Firefighters are indispensable foot soldiers here at home - Christopher Dodd
Life can be a complex journey and sometimes the path that it guides you down isn’t always an easy one to follow.
While some of us know exactly what we want to when we graduate high school and college, the rest of us can spend years trudging from one dead-end job to another before we finally find some direction, and by the time we do discover what it is that we want to do with our lives, sometimes the answer doesn’t present itself to us until it’s too late, and we’re too old to answer our true calling.
If you’ve reached that point in your career path when you’ve decided that you want to dedicate yourself to public service, a purpose that’s bigger than yourself, and put your life on the line to ensure the safety of others by becoming a firefighter, but you’re worried that you might too old, there’s good news and there’s bad news.
While some departments follow a strictly mandated rule that they’ll accept no candidates over the age of thirty-five, other fire departments have an upper age limit and recruit based on ability, dedication, and adaptability rather than age.
Most of the guys and girls that we served, and continue to serve with, joined the department because they wanted to make a difference, but because they were too old for the military and were just past the cut-off point for the police department, they turned to the fire service instead.
It wasn’t a third choice for them, it was a desire to do something more with their lives that drove them, and the service was happy to have them join its ranks.
But just because our department doesn’t care about age, it doesn’t mean that every department is the same, which is where the idea that most firefighters join between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five comes from.
But that idea is governed by a number of different factors that don’t apply to every department, which is why we decided to try and explain some of the age restrictions that may or may apply, why they’re set in stone in some areas and why some departments refuse to be governed by the number of Christmases a recruit has spent with his family.
So, if you’re interested in becoming a firefighter, but think that you might be a little too long in the tooth to suit up, give us five minutes and we’ll explain, as best we can, why age is so important to some departments and why others think it doesn’t matter at all.
The Upper Age Limit
As we’ve already mentioned, some of us take longer to discover who we are and what we want to do with our lives than others do. There could be any number of reasons why you haven’t discovered your true calling until you’ve sailed past your fortieth year.
Maybe you dedicated your life to being a full-time parent and now that your children have fled the nest, you want to do something that’s just as important with the rest of your life.
Or maybe you were in the military and now that you’ve mustered out, want a new career that pushes you as hard as your old one did, and is every bit as challenging.
There are hundreds of possible reasons why you might want to become a firefighter later in life. We get it, and a lot of fire departments get it too.
One of the most common reasons why a fire department might impose an upper age limit is purely financial.
If they’re going to invest their time and resources in training you, they want to make sure that they can get their time back and that you’ll serve a full thirty-year career with them before you retire.
Some departments believe that the day-to-day stresses and strains of the job and the toll that it can take on their firefighters is a burden best handled by the young, which is why they choose to set an upper age limit for their recruits.
How true that is open to debate but as unfortunate as it sounds, it can and does matter.
You’re Only As Old As You Feel
While we’d like to believe that the misnomer about only being as old as you feel was true, sometimes that just isn’t the case.
That said, we’ve seen men and women in their late thirties and mid-forties run rings around some of the twenty-something recruits because as Jack Lalane proved, you can be fitter in middle and old age than you ever were when you were young because life has taught you what’s important.
Being happy, fit and healthy.
But just because you know that you’re good as the recruits half your age, it doesn’t mean that the department does and will.
And with that in mind, we’re going to take a quick look at some of the demands that life as a firefighter requires, and why those demands can take an additional toll on older recruits.
Mentally Alert - The life of a firefighter will plunge you into all manner of situations where you’ll be expected to constantly improvise, ad-lib, adapt and overcome any and all untoward scenarios that you might find yourself embroiled in.
As reaction speeds slow down as we get older, some departments prefer to adhere to the idea that young people are more capable of acting and reacting quickly than older recruits are.
Physically Fit - It’s a physically demanding job that involves carrying between seventy-five and one hundred pounds of gear, climbing up and down ladders, pulling people out of burning buildings, and rescuing them from all sorts of unpredictable circumstances.
You’ll also need to meet the challenges of the physical fitness tests and the training academy and be subject to regular review to ensure that you still meet the standards that your department has set.
The older you are, the harder it is to stay in shape, which is something that every department considers when they hire potential recruits.
Commitment - Every fire department expects as much dedication and commitment from their firefighters as it will pour into their training, and as such will look more favorably at a younger recruit, who could potentially serve for thirty-five years rather than one who could only serve a decade before they have to retire.
It’s a purely economic equation, but one that unfortunately some departments place as much faith in as their recruits desire to do the job well, even if they can’t do it for as long as they want to.
However, some departments value life experience and the ability to assess a situation critically rather than just blindly blundering in head first, and as long as you’re able to pass the physical fitness test, and meet the requirements of the job as they’re specified, they don’t, and won’t care how old (within reason) you are, and will happily employ you as a firefighter.
Location Is Key
The simple fact of the matter is that some departments have different age restrictions than others. The FDNY (Fire Department of New York) has an incredibly strict age recruitment policy.
They won’t accept any recruit before the age of twenty-one and have a cut-off point of twenty-nine, because, like a lot of big city fire departments, the majority of the fires that they’re called out to deal with occur in apartment buildings and skyscrapers and as such it is an incredibly physically demanding and arduous job, and they need to be sure that all of their recruits are capable of pushing themselves to the limits of their physical ability, day after day week after week and year after year.
On the other hand, a smaller city with less high-rise infrastructure such as Phoenix, will recruit firefighters from the age of eighteen and has no upper age limit, and are happy to recruit any potential firefighter as long as they can do the job, and do it well.
Location is paramount to the recruitment policies of any fire department, and as the age ranges that apply to the job vary so wildly from state to state and city to city, the best way to find out of your eligible to apply is by either contacting the department directly or by searching for the recruitment policy of the department that you’re interested in online.
What Is The Minimum Age For A Firefighter?
We’ve already mentioned that some states and cities like New York won’t recruit below twenty-one, but a lot of fire departments will, and as long as you have a GED and are a high school graduate, they’ll gladly welcome you into their ranks as long as you’re physically and mentally able to do the job.
Eighteen is usually the minimum age that any department will recruit at, and if you’re interested in finding out what the requirements are for a career as a firefighter when you leave high school, then you should contact your local fire department and talk to them about it.
They’ll be friendly, helpful and will tell you everything that you need to know in order to take the first step on the ladder.
Life As A Volunteer Firefighter
Even if the age requirements of your local department act as a physical barrier and prevent you from becoming a full-time, paid member of the service, there is another path into firefighting and one that you can pursue to help and serve your community.
You could become a volunteer firefighter.
Some small towns don’t have the necessary funding and budget to be able to employ a full-time fire service and rely on local volunteer departments. You’ll be able to serve as a firefighter, and will be expected to do everything that full-time firefighters do, you just won’t be paid to do it.
While the lack of a fiduciary reward is a bit of a blow, there is an upside to serving as a member of a volunteer fire department. And that upside? There are no age restrictions.
You can join at eighteen years of age, and there is no age limit for members.
In fact, most of the firefighters who join the volunteer service, do so after they’ve retired from their primary career and having discovered that retirement doesn’t quite live up to their expectations, are looking for something else to do with their time.
The question is, is money or the opportunity to serve your community more important to you?
The Final Word
So, there you have it, a comprehensive guide to the age policies that govern American fire departments, and the restrictions they apply, and why they apply them. Hopefully, you’re not deterred in your quest to join the fire department and are more eager than ever to do so. The rest is up to you.