The first thing that has to be said is that if you want to become a firefighter for the pay, you’re getting into it for the wrong reasons.
Firefighting is a mentally and physically demanding job, and not a quick money earner. That said, salary has to be a consideration when choosing a career path.
Potentially, a firefighter can make 100k - or more - in a year. However, this is not the average salary. Most firefighters will earn significantly less than that. The pay rate is heavily dependent on the average cost of living in the area, as well as the use of overtime.
If you’re interested in becoming a firefighter, salary shouldn’t be the only thing you consider - but it must be a consideration. In this article, we break down exactly what the pay for a firefighter entails, and how it compares across the country.
This way, you can make an informed choice about your career path.
The basics of firefighter salaries
One of the first things you have to remember about the fire department is that an overwhelming amount of firefighters are volunteers.
In fact, 70% of fire departments are run by volunteers, meaning they don’t get paid at all. Other departments will have a mixture of volunteers and salaried firefighters.
When considering a potential career as a firefighter, salary is unlikely to be the primary concern. And while there may be much more to the job than pay, it is vital to understand the sort of wage you can expect.
It’s important for every future recruit to ask: “how much money does a firefighter make?”
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple an answer. There are two major factors that influence the average firefighter salary: overtime, and location.
The national average salary for a firefighter is roughly $50,000 per year. This average is fairly consistent across several sources, including Payscale, GlassDoor, Indeed, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These averages will go up and down depending on the latest data, but they tend to hover around the $50,000 mark. This would put the hourly average pay for a firefighter at roughly $25.
This statistic refers only to the base pay that a firefighter might receive - and there are a few other ways for firefighters to increase pay.
A firefighter may be paid extra for work as an EMT, or they could receive paramedic pay. They can also earn bilingual pay, educational incentive pay, and special assignment pay.
But the biggest way a firefighter can increase their salary is by working overtime.
Overtime is fairly standard in the department, because there’s a certain level of staffing that’s absolutely necessary for the team to work. This means that in some areas, depending on the number of staff available, there will be a frequent opportunity to earn more money.
Of course, this higher salary is only earned by working more hours, so it isn’t exactly money for free. It’s also important to remember that firefighters work pretty long hours anyway.
The amount of overtime offered does vary from department to department. For some, forced overtime may be a regular requirement, as the station needs you to stay on shift to stay running. Other departments may rarely have a need for overtime.
However, overtime is a standard part of the career, and a good way to earn some extra money.
The other incredibly important factor is location. That $50,000 is the average payment. That means that in some areas the pay is significantly lower, and in other areas it’s much higher.
Usawage.com puts California and New Jersey as the States with the highest average salary for firefighters. This is where we can see some of those 100k salaries occurring. The median salary for Santa Clara, Fremont, and Fairfield are all currently above $100,000.
This is the median, so there will be those earning more, and those earning less. The reason California has such a high average is due to the cost of living in the area.
As you can see, it is possible for a firefighter to earn a six-figure salary. A firefighter living in an expensive area, and working regular overtime, is likely to start earning over 100k after a couple of years on the job.
Even those living in a less expensive area, with a lower base salary, can still potentially earn more than 100k. They would just have to work more overtime.
These statistics refer to those working the role of firefighter. As you get promoted to lieutenant, captain, and chief, the base salary increases with it. Because of this, a firefighter can be one of the highest paid roles in the country that doesn’t require a college degree.
Can firefighters live off their salaries?
Yes, a firefighter can generally live comfortably off their salary, especially when you factor in overtime. The salary a firefighter can expect is often closely linked to the average cost of living in the area. That means that even a lower paid firefighter can live well off their salary.
You may be tempted, from looking at the highest average salary, to assume starting a career as a firefighter in California is the best choice. While the salary implies this is the highest earning course of action, you have to factor in the cost of living.
Perhaps the easiest way to show this is with a comparison. The median salary for a firefighter in Santa Cruz is $53,000. However, the cost of living is roughly 47% higher than the average for the United States, and the average rent is over $2,500.
So, that extra $10,000 that you may earn in California doesn't seem so much now. Instead, the salary in Arkansas stretches much further.
Of course, it isn’t easy to compare salaries across states. There are many more factors to consider than just wage. The number of jobs available is also important, as this will affect potential overtime. The takeaway is that the average salary for a firefighter should be enough to support the lifestyle in each different area.
Which states pay firefighters the most?
Although you may not move across the country just to get better pay, it is worth knowing which states pay firefighters the most.
The states with the highest average pay for a firefighter are: New Jersey, California, Washington, and New York, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The states with the lowest average salary for firefighters are West Virginia, Missouri, North Carolina, and Wisconsin (statistics from Money Nation).
This is only an average across the states, and the standard pay will vary greatly depending on the role, and the exact location. Even the different departments within these states will have varying wages, so you may be paid more, or less, than expected.
Across the country, the average wage for firefighters is expected to rise at a rate higher than the national average.
Do cops or firefighters make more money?
By now, you should have a pretty good idea of the kind of salary you can expect as a firefighter. It is possible to make over 100k, but it isn’t standard. You may find yourself wondering if a firefighter is the right career move for you, or if a cop might be a better choice.
The median pay for a police officer is currently over $67,000. That’s more than $10,000 than what a firefighter might expect. Because of that, we can conclude that a cop will earn more money than a firefighter.
However, these are very different jobs. If you’re struggling to decide between becoming a cop or a firefighter, you must consider much more than just the salary. Your personality, your work ethic, and the sort of role you enjoy is far more important than the base pay.
Firefighting is a tough job. After a particularly brutal day, the salary might be the furthest thing from your mind. In most areas, a firefighter is well compensated for the work they do.
The wage is clearly linked to the average cost of living in the area, meaning a firefighter can generally live comfortably on their pay.
Although 100k is possible, it shouldn’t be the expected wage. A more likely salary is around $50,000.
However, there are lots of opportunities for overtime, which can greatly increase the amount a firefighter can earn. A high ranking firefighter is one of the highest earning jobs in the US that doesn’t require a college degree.
Money is a necessity of any job, but it’s important not to get into firefighting because of the potential financial gains. Be sure to consider all factors of the job before making a decision. The fire department needs those with a passion for teamwork, and a dedication to helping others.