Many people look to firefighting and policing as two careers that would offer similar benefits. They offer the opportunity to do a public service in a respectable (even powerful) position in society.
They also both offer a steady job with good benefits and structure for young people. They both have paramilitary structures where there is discipline and order, which many young people need in their lives.
But there are also some important differences between firefighters and police officers that you might want to consider when choosing your future career.
So, should you become a Police Officer or Firefighter?
By the end of this article, we want you to be able to tell the difference between the two careers – and maybe be a little closer to making your decision between the two.
Related Post: Pros and Cons of Being a Firefighter
Differences between Police and Firefighters
We did an in-depth investigation into the salaries of firefighters recently and concluded that firefighters earn less than most other comparable public services. Taking into account the median wage of all careers, firefighters tend to earn less than nurses and teachers.
And when it comes to police, again – firefighters seem to get the short end of the stick.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median police officer or detective salary at $63,380. This is higher than the BLS’s own statistics on the median firefighter salary of $49,620.
One potential reason for this is that we think there might be more interest in becoming a firefighter than a police officer. If there is more demand for the job, then naturally the wages will be suppressed. We don’t know this for sure, but that’s our speculation.
The latest NFPA information we could find on firefighter deaths shows that there are around 70 firefighter deaths in the line of duty per year in the united states. By contrast, there are usually about 180 line of duty police officer deaths annually in the USA. There are comparable numbers of police and firefighters in the US (between 800,000 and 1,000,000) if you include volunteer firefighters – meaning we can reasonably assume you’re statistically more likely to die in the line of duty as a police officer than a firefighter.
But we should also consider other danger factors. Police have to deal with people with firearms on a regular basis. They’re also much more likely to be dealing with dangerous criminals, domestic violence disputes, and other potentially dangerous members of the public. So, while statistically you’ve got a low chance of dying, every call may involve a serious altercation with a dangerous individual.
But firefighters often face a very different danger: nature. Fires can destroy the structure of buildings, causing them to collapse on you. You often have to run into danger while others run away. Plus, as an Firefighter/EMT, you may be called to a situation where you have to give first aid to people who are violent or on drugs. So, firefighters aren’t immune to the dangers posed by violent members of the public either.
3. Public Opinion
Public opinion polls regularly cite nurses and firefighters as the most trusted professions in the world. Police officers also tend to rate highly, but as this respected Gallup poll highlights, firefighters are regularly rated more highly than police officers.
Anecdotally, police officers on online forums tend to reinforce this perception. Here are a few comments from sources in the know.
Tim Dees, a retired cop from the Reno Police Department and a criminal justice professor, made this observation:
There is another benefit to being a firefighter over a cop. People love firefighters. Cops, not so much. […] Firefighters can advertise their professions with big red Maltese cross decals on the rear windows of their personal cars, and nothing ever happens to them. If a cop puts an FOP sticker on his car, his tires will be slashed within a week.
Adam Christensen, an experienced patrolman in Texas, had a similar sentiment:
If you have to choose between the two, the atmosphere today is anti police and would suggest to avoid the job.
It would be wrong of me not to highlight the other side of the argument: for decades people of color and the working class have been stigmatized by some bad apples in the police force. But that’s beside the point: the point is simply that there are some members of the public (both law abiding and otherwise) who still, rightly or wrongly, look at the police with skepticism and fear.
So the winner seems to unambiguously be firefighters here. People love firefighters. Not so much police.
4. Daily Civilian Interactions
This point follows on from the above point, but is a point all on its own. Firefighters don’t tend to have civilian interactions as part of their core job description. Firefighters are her to work with fires. Police officers work with people. And unfortunately, those people are often the worst of society. They’re often (but not always) people who have broken the law and need intervention in order to protect the rest of society.
So, the people firefighters deal with are often more compliant. They’re also more often happy to see you arrive. Police have a mixed bag. They’ll attend scenes to protect people – but often from other people.
Ken Ossowicz, a 30-year Fire Battalion Chief and Paramedic, made this observation:
I’ll take the fully involved structure fire any day over dealing with armed, unstable, dangerous criminals.
Similarly, Tim Dees, the cop mentioned earlier, highlighted the additional fear police face when dealing with other people. He explains:
While any line of duty death is tragic, there is a significant psychological component to the idea that someone might kill you, as opposed to something. Dying by fire is a pretty terrifying prospect for most of us, but having someone kill us is at least as scary.
So, we’re going with firefighting again for a job that will lead to better social interactions with civilians on a day-to-day basis.
5. Education Requirements
To become a police officer or a firefighter, the general baseline education is a high school diploma. But on top of this, you may have to have some additional qualifications to stand out above the crowd.
For police officers, you will definitely need a high school diploma. On top of this, many people choose to complete a bachelor’s degree. A good bachelor’s degree to choose is a Bachelor in Criminology or a Bachelor in Sociology. These degrees will put you in a good position for your application to join the force.
Other basic requirements will likely be that you’re of age (18 or 21), and that you have a clean criminal record.
Once that’s all cleared, you’ll need to attend police academy. At police academy, you will need to pass all your exam, including a strenuous fitness exam – so be prepared.
For firefighters, you will need a high school diploma – but that’s often not enough. It’s notoriously hard to break into the profession. Usually, you’ll want to gain some social contacts by becoming a volunteer firefighter or an EMT. The natural career progression is from EMT to firefighter, so that’s usually a good bet. You could also take a community college course in fire science which may increase your chances of being accepted into Fire Academy.
6. Career Advancement Opportunities
There are good career advancement opportunities in both professions.
As a firefighter, your best bet is to climb the ladder of command in your own department before seeking sideways movement into other specialties. One that might appeal to you is to work as a wildfire specialist, such as in the elite hotshots division tasked with entering wildfire areas to conduct control burns and fire mitigation activities.
But police have more variety of career advancement opportunities. Examples include becoming a detective, entering the K9 or drug specialist crew, or moving into the federal police. As a higher ranking police officer, you may be away from the front lines, but you’ve got the opportunity to bust higher-level criminal syndicates and more reprehensible criminals. Overall, you’ll have a greater variety of specialties to choose from in policing than as a firefighter.
Something else to keep in mind is that, as your body gets older, you’ll find it harder to keep up with the physical demands of both jobs. Fortunately, if you’re a police officer, you’ll likely have moved into a position where you’re spending less time on the beat and more time conducting investigations – which will be much better for your body!
7. Higher Purpose
In terms of the value you provide to society, we’d say this one is a wash as well. Both police and firefighters serve a higher purpose and are there to protect the most vulnerable in their time of need.
Firefighters defend all members of the public from the dangers of fires, while police defend us from the worst among us who might choose to do us harm.
At the end of your career, you can rest assured that no matter whether you’ve served your community as a firefighter or police officer, you’ll be able to look back and say you did your bit for your community.
It’s not surprising that here at Firefighter Garage, we tend to lean toward firefighting as a better career opportunity. But we hope that we’ve provided some balanced and informed information here on what to expect in each career. Either way, you’ll be entering a profession that serves a higher purpose and is there for the good of all in society. It will have its moments of excitement (but also moments that are scary and dangerous). Overall, we hope this article gave you an idea of what to expect and helped you move a little closer to your decision on what career you want to pursue.