Firefighter vs. Nurse
September 15, 2009 10:44 PM   Subscribe

Should I be a Nurse or a Firefighter?

I'm currently in nursing school, expecting my RN at the end of May 2010. I'm also currently going through the vetting process for my local fire dept. I didn't expect to get as far as I have with the fire dept. and it's possible that I will have to choose between the two within the next few months. I can't do both at the same time because I'd have to go to fire academy for 10 weeks and I'd miss too much school. I got involved in both because I love emergency medicine. As an RN I plan to work in the ER, or as a firefighter I hope to work mostly as a paramedic (most modern fire depts spend most of their time doing EMS).

Some pertinent info:

I'd really love to do both; firefighter is only 2 days a week (24hrs each day) and I'd love to work as a ER nurse on my days off, but this question is about which I should choose now.

Cut off age for firefighter is 35, I'm 31.

I've accepted financial aid for this semester and if I don't finish I will have to pay back $4000.

If I leave after this semester is over I could probably go back to finish my RN next Fall, either at the same school or online.

Starting salary is comparable for both, but with more avenues for upward mobility and greater education with RN (I'd eventually like to become a nurse anesthetist).

RN is more mobile- I can be a nurse anywhere, I can only be a firefighter here (for now at least).

I love working in the ER.

I love working on the ambulance.

My wife is 3 months pregnant.

Thanks in advance.
posted by brevator to Work & Money (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Just to get the obvious out of the way: 90% of this decision is something that only you can know. If you have a hunch that one of them will be more professionally satisfying in the long term, you should probably choose that one.

That said, the rest is just weighing pros and cons.

The most obvious factor is the pregnancy. Six months from now you're going to find yourself with major responsibilities as a parent. If one of those careers is going to require a time commitment that you might have trouble with, then that's a major tick in the "con" column. Being a firefighter is also a more risky proposition, I assume. Most of your time may be on EMS work but you'll also be rushing into life-threatening situations from time to time that have the chance to leave your child without a father. Nothing against firefighters with families, but it's not for everyone.

You also have the financial commitment to your RN program. Unless your wife has an unmentioned and sizable source of income, $4,000 will be a hefty price for a new parent starting a new career.

I'll be honest, it sounds like finishing your nursing program is the best choice. I'm not sure how restrictive the timeframe is on the "vetting" process for the fire department, but if you can defer it until you've finished nursing school and at least given that career path a shot (and your child has grown up a bit) it sounds like you should be able to squeeze in under the 35-year-old cutoff.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:07 PM on September 15, 2009

America is getting older in a hurry. You'll never be out of work as a nurse.
posted by bardic at 11:56 PM on September 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm a nurse, and I'm not going to say this myself because I'm biased, but this is very true and pertains to my own situation.

Think: FUTURE.

What would happen if you begin to have back problems, as so many health care workers have, such as myself? Can you still work as a paramedic with physical health issues like that? Nope.

As an RN, you certainly can. You might not be working in an ER any longer, but depending on the amount of experience you get before any problems arise, you can do a number of emergency related jobs such as writing textbooks or whatever.

Sadly, paramedics are very limited. You're either in or your out. Nurses can do so many other things. Granted, they're not all the dream jobs we want, but we CAN do other things if something horrible happens.

I have 3 cervical disks protruding into my spinal column, with two more just itching to break through. I've seen two neurosurgeons and one says they can be fixed, but it's no guarantee the pain will go away and the other says it's just non-fixable, period. In the end, I've elected not do it. I effectively lost my job in one swoop because I am now banished to the "no lifting" limitations that I've so dreaded.

I have been a nurse for over 20 years and before that, I was a CNA as early as age 17! It's all I know, as you can see. Fortunately, I can get a job at a desk, but the point is that this isn't something I ever expected. I've said many times (I was a CNA instructor for God's sakes!) to take care of your back because you only get one and look at the hypocrite I appear to be now.

I did my best to take care of myself, but alas, I still ended up a broken person. *le sigh*

All that said, the main idea here is to plan for the unimaginable. Naturally everyone needs paramedics and if its what you want to do, then do it. Just create a backup plan, in case the need ever arises. Naturally continue to hope that need never does.
posted by magnoliasouth at 1:05 AM on September 16, 2009 [2 favorites]

Nursing has a great deal of potential--you can pick a specialty, go for your NP or DNP, and like everyone's said, it's INCREDIBLY mobile and always in demand. It's also important to remember that the odds of you dying or getting seriously injured while on duty is significantly lower as a nurse than as a firefighter.

Consider future earning potential, as well: While starting salaries are similar, the upwards potential of a nurse is HUGE--getting your NP may take a couple more years, but you can end up making $90k+ as soon as you have it, and you can parlay that into your own clinic if you ever wanted to. (In some states.)

You simply won't have that sort of earning potential as a firefighter, even in the higher ranks.

What's more, you seem to enjoy the work, and have the skill for it. Unless something is particularly compelling for you on the firefighting route, I'd say that nursing is safe and a good profession. And while firefighting is 2 on 5 off or whatever the configuration is, nursing can be just as flexible--the girlfriend (who's a renal nurse) does 3 12s a week, but can move her schedule around to match almost any need. And she banks an insane amount of vacation time. (She has over 150 hours, because it just keeps banking.)

Just my two cents, but go with your gut. Sounds like you'll like either route, but that things are a bit more certain and that there's more potential if you take the nurse route.
posted by disillusioned at 2:12 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

wait, so firefighter = EMT (sort of nursing) + fire (are you a pyro?) + physical running around + danger

ER = nursing + high adrenaline + running around to a lesser degree. No fire. small danger.

both are nursing sort of things, so maybe go for the RN, where you will have (more?) career advancing options.

If I leave after this semester is over I could probably go back to finish my RN next Fall, either at the same school or online.
Find this out for sure, don't decide on a probably.

Brainstorm: what are your priorities? What are your passions? What are your goals? do this without a career on your mind. Now see what career fits best.
posted by titanium_geek at 2:37 AM on September 16, 2009

What follows is second hand, anecote-based gut-feeling response, but with that caution...

Fire dept now, because it's a great opportunity, but also finish the nursing qualifications when you can, so you can have nursing as a safe backup later.

I say this based almost completely on the fact that I have know two very happy-fulfilled FD EMTs, and many many bitter and unhappy hospital nurses. Broadly: both groups seem very overworked and stressed, and I believe the overarching difference is political. The nurses always seem to feel underappreciated/disrespected while the EMTs seem to feel more empowered, valued and part of a team.
posted by rokusan at 3:19 AM on September 16, 2009

more avenues for upward mobility and greater education with RN (I'd eventually like to become a nurse anesthetist).

RN is more mobile- I can be a nurse anywhere,

My wife is 3 months pregnant.

Then it has to be RN. Pardon the 'old-fashionedness' of this line of thought, but as a husband, father and provider, your first priority IMO is to consider the welfare of your family. If your capacity to be a provider is enhanced by RN, then to me it ought to be RN.

And as I'm sure you know firsthand, being a firefighter is also a riskier proposition. The odds of you one day not coming home, are greater...
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 4:15 AM on September 16, 2009

I've accepted financial aid for this semester and if I don't finish I will have to pay back $4000.

If I leave after this semester is over I could probably go back to finish my RN next Fall, either at the same school or online.

Finish out this semester, if not this year. In fact, I'd wait until my wife has the baby, but that's just me. If the itch is still there next summer, do the firefighting stuff.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:53 AM on September 16, 2009

Wait, you finish school in May 2010? Definitely finish out this year. That way, you'll have much more in the way of career options later on.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:54 AM on September 16, 2009

Don't ever leave in the middle of a semester, if you can avoid it. Quitting in the middle of a semester means throwing away all of the effort you've put into it in the first part of the semester, and having to pay back financial aid would be foolishly wasteful. It also makes you look unreliable if you can't plan ahead far enough in advance to avoid dropping out mid-semester.
posted by Ery at 5:32 AM on September 16, 2009

I am a firefighter/medic, and I won't quibble with what others have said regarding the differences in safety, mobility, and salary. I would, however, point out that as long as people still experience emergencies, EMS will continue to be a viable profession in high demand.

One additional factor to consider if you were to take a position in the Fire Department is the timing of fire academy. It will consume all your energy and leave you with very little else for your family; if it coincides with the birth of your child, it'll be a rough period.

Obligatory firefighting pitch: I don't know a single career firefighter who doesn't like going to work in the morning. My impression of nursing, gleaned solely from my interactions with ER staff, is that this is not universally true for them. If firefighting were safe and paid extravagantly well, you'd see more people who were in it just for the benefits, and the spirit would be different. You are not obliged to select another career because it carries more material benefit and somewhat less risk. When weighing the decision with your wife, consider that in many departments, family members benefit immensely from the cohesion and support of the larger departmental family. This is one of the many reasons I left a higher-paying career to do what I do now. I have never regretted that decision, and I hope to be a firefighter/medic until I'm too old to read an ECG or the pressure gauge on a fire engine.

With that said, I feel your immediate decision may actually be a very practical one. If I were in your shoes, I would pick whatever allowed me the most options later. You've already invested in your degree, you're still 4 years shy of the cut-off age of your fire department (many departments don't even have that restriction, as long as the candidate can demonstrate good physical fitness in a standardized test). Unless you feel the deep, unshakable conviction that firefighting is your future, I would suggest you stay the course, get a sense of how you like nursing, and re-evaluate after a suitable period of time.
posted by itstheclamsname at 5:48 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Nursing for all the reasons stated above.
In your spare time, as long as you live relatively close to a volunteer fire company (maybe you have to move?), I can almost guarantee you will be welcomed with open arms as these organizations are in constant need of volunteer firefighters.
posted by walleeguy at 6:24 AM on September 16, 2009 [1 favorite]

RN is the better choice here. Nurses are always needed and rarely see as many lay offs as fire fighters do.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:30 AM on September 16, 2009

Make sure you and your wife think about those 24-hour firefighting shifts. 24 straight hours of solo baby duty is rough. My brother is a firefighter with a newborn and his shifts are very hard on my sister-in-law, even with a lot of family support. (Of course, when he's not working, it's awesome, he gets to spend way more time with his daughter than, say, my 9-5 husband does with our son...)
posted by rebeccabeagle at 7:35 AM on September 16, 2009

I work with a firefighter who is an RN. He did the RN first and then signed on as a firefighter. Until quite recently he did relief in ERs when he was off-duty from the fire department.
posted by angiep at 9:14 AM on September 16, 2009

Nursing, for all the reasons cited above. But also because firefighters have much higher risks of blood borne illnesses, heart attacks, cancer, cardiovascular disease, etc., because of exposure to chemicals, bodily fluids and so on. I know we need people to be fire fighters. But we also need parents.
posted by acoutu at 1:54 PM on September 16, 2009

[From my user name you can guess my profession]

A word of caution to soon-to-be-new-nursing-grads: The hospital I did my clinical in, a *huge* university medical center, went from hiring 70 resident nurses every May to only 6-7 this past May. Many friends who graduated with me in May 08 (mostly prior to the recession) had jobs upon leaving school but the 20% that did not took up to five months to get work. Most of them had to sacrifice their first choice (ER, ICU, OB) to work on another floor just to find a job. You might have to do this.

My best advice would be to work the ever-loving sh-t out of your clinical experiences. Get to know everyone you can on the floor/unit/department, go out of your way to be helpful without being annoying, let them know you are an honest hard-worker. If anyone asks you if you are considering that specific place for employment, say you would like it more than anything in the world. Make them want you to work there. Then you will have a back up plan in place (if you are doing clinical in the ED already do everything I mentioned x 10).

See, we have a terrible nursing shortage, but few hospitals have the budget lying around to train new nurses and orient them. So they may have job openings, but not for you.

As an extra insurance policy, check out your local laws regarding CNAs or other lower-level nursing positions. You might be surprised at how easily you can obtain a license for them without needing to take any classes because of your nursing credits you already have. If you can, get your CNA, get a job in the ED as a part-time tech or aide and you'll have an even better chance of getting hired at your preferred location because they won't have to orient you and they know your character. This can also hold you over while you are waiting to take your boards.

Good luck. Mefi-Mail me if you would like to discuss more.
posted by nursegracer at 11:33 PM on September 16, 2009

Response by poster: Nursegracer: I've been a tech in a local ED for 2 years. That's what made me want to go to nursing school.

Thanks to everyone for the advice.
posted by brevator at 3:03 PM on September 17, 2009

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