You’ve probably noticed that your local city is not permanently going up in flames and that might have led you to wonder, what is it that firefighters do when they’re not tackling an inferno? Well, there are quite a lot of tasks firefighters handle and the complete list of jobs that they do might surprise you.
When not fighting fires, firefighters spend all day responding to medical emergencies and other types of calls, checking equipment, vehicle maintenance, housework/cleaning, writing reports, training and education, physical fitness, public safety demos, and station tours.
It’s a rarity when a firefighter finds themselves with nothing to do. The demands of the job mean that most firefighters are working throughout their shift on a wide-variety of tasks. So, let’s take a look at that in detail.
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Also read: The 11 Best Firefighter Documentaries
Why Aren’t Firefighters Always Fighting Fires?
In the last 40 years or so, there’s been a growing trend in American firefighting. There have been far fewer fires to fight than there once were.
This is because construction and materials have dramatically improved and are designed to prevent fires as much as possible. In addition, the majority of places around the country have implemented stricter fire codes.
Even things like cars are simply better built and better designed for fire protection than they once were.
Then combine this with the increased prevalence of fire detecting and fire fighting equipment employed in structures, vehicles, etc. even when a fire does break out – it’s often extinguished before anyone realizes it, this again has cut down on the amount of work fighting fires that firefighters do.
This is a positive thing; it means that fewer people are harmed, and less property is lost in fires than at almost any point in America’s history. And this has caused firefighters to become more well rounded as they serve the public in many other ways.
What Do Firefighters Do All Day?
Firefighters are employed to fight fires. This is their first priority and no other emergency service can tackle this work for them.
While it is true that there are fewer fires than there once were in America, many firefighters note that the side-effect of this is that the fires they do fight tend to be bigger and more severe than many of the fires that they would once have fought.
Fire fighting remains the core of the job and it’s incredibly important. Fires that aren’t controlled and extinguished can often rapidly spread and damage and destroy other properties and people that weren’t even involved with the initial blaze.
However, fighting fires is just one part of what modern firefighters do.
Here is a video by the Kingsport Fire Department in Tennessee that talks about life at the fire station:
What Do Firefighters Do When Not Fighting Fires?
There are 14 key areas of work that firefighters do when they’re not fighting fires.
So, let’s take a look at each of these in more detail:
1. Respond to Medical Emergencies
Nearly 95% of calls that come to fire departments are not for fires and the majority (about 65%) of them are for medical emergencies.
The crew can also provide other valuable services on medical or trauma related calls including emergency scene management, reducing fire hazards (think vehicle accidents, etc.).
While fire engines are not designed to transport people to the hospital, firefighters receive the same medical training as the EMTs and Paramedics that work on the ambulance.
Note: Some fire departments are equipped with ambulances and handle emergency medical transport as well.
Also read: Why Do Firefighters Go to Medical Calls?
2. Respond to Other Calls
There are also a range of calls that are not medical emergencies, and which are not fire-related but which still have to be responded to.
While fire departments don’t, typically, go out to fetch cats out of trees. They might be called to a building where an elevator is stuck between floors, for example, to help rescue the trapped occupants.
Some examples of other types of calls are:
- Car Accidents
- Fire alarms sounding/malfunctioning
- Gas leaks
- Lift-assist (helping uninjured citizens who are unable to get up on their own)
- Hazardous Material spills/release
- Specialty rescues
- Power lines down
- Building flooding/water leaks
- Police assist
- And many others…
Essentially, when anyone has an emergency and they don’t know who to call for help, the fire department will respond. (unless it is a police-related issue). This means that firefighters must be a jack-of-all-trades to handle any situation that arises.
3. Equipment Checks and Inventory
You’d be amazed at how much gear gets carried on a fire engine or truck. That means it needs regular inspection to ensure that it’s all present, that it’s all been stored properly and that it’s all working.
That means inventory management is a critical skill for firefighters – they need to ensure that they have the tools they need and that they are working, for whatever emergency they are dealing with.
It’s also worth noting that firefighters may be required to clean and maintain some of this equipment to ensure that it lasts as long as possible without breaking or needing replacing.
4. Maintaining Vehicles/Apparatus
Fire engines don’t take care of themselves and if they’re not kept clean and at an operational standard, all the time, then the crew risks having to walk to the fire carrying buckets of water (thankfully, this doesn’t happen).
Each crew will work through a complete check on the engine each day and they will need to document everything that is done – from changing the oil to the state of the tires. Some of this is required by the department of motor vehicles. It is usually performed by the apparatus driver/engineer or operator.
If a problem is identified, then the firefighters will need to arrange for mechanics to repair it and for a replacement (reserve) engine while repairs are underway. It is always better to find a problem at the fire station rather than en route to a call.
5. Testing and Maintaining Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Firefighters are also responsible for their own gear – that is the personal protective equipment (PPE) that each firefighter takes out to an incident whenever they are called upon.
They will need to test and inspect this gear each shift. They will clean and repair what they can and if anything is broken beyond repair – it will need to be removed from service and replaced.
This prevents malfunction during use and also potential health risks (such as cancer due to the use of contaminated gear).
6. Maintaining the Fire Station “Housework”
Firefighters are also involved in keeping their fire station in a fit state for duty. With people inside the station almost 24 hours a day, 365 days a year – there’s a lot of wear and tear and a lot of garbage being generated each day.
This means that firefighters, when not on call, can be found washing things down, disinfecting, changing lightbulbs, fixing the paintwork, organizing and tidying the station, and doing the kind of general purpose work which, while it might not be exciting or glamourous, keeps the station running as efficiently as possible.
The fire station is the firefighter’s home away from home. Think about it. Most departments have three shifts that rotate, so each firefighter spends a third of their life (during their career) at the firehouse. They take pride in their house and in their gear.
7. Report Writing
Yes, while the previous shift is going to leave a bunch of reports to review – the current shift will need to be creating its own reports. In fact, possibly the biggest task for many firefighters is the paperwork that must be done.
Every single incident that the crew attends must be reported on. As you might expect, much of this is to allow for process improvement but also to provide a record of evidence for insurers and other interested parties under specific circumstances.
These reports can’t be rattled off in a minute, they can take quite a substantial amount of time (about half an hour is typical) to complete.
At my department, the captain writes a report on every call we respond to. And for medical calls (EMS) the firefighter or driver has to do an additional medical report (Patient Care Record) as well.
8. Training and Education
A firefighter’s learning is never done. There are many other larger chunks of knowledge that a successful firefighter will need in their career and this usually means taking training courses or even further education programs.
No firefighter’s formal education stops when they start the job, in fact, they’re really committing to a lifetime of learning and much of it is done informal environments and informal environments during the working day.
This includes frequent training with your crew with your equipment. It also means staying up to date with changes to policies and protocols, which is always evolving and improving. As new equipment is introduced, firefighters are expected to become proficient in their use.
This process is never-ending. As soon as you covered the new topics for training, you need to go back to refresh the skills and knowledge you haven’t used recently or needs improvement. Good firefighters are always striving to become better and help each other master their craft.
If a firefighter wants to advance in their career, they will need to take certain exams and courses to promote to new positions and gain new responsibilities. If they want to be able to undertake certain specialist roles, the same is true.
9. Review Previous Shift Data
Each shift will compile a bunch of reports and when the next shift comes on duty – they need to get up to speed with those reports.
There are two groups of reports that need to be read as a priority: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reports and the incident reports. The fire service operates in an atmosphere of continuous improvement – a firefighter’s learning is, quite literally, never done until the day that they retire.
There will also be reports from the previous crew if they’ve found any issues with equipment, the station, personnel, etc.
In these cases, the oncoming shift will try to tackle any issues or work around them to ensure that they don’t affect their work. These reports allow the service to operate fluidly with multiple crews.
10. Physical Fitness Training
Firefighters are required to demonstrate very high standards of physical fitness. Running up a set of stairs in full gear (approx 45+ pounds) while carrying hose and tools is no joke – it takes a lot of strength and a lot of stamina and if you want to be able to handle fighting a fire for hours after that, you need to be in shape.
Almost all firefighters will spend some time in a physical exercise program and there are usually dedicated training areas in fire stations to facilitate this. Firefighters strive to maintain a high level of fitness throughout their career.
11. Public Safety Demonstrations and Education
One of the most important roles that firefighters play when they’re not fighting fires is engaging with the local community. After all, the best way to save people and property from fire is to prevent them from happening and that means helping the public to understand fire safety.
There are many different ways that firefighters work with their communities to promote fire safety. Some common efforts include visiting seniors and giving them a gentle reminder to give their smoke alarms a thorough check for battery life, etc. and to replace them if they need to.
It might also include making field trips where members of the public (and, in particular, young children) can get on board a fire engine and see what the equipment is and how it works. This is a really superb way of getting people interested in the job of firefighting and it’s a lot of fun for the firefighters involved too.
12. Station Tours
Another excellent educational effort is to let kids (and adults) come to the fire station and take a look around. Obviously, this can’t be done unsupervised as they might hurt themselves or the equipment that is used. So, firefighters are often asked to act as guides.
They can then explain what will happen if a call comes in and how each part of their crew will be involved in the effort. They can take them to see the engine and maybe even invite the visitors to try on some of their personal protective equipment.
In some cases, it might even extend to allowing people to try using some of the firefighting equipment. As you can imagine, these days are very memorable, and many a firefighter’s careers start on one of these tours as an inspired kid. It’s important work.
13. School Talks and Visits
The other big part of a firefighter’s public relations role is going out to schools and colleges and giving talks to kids and demonstrations of equipment and fire safety.
In general, these talks are delivered when a local school reaches out to request one so that their kids can gain an appreciation for what it is firefighters do and their role in the community.
This is very useful work because it teaches children what to do if they discover a fire, who to call and how to appropriately use 911. This has been shown to have some positive impact on the volume of false calls that are received at 911 call centers too.
14. Relaxing and Eating
Firefighting is hard work and it’s stressful and the days are long, thanks to the shift system. That means at some point during the course of a shift – firefighters will get together to eat and maybe, relax together.
This is an important time, it allows the crew to bond together, to discuss any important lessons from the day and generally reduce their overall level of stress.
However, eating is not a priority activity and if a call comes in during a meal, the meal is immediately put aside and the crew heads out to tackle the call. Self-care matters but emergency response is always the number one purpose of firefighters.
What Do Firefighters Do At Night?
Firefighting is a 24 hour a day job because fires and other emergencies can break out at any time, including at night. This is reflected in shift patterns and firefighters are expected to keep working at night just as they would during the day – however, they may also carry out one additional duty, getting some sleep (if they can).
Sleep (If They Can)
Depending on how busy each station is, firefighters may or may not get any sleep. And to be clear, no one should be complaining about this; it is part of the job that firefighters are expected to do.
But, this lack of sleep is a serious problem in the fire service. It might sound trivial and, certainly, when you’re young and fighting fit, it can feel trivial but over the long-term shift work can really destroy a person’s ability to sleep.
This can have serious health implications. As reported in Fire Engineering, it increases the risks of cancer, heart attacks, and other major conditions and by a large percentage.
If you’ve ever wondered why the number one cause of death in firefighters is heart-related, it may have to do with the lack of sleep firefighters get.
A quick snooze (sometimes called a safety nap) on a shift can give a little energy back, but it doesn’t help you get the REM sleep you need for full rest.
Also read: Where Do Firefighters Sleep?
What do firefighters do all day when not fighting fires? Well, as you’ve seen, firefighters have a lot of different jobs to do and many of them don’t involve tackling fires. However, as you’d expect the number one priority for fire crews is responding to all emergency calls.
When there aren’t any fires, this highly skilled workforce can turn its hands to many other activities to ensure the smooth running of the service and to help other emergency services deliver a complete service to the public. One thing’s for certain, being a firefighter is rarely an “easy job”.