Resume Tips for the Entry-Level Firefighter

April 30, 2009
Of the resumes that I see, the majority of them are boring and do not make a very good first impression.

Creating the perfect resume that brings out the best in you, as well as showcasing your knowledge, skills, and abilities, is not that difficult (at least it should not be that difficult!)

In most of the college level fire technology classes that I teach, I require the students to turn in a resume. I'm not necessarily telling them what is right and what is wrong; I'm suggesting ideas and changes based on my experience and opinion. Of the resumes that I see, the majority of them are boring and do not make a very good first impression. Many of them also have at least one spelling error. Your resume should be easy to read, straight forward, to the point, and present you as the most qualified candidate for the position you are applying for.

What is a resume?

It is a brief (one page or less) "snapshot" of you and your qualifications for the position you are applying for; nothing less, nothing more. What they should put on a resume and what they should not put on a resume confuses some people. To start off with we need to clarify something. A resume is not a job application. Many people think those words are synonymous with each other. They are not.

Let's briefly review some differences between a resume and a job application:

  • A job application usually asks for everything (you usually don't have a choice of what to put in the boxes because you are specifically requested to provide certain information) whereas a resume is left up to you to decide what goes on the paper, and in what order.
  • A job application can be anywhere from one page to six pages, whereas your resume should not be more than one page.
  • Not every employer is going to request or even allow you to provide a resume, whereas most (if not all) are going to require you to fill out some type of job application.

Why do we need a resume?

Some agencies might actually require you to provide one with your application. If they do not specifically ask for one, then you should always attempt to provide them with one at the time you are turning in an application. Some agencies might use the resume as a screening tool, to narrow the applicant pool down to a more manageable number of candidates; especially if they want to only have candidates with specific qualifications or certifications continue in the process.

Do all agencies allow resumes?

When I was testing to become a firefighter, most agencies allowed resumes to be turned in when the application was filed. I have rarely seen applications that stated "no resumes will be accepted." While many agencies allow resumes at the time of application, some do not accept them after that point because of the sheer volume of candidates and paperwork that is added to the process.

What about an updated resume at the time of my oral interview?

While most agencies allow resumes to be accompanied with the job application, many of those agencies do not allow you to provide an updated resume at the time of your oral interview. That is why it is so important to turn one in at the time you submit your application -- you might not have that second chance to submit one at your oral interview. The only reason you should turn in an updated resume at the time of your oral interview would be if you have some changes that have occurred since the time you originally submitted your first resume.

In the past, I remember turning in my initial application and then not having my oral interview until six months to three years after the initial application was filed! Now, hopefully you can see the benefit of offering to submit an updated resume at the time of your oral interview. When they ask you "why do you want to provide a resume, we already have the one you submitted with your application?" -- you can tell them that you have added various certifications, degrees, accomplishments, etc. to that initial resume and you want them to be aware of how far you've gone from that point to today.

What do I need to list on a resume?

I believe in short and sweet. I believe in using major headings such as objective, experience, education, community service/volunteer work, certificates/licenses, special skills, etc. You don't need to use all of them, just what you need (and what you have to offer in the way of knowledge, skills, and abilities). The next issue will cover what information should be contained in each of those major headings.

Should I pay someone to do put together my resume?

Not unless you have extra money you don't mind parting with. If you can use a computer, and are familiar with Microsoft Word, then you should be able to do just fine. Microsoft Word has numerous resume templates in their office software that you can just type in your information and it produces a nice quality resume. I just do it the old fashioned way. I take a blank Word document and start typing away. When I first started testing, I did not have a computer (yes, computers had already been invented and becoming a common site in many households -- I'm not that old), so I had to have a friend of mine type one up for me.

Initially that wasn't a problem. Unfortunately, it got to be a pain (more for him I imagine) to have to go over to his house and have him change the objective because I was taking another test, or even just to add a certificate. It was one of the reasons that forced me to buy a computer and also improve my basic computer skills. Why should you trust someone else to do something so important (and critical to your success) that you can easily do yourself? If nothing else, it provides you with more experience in computer usage, which will be another valuable skill to sell during your interview. Even as a firefighter, you should have a basic understanding of computer usage.

If I type up my resume on a computer, how do I print out the copies?

Unless you have a high quality laser printer at home, I would suggest going down to your local copy shop to print out your resumes. They usually sell high quality resume paper, and have high quality printers. Using lower quality printers can leave your resume looking less than desirable. If you use your computer to create the resume, just save it on a floppy disk and take that disk to the copy shop and use their computer to print it your resume.

What color and quality resume paper should I use?

You can't go wrong by using white, beige, or gray. I would stick to using conservative colors (as opposed to flashy and bright colors). If you were going for an advertising or marketing job that required you to be creative or catchy, then by all means use that neon orange paper. Otherwise, remember that the fire service is still predominantly very conservative. Stick to conservative paper. Also, make sure it is good quality paper and not flimsy like normal copy paper. Good copy shops have racks of quality resume paper to choose from.

How many pages should my resume be?

I am a firm believer in keeping a resume to one page, unless you are going for a chief officer position. When I interviewed for my captain's position, I used a one-page format. While I had enough information to fill two pages, I still felt the necessity to keep it at one page. Why? Because one page is simple, easy to follow, and forces you to "cut to the chase." Too many resumes are extremely wordy and hard to follow. Using one-page forces you to keep only the relevant and important information about you.

I am listing my experience on my resume, what should be the first item under the experience heading?

The common way to list experience is to use the chronological method. That means your present job is listed first and then you work backwards, going down the page.

Do I need to list every job I have ever held on the resume?

Remember how an application differs from a resume. On the application, you are forced to include every job. The resume allows you to put only those jobs you feel necessary or relevant to the position you are currently going for. At the bare minimum, you should always list a present job (assuming you have one). If you have worked at numerous jobs in your lifetime, I would stick to having no more than three or four jobs on a resume. That way you leave space for other important items such as education or community service.

Do I need to list every certificate I have ever received on the resume?

Please don't bore the panel with all of your certificates. Stick to the major selling points (EMT, Paramedic, Firefighter 1 Academy, Firefighter 1 Certificate, etc.). That shouldn't mean you should stop preparing yourself by not taking any more certified classes once you get the above listed certificates, it just means you might not have time or space to discuss all of them.

How often should I be updating my resume?

I am a firm believer in the belief that if you are not updating (adding) to your resume at least once every two months, you are probably not doing as much as you probably should be doing in the way of preparing yourself for the position (entry-level or promotional). You should be always looking at ways to add items such as new certificates, educational accomplishments, professional accomplishments, and/or volunteer accomplishments. Think about it this way. You turn your application and resume in today. It will probably be anywhere from two months to six months (or even a few years depending on how long the list will remain active) before you even get that first interview. If you have been adding accomplishments to your resume, here is a perfect way to present that updated resume to your oral interview panel.

Many times, when you try to provide a resume during the oral interview, they will usually tell you that they already have a copy of one that was provided by the Human Resources / Personnel Department. At that point, you can advise them that you understand that, but that you have also added some educational accomplishments, certificates (whatever) since the time you first filed the original application and resume. You then let them know that you wanted to make sure the board had the most up-to-date information about how much you are preparing yourself to become a firefighter. If I were on the panel, I would be very impressed if I saw a great deal of improvement since the first resume. A good majority of the candidates do not either bother to update their resume or have not been doing as much as they probably should be doing in the way of preparation and motivation.

In Summary

Creating the perfect resume should not have to be a major ordeal. If you stay on top of your resume, always keeping it updated, and always looking at other people's resumes (to see if you can learn something good or bad in relation to how they have packaged their resume), you should find yourself to be successful and have more time to worry about other things such as better preparing yourself for the job or taking time out for fun, family, and friends!

STEVE PRZIBOROWSKI, a Contributing Editor, is a battalion chief for the Santa Clara County, CA, Fire Department and an instructor for the Chabot College, CA, Fire Technology Program. Steve is a 16-year veteran of the fire service. He holds a master's degree in emergency services administration, has authored numerous fire service articles featured in the leading fire service publications and is a regular speaker and presenter at fire service events. He has also mentored and coached numerous entry-level and promotional level candidates. You can find valuable fire service entry level and promotional preparation information and his contact information on his website:

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