Careers in the Armed Forces,
Security and Emergency Services

See also: Personal Development

The Armed Forces, Security and Emergency Services offer a wide range of jobs and careers, both uniformed and non-uniformed. They are also very much ‘public service’ roles, in that you will be making an important contribution to society. This may therefore provide considerable job satisfaction, although the levels of pay may not be as high as in many parts of the private sector.

Careers in this sector also share some common features. For example, the majority of roles require you to be active, especially those in the armed forces. Most also need you to be prepared to engage with people, either within teams or groups, or with the wider public. However, many do not require specialist qualifications and provide training on  the job.

What are the Security and Emergency Services?

The International Labour Organization’s Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety states that the security and emergency services “exist to deal with extraordinary and threatening situations”.

By definition, therefore, people working in this sector are faced with situations that are likely to be outside most other people’s experiences. The sector includes fire and rescue services, paramedic and ambulance services, police services, prison and probation services, coastguards and the armed forces.

Almost all countries in the world will have some form of each of these services (with the possible exclusion of coastguards for land-locked countries).

However, the precise form that they take, including the entry requirements, may vary both nationally and between the different services in each country. They may also be different for different jobs within the same organisation.

The sector is characterised by:

  • Relatively quiet and peaceful stretches of time and work that are interrupted, often at very short notice, by the need for rapid, often stressful action;

  • Periods of relative inactivity followed by intense physical activity;

  • Very clear expectations about behaviour, often set out in a written code of conduct or rules;

  • A rigid hierarchy within the organisation, with an expectation of orders being given and received;

  • The need for very good teamwork, often under very stressful and physically dangerous conditions;

  • Exposure to personal danger or risk; and

  • A duty to protect or rescue others within the community.

Jobs and Careers in the Security and Emergency Services

There is a wide range of jobs and careers available within the security and emergency services.

This means that the sector is often recommended to active young people who are not sure what to do with their lives. Indeed, a degree of physical fitness, and an interest in being active, are perhaps the most important entry requirements.

Jobs within the sector include:

  • Soldiers, from basic infantry roles up to and including roles in specialist units such as the commandos;

  • Army, naval or air force officers, who are in charge of units in the armed forces;

  • Specialist roles such as pilots, mechanics and aircrew across all the armed forces, many of which require specialist qualifications or training;

  • Coastguard officers, who provide emergency support to ships and people at sea, and also carry out search-and-rescue work in coastal areas. They also monitor shipping movements, and provide advice to people at sea or thinking of going to sea;

  • Emergency services support staff, including call handlers and dispatchers who are responsible for taking calls from members of the public, triaging the call, and sending the appropriate response (you can find out more about being a dispatcher in our guest post on how to reduce stress in that role);

  • Prison officers, who are responsible for managing prisons and supervising prisoners;

  • Probation officers, who work with offenders released from prison or on community sentences to make sure that they comply with the terms of their licence and are able to re-join society after their sentence;

  • Intelligence officers, who investigate and monitor matters of national security;

  • Firefighters, who are responsible for protecting and rescuing the public from fires, natural disasters and accidents; and

  • Police officers, who are responsible for maintaining law and order on the streets, including investigating crimes; and

  • Paramedics, who provide the first response to calls for emergency medical care.

Overlaps between sectors

There are two roles that are considered part of the emergency services, but are also part of other sectors:

It is possible to enter these careers with a degree. However, this is not a requirement for many of these jobs.

There are more ideas for other careers that do not need a university degree in our guest post 8 Skilled Jobs You Don't Need University For.

Skills and Qualifications Required for These Careers

Many careers in the emergency and security services, especially at lower level, do not need any kind of qualification except for basic school leaving qualifications. These include soldiers, sailors, police officers and various support and call handling roles. Others, such as officers in the armed forces, need a degree.

Some jobs require specialist qualifications (although sometimes you can train and acquire these qualifications as part of the job). For example, being a pilot will require pilot’s training, which in turn requires good levels of basic numeracy and mathematics.

Beyond these qualifications, the skills required in the emergency and security services are:

  • Physical fitness, because most jobs require physical exertion, and sometimes this will be extreme. Many of these jobs have a fitness test before entry, and most will include some level of physical training as part of the job. It is advisable to be reasonably fit before applying

    You can find some tips for training in our pages on Types of Exercise and Exercising Safely and Effectively.

  • Willingness to be away from home for extended periods at a time, because you may deployed abroad. Many armed forces roles involve spending time abroad—but the flip side is that you may not be able to explore the countries you visit.

  • Willingness to take risks and do work that most people regard as dangerous. These careers are not for everyone, but if you like an adrenaline-filled life, they could be for you.

  • Excellent team-working and communication skills. Almost all security and emergency services work requires team-working, often in highly stressful situations. You need to be able to communicate effectively with those around you.

  • An ability to follow orders—but also to think on your feet in difficult situations, and make decisions for yourself when necessary. Problem-solving and decision-making are important, because there are unlikely to be clear rules in many situations.

  • Flexibility and willingness to adapt to change. Armed forces life can be very boring at times, but change is also a constant.

  • The ability to remain calm under pressure, which we might define as a combination of self-control and being generally good-tempered. Patience will also help.

Three special cases: prison, probation and intelligence officers

Prison, probation and intelligence officers are rather different from many of the other jobs on this page, because they are less likely to involve action.

Physical fitness may be helpful for prison officers, because they are likely to be on their feet and moving around the prison. However, it is less of a requirement, and more a ‘nice to have’. Probation work is much more desk-based and case-based. Despite the ‘James Bond’ stereotype, intelligence work is also often desk-based.

Like many other roles in the emergency services, both prison and probation officers will need excellent communication and team-working skills, and a strong ability to remain calm under pressure. Additional skills required include:

Intelligence officers need excellent analytical skills, along with good verbal and written communication skills for writing reports and presenting the results. They may also need language skills, mathematics to work on codes, or IT skills.

Public Service, Personal Risk

The emergency and security services can probably be summed up as ‘public service and personal risk’. Most jobs are active, physical roles, and for the right people, offer considerable job satisfaction. If you are an active person, and want a job that will enable you to give back to society, look no further!