July 17, 2007
Doug Hand, Firefighter
After graduating from the University of Washington with an anthropology degree, Doug Hand worked in salmon processing, telecommunications, exercise equipment and book publishing before he alit on a career that really ignited his interest: In 2003 he began working as a volunteer firefighter in South Seattle, a five-night-a-month commitment he maintained on top of his day job in book sales for more than two years. Today he works as a career firefighter for the city of Renton, a position he's held for the past year and a half.
Q: How did you become a volunteer firefighter?
A: Becoming a volunteer firefighter can be a challenge because most departments that have volunteer programs in this area are rural, and/or do not advertise. Mainly it's word of mouth, so visit your local station and ask. Or find a Web site, like FireCareers, which is how I found out about [volunteering at] King County Fire District 20.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about the application process for paid firefighter positions?
A: It's almost a job to get the job, and the competition is pretty much airtight. You have to take a written test, you have to go through an oral board and then a physical, and then another oral, and then another physical, and then a psychological, and then another physical...
Once I started testing, it took about two years to get hired. My second test I got a 94, and I was like, Sweet! I thought I was a shoo-in, but then I found out they were only taking the 98s and above to the next level.
A word on perseverance:
"If you're an aspiring firefighter, don't give up. It's hard, but it's worth it. You just have to really believe in yourself. I used to have a bookmark that says, 'Never, never, never quit,' by Winston Churchill, to keep myself going. I was there when a baby was born in a parking lot. In just 5 seconds, all the rejection, and the pain, and the push-ups, and the tests, they all just became nothing. It was such a poignant moment for me."
Q: What's a typical day like for you?
A: First we get our rigs ready and our gear ready. We're working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on special projects, so maybe EMT [emergency medical technician] training or an inspection – we inspect businesses for the prevention of fires. Sometimes we'll have a DUI training, where we go to schools and show young adults what can happen if you drink and drive. In February we'll have heart month, where we'll go out into the community and take people's blood pressure. This is, of course, [emergency] calls permitting.
After 10 p.m., we can sleep till 7 the next day. But that's if no calls come in. I basically plan to not sleep or to sleep in 2- to 3-hour bursts, which is what usually happens.
Q: How many shifts do you work a month?
A: I work a shift every three days for 24 hours, from 8 a.m. to 8 a.m. So one day on, two days off. I work between eight and 10 days a month.
Q: How often do you actually get to put out fires?
A: How many big fires have I been in? I would say three. But how many fires in all? Hundreds. Something like 75 to 80 percent of our calls are medical in nature. If you throw car accidents in there, it's definitely 85 percent. The other 15 percent will be fire calls, but that includes false alarms or a kitchen fire where the person has already put it out by the time we get there.
Q: How can hopeful firefighters make themselves more attractive candidates?
A: There's no single path. Get involved with your local community somehow, donate your time. If you can, work with a private ambulance company. Volunteer at a hospital in the ER so you get accustomed to being around sick people and trauma patients. Show that you've developed yourself for the job.
Get your EMT license. You can do EMT [training] through a community college or King County. It takes three and a half months. Also, local community colleges provide a two-year degree in fire sciences. That's a great route to go, too.
Q: Any tips on preparing for the testing process?
A: Learn about the written test and talk to people who've taken it. [When I was] volunteering, I called people at other stations and asked about the test. Friends of mine told me that the test was heavy on mechanical reasoning, so I knew I had to zero in on that. I would buy testing books to study with. Also get interview books. [My aspiring-firefighter buddies and I] would get together and do mock interviews – we would even tape ourselves.
If you're not on a good physical-fitness program you're shooting yourself in the foot. The physical tests are all timed. It's like what you have to go through in a day – you'd have to carry 70 pounds up a flight of stairs. It's a commitment to a certain lifestyle. You owe it to yourself, just to avoid injury, to stay in good physical shape. It's a combo of cardio, strength training and this mental determination that no matter what, you're going to make this happen, so that when your legs quit, you're going to claw your way up with your hands.
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