The fire service was developed as a paramilitary organization around 1647, which has helped create the structure of fire department rankings that we see today.
A paramilitary organization is a semi-militarized organizational structure similar to those of a professional military but not actually part of the armed forces.
When firefighters are hired, they are considered recruits. They must complete a recruit academy to become probationary firefighters and remain on probation for six months. Promotions to higher ranks are determined by years of experience, test scores, and other evaluative criteria.
Here is an outline of the firefighter ranks in order:
- Probationary firefighter
- Driver engineer
- Battalion chief
- Assistant Chief
- Fire chief
Fire Department Units
Fire department units are usually divided into a few basic categories:
Two or more firefighters are organized as a team, led by a fire officer, and equipped to perform certain operational functions. This is the basic unit.
A battalion consists of several fire stations and multiple fire companies. A battalion chief has command over each fire station’s officers and each company or unit’s officers, as well as the uniformed firefighters.
This is another division that is most often employed only in the larger departments. A district chief is usually over several battalions.
Here is a look at each role within the fire service and its ranks.
The probationary firefighter is an individual that is classified as entry-level within the hierarchy. They are often still undergoing training and evaluation to determine if there is an organizational fit. The period for the probationary term may span from 6 months to one year, depending on the individual and the organization.
After an individual completes the probationary period, they are referred to as a firefighter. The role of a firefighter is responsible for much of the actual hands-on actions during a live operation. These tasks can include but are not limited to handling hoses, operating fire-rescue equipment, and conducting a search, finding, and rendering of initial first-aid care to victims of the fire.
Fire engineers are responsible for the implementation of firefighting vehicles that respond to emergencies. They ensure that the vehicle is clean and running efficiently, perform maintenance tasks, and drive the truck. In addition to knowing the apparatus in and out, the Engineer is also responsible for knowing the location of every alarm in his jurisdiction and the location of each hydrant.
Aside from overseeing apparatus operation and the crew’s responsibilities, fire lieutenants are also responsible for candidate training, daily firehouse operations, and other duties. In the absence of the captain, lieutenants may stand in as acting captains.
This firefighter is the highest-ranking on-scene responder, responsible for directing operations at the scene of a fire incident and overseeing station duties. This role requires great responsibility, and the individual must have exemplary management skills and the ability to lead firefighters.
The Battalion Chief oversees administrative tasks such as employee scheduling and ensuring all firehouses under their scope are staffed for emergencies. Due to the nature of shift work in firefighting, one fire department could have numerous rotating Battalion Chiefs ensuring 24/7 operational readiness.
The Assistant Chief helps support the Fire Chief by ensuring a high standard of operational quality free from personnel issues that could jeopardize the department’s mission. In addition, the Assistant Chief also helps the Chief with matters such as budgets, community and department programming, training, and managing the success of the fire department.
This is the highest-ranking position in the fire department organization. The Chief oversees all operations and roles inside the department and works with city officials to create a safer community. A successful Chief understands the value of legal agreements, partnerships, networking, trusting and empowering others, and stepping back to look at the big picture.
All ranks have the opportunity to work their way up the ranks to the fire chief.
As firefighters advance their careers, they are likely to assume more responsibility in managerial or administrative roles. It becomes their duty to train, assist, and promote the interests of their company, battalion, or district.