Earning a degree in fire science opens up career opportunities in a wide variety of fast-growing fields. For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for forest fire inspectors and prevention specialists will increase by 27% from 2016 to 2026, nearly four times the growth rate for all other vocations. The BLS similarly projects that demand for forensic science technicians, an occupation that requires many of the same investigative skills as fire inspection, will grow by 17% during the same period.
In addition to excellent job prospects, these roles offer above-average compensation. In 2018, fire inspectors and investigators earned a median salary of $62,510, or roughly $24,000 more per year than the median pay for all other occupations.
This page provides you with an introduction to fire science careers, including information on education and training requirements, an overview of available degree types, and advice on finding a job after graduation.
Skills Gained in a Fire Science Program
The skills needed to work in fire science depend on the career you choose. For example, firefighters must possess exceptional physical stamina and strength for handling heavy equipment and rescuing victims. Fire inspectors need extensive knowledge of fire codes, 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 by taking photographs or creating 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 pre-existing 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 in criminal procedure and evidence management.
- Firefighters and inspectors often provide fire safety training. They need to know how to design and implement curricula, teach effectively, and facilitate discussions. They also must be able to adapt their teaching or presentation styles for different audiences.
Why Pursue a Career in Fire Science?
Pursuing a career in fire science gives you the opportunity to serve your community and potentially save lives. As a result, these jobs command considerable respect and admiration.
Fire science professions also offer job security, high salaries, and a host of other benefits. For example, many firefighters and fire investigators advance in their careers to become emergency management directors. The BLS projects that demand for these roles will increase by 8% from 2016 to 2026. Additionally, in 2018, the top 10% of earners in the field of emergency management commanded salaries in excess of $141,130.
Because firefighters and other emergency professionals place their lives at risk, governments and private organizations offer excellent benefits as a reward for bravery and public service. The children of firefighters, for instance, often qualify for generous academic scholarships, and many fire safety professionals receive a pension upon retirement.
How Much Do Fire Science Majors Make?
Your salary as a fire science professional depends on several factors, including the type of degree you earn. In addition, firefighting and fire investigation jobs in urban areas often come with higher salaries than those in more rural locations. If you work for a local, state, or federal government agency, you may also receive automatic pay increases for completing on-the-job training or earning a professional certification. Finally, your level of experience will affect your earning potential.
How to Succeed in Fire Science
Most jobs in public safety require at least a high school diploma and additional training. Firefighters typically graduate from a fire academy that offers instruction in subjects like emergency medical procedures, fire-prevention techniques, and local building codes. They also receive on-the-job training throughout their careers.
For certain jobs, such as fire inspector, some local and state governments may prefer to hire candidates with an associate degree in fire science or a related field. Specialized and supervisory positions, including fire investigator and emergency management director, may require a bachelor's degree. Finally, while rarely required, a master's degree in fire science may give you a competitive edge when applying for senior leadership roles.
Becoming a firefighter does not require any specific professional experience. You may, however, need to pass written and physical tests prior to enrolling in a state- or department-run fire academy. Aspiring firefighters, emergency medical technicians, and paramedics may also benefit from volunteer experience.
Finding work as a fire inspector or investigator usually requires experience as a firefighter. Emergency management directors also typically need several years of experience in public administration, disaster planning, or emergency response.
Licensure and Certification
The licenses and certifications required for careers in fire science vary considerably depending on the profession you choose. To become a firefighter, you may need to graduate from a fire academy and earn some form of professional certification. More specialized and investigatory roles often require apprenticeships or other significant on-the-job training periods.
In addition to the successful completion of a fire academy program, many states require firefighters to hold certification as either an emergency medical technician or paramedic. The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians (NREMT) oversees both of these credentialing processes. To qualify, you typically must complete a state-approved training program and pass cognitive and psychomotor exams.
Most states require fire inspectors to pass a certification exam aligned with standards developed by the National Fire Protection Association. Fire inspectors may also seek additional professional certifications. Examples include the certified fire inspector credential offered by the International Association of Arson Investigators and the certified fire and explosion investigator credential administered by the National Association of Fire Investigators.
EMTs and Paramedics
Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics both receive certification from the NREMT. To become an EMT, you must be 18 years of age or older, complete a state-approved program, and pass two exams covering subjects like patient assessment, cardiac management, and pediatric trauma response. Paramedics must meet a similar set of requirements and hold EMT certification.
What Can You Do with a Fire Science Degree?
The degree level you complete can play a large part in shaping your career opportunities. Firefighters, for instance, need a high school diploma, though some larger departments may prefer to hire candidates with an associate degree in fire science, public safety, or a related field. Fire inspectors, particularly those that hope to work at federal agencies like the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, often need a bachelor's. You may also need a four-year degree to advance into certain firefighting jobs including battalion chief, assistant chief, or deputy chief.
Finally, while usually not required, a master's degree in fire science may help position you for certain leadership roles such as fire chief or state emergency management director. The sections below provide additional details on fire science degrees and possible career paths.
Associate Degree in Fire Science
An associate degree in fire science qualifies you for both entry- and mid-level roles in firefighting and fire inspection. You may need to supplement your education with additional on-the-job training or a 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.
Firefighters extinguish fires and respond to a variety of medical emergencies. They may also help clean up hazardous materials, including oil spills and chemical accidents, or provide public education on fire safety issues. Applicants with some form of postsecondary fire education enjoy enhanced job prospects.
Average Annual Salary: $47,684
- Fire Engineer
Fire engineers perform many of the same job functions as firefighters but are also responsible for maintaining and operating equipment like fire trucks and fire suppression water trailers. To earn promotion to this level, firefighters typically need several years of professional experience or an associate degree.
Average Annual Salary: $68,467
- Fire Inspector
Fire inspectors ensure that 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.
Average Annual Salary: $52,094
Bachelor's Degree in Fire Science
With a bachelor's degree in fire science, you can take on roles such as 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.
- Battalion Chief
Battalion chiefs oversee the operations of multiple fire stations or companies, directing the response to fires and other emergencies. They also hire firefighters and manage their training. At this rank, most fire departments prefer to hire candidates with a bachelor's degree.
Average Annual Salary: $76,666
- Deputy Chief
In larger departments, deputy chiefs supervise multiple battalion chiefs 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, or oversee instruction at a fire academy.
Average Annual Salary: $89,670
- Fire Investigator
Fire investigators work to determine the cause of fires, explosions, and other public hazards. This process includes 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.
Average Annual Salary: $57,294
- 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.
Average Annual Salary: $80,092
- 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 transportation. These roles typically require a bachelor's degree, though some counties and larger municipalities may prefer to hire individuals with a master's.
Average Annual Salary: $98,990
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 approximately one year of full-time study to complete.
Along with coursework in subjects such as government finance and strategic planning for public managers, master's degree programs often require students to complete either a thesis or capstone project. Writing a thesis usually entails collecting and analyzing original research, while capstone projects typically involve addressing a real-world challenge in fire science. For example, a graduate student may partner with a local school district to design a public safety education program for elementary-age children.
- Fire Chief
Fire chiefs serve as the senior commanding officers within a department or district. Chiefs fulfill many administrative responsibilities including personnel management, equipment procurement, and fire inspection. In smaller cities and towns, they may also act as incident commanders, directly overseeing firefighting and rescue operations. While not typically required, a master's degree demonstrates advanced training to public officials tasked with appointing fire chiefs.
Average Annual Salary: $76,489
- Fire Marshal
Fire marshals and commissioners focus exclusively on the prevention of fires. They inspect and enforce fire codes, conduct arson and accidental fire investigations, and provide education and training to reduce the risk of fires. Fire marshals often exercise certain police powers, including arrest and the issuance of citations for code violations.
Average Annual Salary: $59,565
- 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.
Average Annual Salary: $78,470
Where Can You Work With a Fire Science Degree?
Given that all communities must be ready to respond to fires, natural disasters, and other emergencies, graduates can embark on firefighter careers nearly anywhere in the country. The scope of professional opportunities available to you in fire science, however, may vary based on factors such as location, the exact industry in which you choose to work, your level of professional experience, and the kind of additional training you received after earning your degree.
Where you choose to live plays a key role in shaping your professional opportunities. For example, urban centers tend to offer a greater number of jobs and higher salaries than more rural locations. You may also find it easier to advance in your career while working for a larger fire department or government agency.
The map below includes state-by-state data on the availability of fire science jobs. Alongside career prospects, make sure to consider factors such as quality of life, housing costs, and the availability of educational opportunities.
Earning a fire science degree opens up a variety of career paths. For example, you may find work as a firefighter for your town or county, climbing the ranks to a position like battalion or deputy chief. Or you may instead choose to work for a state agency in charge of creating and enforcing fire codes. In addition, some graduates apply their skills and knowledge to related fields such as safety equipment design or insurance risk assessment.
- Fire Department
Roughly 327,000 firefighters work in fire departments across the U.S. They often encounter extremely dangerous situations and work long and irregular hours.
Average Salary: $79,992
- Local Government
Fire science professionals working in local government tend to work on issues related to fire safety and prevention, rather than fire or emergency response. They may act as code inspectors, educators, or criminal investigators.
Average Salary: $87,000
- Fire Sprinkler Design
Fire science graduates, particularly those that study fire protection systems and fire prevention building construction, may choose to work in the private sector consulting on fire sprinkler design. They may also support the design of fire suppression and firefighting equipment.
Average Salary: $70,750
- Public Safety
Rather than working for a fire department, some students who major in fire science ultimately work for other public safety agencies. For example, they may lead a state natural disaster task force or a county agency that responds to drug overdoses.
Average Salary: $95,300
- Insurance Agency or Brokerage
Some fire science professionals work for insurance companies, helping to quantify the risk of fire damage. Their expertise is often particularly valuable to firms that insure properties in areas prone to wildfires.
Average Salary: $86,114
How Do You Find a Job as a Fire Science Graduate?
If you hope to become a firefighter, you typically must first earn certification as either an EMT or paramedic. You must then pass either your state's civil service or fire service exam and a physical assessment. After fulfilling these requirements, start applying for open positions listed on city websites or online job search engines like Indeed.
Many professional associations including the National Association of Fire Investigators, the International Association of Firefighters, and the National Wildfire Suppression Association host industry-specific job listings.
Professional Resources for Fire Science Majors
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 both online and in-person training opportunities. NFPA also sponsors public education campaigns on topics like wildfire prevention.
IAFC specifically represents the leadership 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.
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 either a formal certification or online continuing education units. The association also publishes public safety career profiles, including advice on becoming a firefighter.
Firefighters and other fire science professionals often must hold EMT certification. NAEMT works to advance the emergency medical service profession through state and federal advocacy, public awareness initiatives on topics like mental health and injury prevention, and a series of publications for both medical personnel and policymakers.
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.
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, construction-site fire safety, and integrated layers of safety. NASFM also convenes an annual conference of state fire prevention officials.
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 manufacturing of safety equipment, and keeps its membership updated on new regulatory and technological developments in the field of fire service.
The membership of IAAI comprises roughly 9,000 arson and fire investigation professionals. The association offers four certification programs, including the certified fire investigator and fire investigation technician credentials. IAAI also publishes a scholarly journal, offers accidental death and dismemberment insurance, and provides scholarships to students pursuing an associate degree in fire science.
The IABPF 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.
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.