If you’re looking into becoming a firefighter, one common question that you might have is how your average day is going to look. While a typical shift pattern of an office job is 9 to 5, it’s highly unlikely that you’re only going to have to work these eight hours everyday if you're a firefighter.
After all, a fire could strike at any moment. This makes it very difficult to confidently describe a firefighter’s shift pattern and working hours. However, we will try and do our best to explain it in the ideal way.
Almost every fire department will have a rotation around the clock, meaning that firefighters are often working in 24 hour shifts. This might sound strange to you, but many emergency service workers are used to this shift pattern.
Doctors, surgeons, police officers, and firefighters will often work in 24 hour increments. They might then have 48 hours off work, referring to the common ‘24-48’ shift pattern.
Of course, this is only a rough guide to a firefighter’s shift pattern. There are many others that go against the 24-48 shift type. One thing is for certain, though - no firefighter is clocking in at 9 and leaving to go home at 5.
Most people don’t realize the structure that goes into planning a firefighter’s shifts. It is not as simple as giving firefighters a one day on, two days off rotation.
Every member of the crew needs a detailed rotation that fits with everyone else’s. The organizer needs to work them out so that everyone’s rotation works perfectly together without any issues.
Because of this, firefighters often have very strict rules to follow when it comes to their time off. Overtime also comes with rules to follow, and firefighters can get in trouble when disobeying these rules.
So, if you’re still considering joining the force, you’ll need to know what you’re in for beforehand. That is where we come in!
We’ll be looking into firefighter’s shift patterns and working hours, as well as much more about sick days, Kelly days, and why it is so important to have strict rules in place within the emergency services.
The more you know about this, the better prepared you will be. Plus, if you go into an interview with all of this knowledge already in your head, you might impress the bosses and increase your chances of getting on the squad.
So, without further ado, let’s get right into our article on a firefighter’s shift patterns.
An average firefighter’s working hours
Again, firefighting is not similar to an average office job. While someone in an office might have to work 40 hours a week over the course of five days, there is not a set rule for firefighters. Many firefighters have varying shifts and therefore working hours.
Some fire departments use a 24-hour shift pattern where one crew remains at the station for an entire day. Others will break this into two and make their crew only stay for 12 hours before they are relieved of their duties.
The option a department goes for will depend on a number of factors, such as their response times, staffing, budgets, and which type has been proven to work better. The city managers and fire chiefs will work together to come up with the best solution for their department.
A 24-hour shift might sound excessively long to you, and we can assure you that it is. However, it allows the same firefighters to handle all of the checks, operations, and duties for that day.
They will also handle the paperwork so that there is no confusion between the first and second-shift firefighters.
When swapping firefighters halfway through the day, messages can get relayed incorrectly and information lost during the changeover. This can be dangerous if there was an emergency situation and the information communicated between the two crews was incorrect.
Instead, working for 24 hours allows you plenty of time to get everything done that needs doing. You won’t be rushing to finish reports before your shift is over, and you’ll also be able to carry out tasks without rushing to avoid mistakes being made.
Another benefit of this shift pattern is that you will be able to get larger emergency situations under control. If you were needed to deal with a large fire, you could give it the time and patience required to get it under control without worrying about a change in shift workers.
So, if your fire department is often dealing with large incidents they will be more likely to run under the 24-hour shift pattern.
However, there are a few disadvantages that come with this shift pattern as well, as you might imagine. Working for 24 hours at a time can be physically and mentally draining, not to mention incredibly taxing on your well-being.
While a firefighter will be ready and raring to go five hours into their shift, they might not have such good reflexes and reaction times by hour 23.
The fire department is aware of this; however, and it is unreasonable to expect your crew to be able to remain alert and on the ball throughout an entire 24-hour shift. So, they will incorporate ‘sleep time’ into the firefighter’s schedule.
The sleep time allows firefighters to take up to eight hours from their working period to sleep, as long as they have properly set sleeping arrangements at the station.
If a firefighter does not take their full eight hours of sleep time and works some of it instead, they will be paid their usual hourly rate.
Another disadvantage to the 24-hour shift pattern is that you will have to work every third or fourth day, meaning that you will often be working on Sundays as well as major religious holidays.
This is a common sacrifice of being a firefighter, unfortunately. If this is a deal-breaker for you, you should look for a fire department that offers 12-hour shift patterns instead.
The 12-hour shift pattern is slightly less demanding, and firefighters will often be working for four days on, four days off. This is around the same number of hours working as the 24-hour shift firefighters, but with more breaks and longer time off-duty.
Some fire departments find that this shift pattern works better among their firefighters, while others find that the 24-hour shift pattern is the best.
The 12-hour shift departments often like them more due to the fact that they have more ability to adjust the number of firefighters on duty.
For example, if there was a major incident and the department needed two more firefighters to come and help on duty, they would be able to enlist the help of the firefighters currently off-duty who haven’t worked for three days.
If this were to happen with a 24-hour shift pattern fire department, they might find it harder to get crew members in to help with a major incident because everyone not working will have just come off an incredibly long shift and may not be in the correct headspace to come back to work.
Peak periods for firefighters are between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm when the majority of the city is awake. This is when the risk of fires and accidents is at its highest. So, this is when the majority of firefighters who work 12-hour shift patterns will be working at the station.
As a 12-hour shift is shorter than the 24-hour shift, it can help to prevent the firefighters from becoming fatigued. This can be detrimental to their mental well-being and ability to react to dangerous situations properly, so a 12-hour shift can be more desirable for a number of reasons.
Other shift patterns
No matter whether your fire department uses a 12 or 24-hour shift pattern, they will use a ratio that they find to work the best with their crew members. The most common are either 24:48, meaning 24 hours on and 48 hours off, or 12:12, meaning 12 hours on and 12 hours off.
However, this isn’t always the case with some departments. They might find that another works better with their crew and therefore will adopt that ratio, such as 24:72 or even 48:96.
As you can imagine, the last is incredibly strenuous on the firefighters and is often not employed, although it has been used before.
The California swing shift
Originally started in California, the California swing shift is similar to the 24-hour shift pattern with a distinct difference.
Firefighters under this schedule will work for 24-hours, every other day, for five days. After the five days are up, they will be off-duty for 96 hours, or four days. Then the schedule will repeat.
This schedule is otherwise known as:
- 24 hours on duty
- 24 hours off duty
- 24 hours on duty
- 24 hours off duty
- 24 hours on duty
- 96 hours off duty
Many firefighters who use this shift pattern enjoy it the most as it offers them long enough breaks between each shift without having too much time off. Plus, at the end of the shift pattern, they get to enjoy four days off!
Firefighter’s working hours
How many hours you’ll be working in a week will depend on your employment contract that the city managers and fire department heads have agreed upon.
We have listed the average number of hours for a firefighter below, but you might be working more or less than this depending on where you live.
For firefighters on 24-hour shifts, they’ll typically work for 48 to 52 hours each week. Firefighters on a 12-hour shift pattern; however, will work around 42 hours a week because they are working on an eight-day pattern.
People on 24-hour shifts will work a shift before enjoying a 48 or 72-hour block off duty. On the other hand, people on a 12-hour shift will work four days in a row before having 96 hours off.
This is a great opportunity for firefighters who want to spend more time with their families or who want to enjoy some time off to work on other side projects.
Aside from firefighters on 24-hour shifts being entitled to an eight-hour sleep break, all firefighters also get an unpaid, uninterrupted meal break every day. If they work through this break, you are entitled to your normal hourly rate.
Kelly days are mandatory days off in a firefighter’s schedule. The number of Kelly days that you have will be detailed in your contract depending on the department’s policy surrounding them. The schedule that you’re on will also affect how many Kelly days you have.
A common example is one Kelly day per week or once every 10 days. Kelly days are important because while your schedule will often feature 24 to 96-hour blocks off duty, you might be called back into work if there is a major emergency.
This can be strenuous and difficult for you to manage. If there are many major incidents in a row, you might find yourself working all throughout your block of time off.
Without Kelly days, you might find yourself working long hours for multiple days in a row. Kelly days protect you from being overworked, ensuring that you have at least one day off in a 10-day window.
Kelly days are not available to everyone. For example, volunteer firefighters might not qualify for Kelly days. Firefighters on an hourly rate might also be less likely to receive Kelly days than those on a salary.
Kelly days were named after Edward J. Kelly, the former mayor of Chicago, who first created this mandatory time off for firefighters in 1936.
Kelly days offer extra mandatory days off for firefighters, but they also help regulate overtime allowances.
Federal law for firefighters states that they can work for 53 hours a week before they qualify for overtime pay. Regular Kelly days can prevent this from occurring too many times during the year. Therefore, Kelly days save the fire department money in the long run.
Overtime budgets can be difficult for departments to budget for, which is why many like to deter you away from working overtime altogether.
An example of how overtime can be an issue for fire departments is from the Los Angeles County Fire Department. In 2017, they saw an increase of 36% in overtime with 640 crew members earning over $100,000 in payments. This was significantly higher than the state’s police or medical departments.
Due to this influx, the LA fire department was subjected to accusations of failing to manage its budget or staff schedules properly.
Firefighter’s on-call schedules
As we mentioned before, you’re always technically on-call when you’re a firefighter. Except for on Kelly days, you can be called back into work at any time to help with a major fire. However, being on-call does not mean that you are actively working.
If a firefighter is on-call but is not called in to do anything that could be classified as duty, they will not be paid for their time.
However, if they are on-call and do need to come in to help with duty, they can receive payment through overtime.
You cannot accurately estimate how much time a firefighter will work overtime for, as it all depends on the incidents that occur and whether they are needed to help out.
Overall, it is difficult to know how many hours a firefighter will work and what their shift pattern will be like. To get an accurate answer, you will need to ask the department head at the station you are applying for.
The most common shift patterns are 24 hours on, 48 hours off, or 12 hours on and 12 hours off for 4 days, with 96 hours off after that.