Oregon’s Firefighters – First Ones In, Last Ones Out

by Kale Donnelly

December 16, 2020

As Oregonians, we’ve all probably pulled off to the side of the road to make way for the whirring sirens of fire engines passing by. Thankfully, we never second guessed the aptitude and effectiveness of the courageous men and women in those trucks because they’re highly trained professionals who embody the definition of public servants. Those brave enough to take on the responsibility of going into the danger rather than running away have earned a specific title all their own – Firefighter. As of 2019, Oregon is home to nearly 4,500 career firefighters, as well as many volunteer firefighters whose employment is difficult to estimate. With an annual average wage of $70,625, favorable benefits, and an unrivaled camaraderie with coworkers who double as housemates, firefighting can be a very desirable career. Let’s take a look at what it takes to become a firefighter, how they operate from day to day, and how the demand varies from county to county.

Do You Have What It Takes?

In order to become a firefighter candidate, one must undergo extensive physical and mental conditioning to train for the job’s stringent requirements. Candidates must pass exams that test spatial awareness, reading comprehension, mechanical reasoning, logic, observation, and memory. Applicants must also pass a physical fitness test – the Candidate Physical Ability Test (CPAT). This test has eight separate events that must be completed in less than 10 minutes and 20 seconds. The events include a weighted-vest stair climb, 50 foot hose drag, weighted equipment carry, and a wall-breaching hammer swing to name a few – all to ensure a candidate is minimally fit to complete basic firefighter duties.

The amount of training to become a firefighter is extensive – it takes more than 400 hours to earn your Firefighter II Certification. The lion’s share of this training is time spent at Fire Academy, a boot camp of sorts intended to turn individuals into sharp, calculated, and efficient firefighting team members. On top of that are specialized elective trainings that trainees can undergo in order to specialize in many different areas. According to the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training’s (DPSST’s) Fire Division, firefighters along the coast will receive more extensive training in maritime firefighting; those east of the Cascades typically have more of an emphasis on wildland firefighting; and those in larger urban areas will train more comprehensively in urban navigation and structural firefighting. Most firefighters will specialize in something, but all of them are trained to adequately respond to any distress calls they may receive.

A candidate must also obtain the required Emergency Medical Technician certification, given that these men and women must be able to perform various medical procedures when they arrive on scene. Not all responses to a call are for fire-related incidences. It’s not uncommon to see a fire truck at the same scene as an ambulance. Why? Both medical and fire departments can provide many of the same medical services, and firefighters aim to cut down the response time by possibly arriving sooner than their ambulance counterparts.

“Like a Swimming Duck”

I was able to visit with Dave Howe, a now-former Battalion Chief and Public Information Officer for Bend Fire and Rescue. With over 42 years of fire service under his belt, Dave has a deep understanding of the profession and all it entails. When asked what drove him to the firefighting lifestyle, he said it was the combination of helping people in their most desperate times, the unrivaled teamwork amongst the crew, and the problem solving that comes with each new day’s challenges.

Thanks to extensive training inside the classroom and out in the field, the men and women under the leadership of people like former Chief Howe are physically and mentally prepared for almost any difficult situation that may arise. “Every day is a training day, either formal training or informal… we have to remain calm and able to think clearly in the midst of an incident, as well as when we respond to a call,” says Howe. To help with this incident preparation as much as possible, firehouse personnel maintain a constant state of readiness by performing checks on their personal equipment, maintenance on the engines, and ensuring medical treatments for wounded citizens don’t go expired. With the changing of technology, more advanced equipment takes know-how and maintenance in order to preserve that constant state of readiness – thermal imaging cameras, air monitoring equipment, and multiple computer based programs.

Almost anything and everything can happen during a medical response or fire call, which is why hundreds of hours are spent training and honing the skills of firefighters. “Things turn out better when we all stay calm and focused, with ‘command presence’ like a swimming duck – paddling like crazy underwater, but cool, calm, and collected above.”

(Please note: This is a previous interview of mine with Dave Howe from 2019, and he has since stepped down as Chief at the beginning of 2020. Given his decades of institutional experience, and record as the city of Bend’s longest-serving employee, his insight and our interview’s takeaways are still incredibly valuable and informative.)

Much More than Just Fighting Fires

Just how often are firefighters responding to calls that require their attention? This varies greatly by county, and at first glance seems to coincide with county population. In the state’s most populated county, the Portland Bureau of Fire in Multnomah County reported the greatest number of “runs” in the state – a term used for any time the fire engine’s tires hit the pavement. Interestingly enough, only 3.7% of the over 350,000 runs throughout the state were in response to a fire-related incident. The other roughly 96% were in response to other emergency calls, with the largest contributor of those runs made to respond to emergency medical treatments. This provides the explanation as to why Oregon’s more heavily populated counties have a higher number of runs – more people in any area will inevitably have a greater need for emergency medical care.
Our employment numbers at the Employment Department show that counties with a higher number of responses to calls have a higher proportion of people employed within the fire protective service. However, a caveat to this data is that volunteer firefighters (which significantly dominate a greater share of firefighter employment in rural counties) fall under the All Other Support Services industry, and separating volunteer firefighter employment from this industry is nearly impossible. According to the DPSST, roughly 70% of firefighters throughout the state come from a volunteer or combination department (career and volunteer).


Firefighters are not only physically and mentally fit individuals, but they are also service-oriented professionals who willingly risk their lives to keep their communities safe. While they are away from their families, they’re at the firehouse with their fire crew ensuring that they and their equipment are prepared for any call at a moment’s notice. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in firefighting, former Chief Howe says, “Get involved in a student or volunteer role at first, and go in with eyes wide open and ready to learn – no preconceived notions... If it is the job for you, you’ll know it because you won’t want to be away from it very long and you will want to keep learning and getting better.” There are various training programs for aspiring firefighters throughout Oregon, and many are listed in our website’s Occupation Profiles. Additional information in this highly informative tool are current job openings, wage levels, projections, and occupational skills. Oregon’s firefighters – the first ones in and the last ones out – are highly invaluable, and welcome more to join their ranks.

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