Fire Watch Training: How to Become a Fire Lookout
Fire watch jobs are critical parts of a fire prevention program in some industries. Fire lookouts' sole responsibility is to keep an eye out for potential fires while they're small, and call in fire suppression professionals in an emergency. By doing their job well, they can save lives as well as property.
What is a Fire Lookout?
A career as a "fire lookout" used to be synonymous with forest fire watchers who lived near and worked in remote fire lookout towers, employed by federal or state forestry services. They monitored for wildfire smoke and recorded the location of lightning strikes, then reported any fires via light signals, carrier pigeons, or radio.
Fire tower jobs peaked in the U.S. during the Great Depression, and at this point, the job has mostly been replaced with aircraft and other tech solutions. There are just a few hundred seasonal forest fire watch jobs left in the country.
But the job of a fire lookout hasn't gone extinct so much as evolved – you can still make a living at monitoring for fires and sounding the alarm. You're just not going to be on a mountaintop while you do it.
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Where Are Fire Watch Jobs Now?
Although the jobs are unrelated, modern fire watch positions are a sort of spiritual successor to forest fire watchers. As a fire lookout, your entire job – just like someone in a fire tower – is to monitor for fire hazards and call for help if needed.
Instead of watching for wildfires caused by lightning strikes in the forest, you're looking for manmade fires caused by "hot work" on certain job sites.
Many fire watch jobs are in construction, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires a dedicated fire watcher for any welding or cutting work performed somewhere that "other than a minor fire might develop," or under certain conditions, most of which mean that combustible material is nearby or that fire alarm and suppression systems aren't operational.
This means fire watch jobs are available in industries like construction, industrial maintenance, oil and gas, shipyards, and more. You can also find fire watch jobs through security companies, which offer fire watch patrols in buildings or facilities where fire may break out unexpectedly.
What Is a Fire Lookout's Job?
According to the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA), an average of 4,630 structure fires break out every year related to hot work. Each year, these fires account for 15 civilian deaths, 198 civilian injuries, and $355 million in direct property damage.
As a fire watch, your job is to make sure your job site doesn't become a statistic.
Your primary duty is to sound the alarm in case of emergency, but you're also responsible for monitoring hazardous hot work. This means finding and putting out small fires started by the sparks and bits of molten metal that fly around during welding or cutting work.
When a worker is on fire watch duty, they're not allowed to do anything else. Their attention must be focused on surveying the area near the hot work and detecting early signs of trouble. Additional duties aren't allowed, because they distract from identifying and controlling fire hazards.
Fire watch jobs often include pre-shift inspections of a hot work area, including the inspection of the work site, the removal of combustible materials where possible, and the setup and inspection of fire extinguishing equipment.
There are also post-shift fire watch duties, because smoldering fires can break out over time. OSHA requires fire watch to continue for at least thirty minutes after hot work is complete, while the NFPA recommends at least an hour.
What is a Fire Lookout's Salary?
When you search for the average fire lookout salary, you should be careful to check what industry and job the average is for. The salary for a forest fire watcher is different from a fire watch in general construction, and that will be different from a fire watch in oil and gas.
That said, an industrial fire watch's average salary is in the $35-40,000 range. That's roughly $15 to $17 an hour.
Fire tower job salaries are often reported to be around $55,000 but these jobs are increasingly rare and often seasonal.
What Are A Fire Lookout's Job Requirements?
Fire lookout positions don't have any particular education requirements beyond a high school diploma or GED.
Most employers want a minimum amount of experience within their industry – whether that's a shipyard, construction site, security work, oil and gas, or something else. You'll also need specialized training in fire watch, but you can get this on the job.
Any emergency response training or experience can be helpful when applying for these positions.
General skills requirements include physical strength, stamina, and mobility, as well as being detail-oriented.
What Does Fire Watchman Training Include?
Fire watch positions require specialized training beyond the basic fire safety training most employees receive.
Fire watcher training needs to be tailored somewhat to the industry and worksite, but fire safety trainers generally focus on topics like safety regulations, pre-shift inspections, hot work best practices, required permits, and real-life case studies.