Want to be a Firefighter? Learn Math!

Math really does apply to the everyday world. Even firefighters use math in many different ways while putting out flames! If you’re an entry-level firefighter who can add, subtract, multiply and divide, you’re off to a good start. As you advance in the fire service, your expected level of mathematical competency increases and you should plan to minimally develop a mastery of basic algebra. This knowledge will be tested on the exams, and, most importantly, on the fire ground when you have to think on your feet.

Driver/operators need to determine the amount of water necessary to suppress the fire, the amount of water their apparatus is flowing versus it’s capacity, the time until their tank is empty of water, the amount of water in use relative to the available supply, how much water pressure to use based on variables such as how long the hose is, the amount of friction lost as the water courses through the hose, the resulting pressure at the nozzle relative to the optimal pressure for a perfect nozzle pattern, etc. They may also have to calculate the variation in pump pressure necessary to overcome gravity in a multi-story building, the stopping distance of their apparatus, the weight of firefighters and victims a ladder will support at a given angle, and many related concepts.

Fire investigators might calculate the energy release of building contents when attempting to determine fire cause and spread, time intervals, etc. Fire protection engineers use calculus to design fire sprinkler systems, predict fire growth, design buildings to minimize fire spread, etc. Fire service administrators use math to calculate optimized response routes, fire station placement, and staffing patterns. They establish ratios of supervisors to firefighters, number of personnel required to be outside of a structure for each firefighter inside a structure, and totals for incident responses, inspections performed, etc.

In many states, firefighters are also trained to be EMTs. When taking a patient’s pulse, these emergency responders count how many beats there are in 15 seconds. Then they multiply the number of beats by 4 to calculate how many beats there are in one minute. (A normal resting heart rate for adults is between 60 to 100 beats per minute.)

Firefighter Math Curriculum

“Firefighter Math” is a self-paced math course that refreshes knowledge of basic math concepts and teaches the tools necessary for making math calculations in the field. It starts out with very basic principles such as how to add and subtract fractions. Then it gets into firefighter-specific topics like how to calculate friction loss in a hose lay, and rate of spread. Also included are exercises, quizzes, and a final exam. It’s actually a fairly user-friendly curriculum, useful in training the young firefighter. (“Firefighter Math” was produced by the USDA Forest Service Technology and Development Program, and it was converted to web format by the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory.)

Website: http://www.firefightermath.org

PDF Download: http://www.fs.fed.us/eng/pubs/pdf/00511802.pdf

Additional Resources

Math at Work Monday: Leah the Firefighter – If your little guy or gal is interested in firefighting as a career, this interview is a must read!

Firefighter Math Activity Sheet (PDF) – See if you can do the firefighter math problems on this handout from the Seattle Fire Department. (For additional handouts that incorporate learning goals based on other types of firefighting activities, see: http://www.seattle.gov/fire/publications/activitysheets/activitysheets.htm)

Firefighter Math Assignment (PDF) – Use trigonometry to determine the length and angle of a ladder needed to reach certain heights.

FireWorks Curriculum – The Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory’s scientists, technicians and support staff conduct cutting-edge work in wildland fire research from fire physics to fire ecology. They created the FireWorks curriculum to provide K-12 students with interactive, hands-on materials to study how wildfires affect ponderosa, lodgepole, and whitebark pine forests.

50-Question Practice Firefighter Exam – An answer key can be found at the end of the questions; a step-by-step instructional for the math problems is also included to help you determine how the answers were obtained.

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