices.