As you might already know by now, being a firefighter doesn’t come along with the usual 9 to 5 shift. Think about it: Fires and emergencies can happen anytime over the course of 24 hours. That means that there always needs to be firefighters on the clock and ready to go! So, what schedule do firefighters work?
Typical firefighter shift schedules consist of 24-hour shifts on a rotating basis. They will usually work about 10 shifts per month, but the exact rotation will depend on the organization. There are some less common firefighter shift schedules that use 12-hour or even 48-hour shifts.
There are quite a few other ways a firefighter’s schedule can be set up. To learn more about the different firefighter schedules including the pros and cons of each, keep reading.
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Firefighter Shift Schedules
We know that firefighters don’t work a typical 9 to 5, Monday through Friday schedule. It is important that someone is always on duty, 24 hours a day, to respond to emergencies in the community they protect.
The majority of fire departments in the US work a rotating schedule of 24-hour shifts.
This usually means three shifts (A, B, C) that switch off workdays and off days. They rotate in a few different ways, but most firefighters end up working an average of 10 of these 24-hour shifts per month.
Here is an example of how a firefighter shift calendar might look, showing how each shift rotates:
As you can see, this means you don’t work the same days every week. Sometimes you get the weekend off, others you have to work it, depending on how your shift schedule rotates.
This also means that you will sometimes have to work on a major holiday, when you would rather be home celebrating with your family.
These are all just a part of the job,
While these long 24 or even 48-hour shifts aren’t easy, you get used to them. And there are some really good things about working longer shifts.
Most fire departments allow the firefighters to attempt to sleep during the night while on shift, though there is no guarantee. You are expected to still respond to any calls for service (emergency or otherwise) that you are dispatched to.
This means that some stations in areas that are not as busy with emergency calls may sleep all night frequently. However, other busy fire departments may be awake all night on most shifts.
Let’s look at some of the most common firefighter schedules and the pros and cons of each.
Also read: What Age Do Firefighters Retire?
24 Hours On, 48 Hours Off (24/48)
Now more common than ever, the 24-hour shift has become the standard for most fire departments across the country.
Fire departments tend to appreciate these shifts much more because they only require one daily shift change, which leaves very little room for error and allows for greater organization.
However, the length of time will definitely take its toll on your mental and physical state. It’s important you get plenty of rest during your 48-hour break, as you could be up and running for most of the 24-hour period in which you’re on call.
What to Expect
When you’re on a 24-hour shift schedule (usually 8 AM to 8 AM), you’re going to be spending a ton of time at the station. Most firefighters refer to this schedule as a 24-48. That means the regular schedule for this type of shift consists of one day on, two days off.
Here’s what you should expect in terms of the scheduling for a 24-hour shift.
Though this type of shift might sound a little brutal at first, you might actually begin to appreciate it once you realize the many benefits that come along with it.
Here is a video talking about the 24-48 schedule:
There’s no doubt about it: The 24-48 shift is incredibly long and physically demanding. But, let’s take a look at the possible benefits that can come along with it.
- There are fewer shift changes. When compared to a 12-hour or shorter shift, there’s always a risk of mistakes when it comes to frequent shift changes. With a 24-hour shift, there’s less crossover of firefighters and more time and dedication to tasks and jobs.
- Less time commuting than the day/night schedule. Instead of working 12 shifts every 24 days on the day/night schedule, you’ll be working 8 shifts every 24 days (though they are longer shifts). This means less time and money for your commute to work.
- It’s the most common shift. As much as you might dislike it, you’ll enjoy the fact that this shift schedule is pretty standard at most fire departments. That means there won’t be all that much adjusting for you to do if you’re switching between departments.
- You get more weekend time. With this type of schedule, you’ll get more weekend time. Even if you are scheduled for one day of the weekend, the fact that you have two days off in a row frees up at least one weekend day on a weekly basis.
- You can dedicate more time and attention to tasks. The biggest issue with the 12-hour shifts was the lack of time. A 24-hour shift puts less of a time limit on your tasks and jobs, so you can work on completing them more carefully and strategically without having to rush back to switch shifts.
So, the 24-hour shift seems a little bit more bearable now. But, we still think it’s appropriate to warn you about the “not so positive” aspects of this type of shift before you get one under your belt.
You might have already been able to figure out what the major downsides are of the 24-48 shift, but we want to make sure we lay them out for you in detail, so you know what you’re getting yourself into. Here’s what you should expect.
- Fatigue and tiredness. 24 hours straight doing anything is going to be exhausting, but that’s especially the case when it comes to the rigorous and physically demanding tasks of being a firefighter. You should expect severe mental and physical fatigue, sometimes even beginning while you’re still on your shift. This can really vary depending on how busy your fire department is.
- There’s no guarantee that you’ll get to sleep. Though your station has a bunk area where you can set aside a few hours here and there for a nap, there’s actually no guarantee that you’ll get to sleep. If your station is receiving a call after call, you might be on your feet and moving for 24 straight hours with very little rest in between.
- There’s a risk when it comes to safety. When you’re tired physically and mentally, there’s a huge risk of skipping steps of a task and becoming injured as a firefighter. Though this is obviously not too much of an issue if you can catch a few hours of sleep while on duty, it really can be dangerous.
Despite the downsides, there’s really not much you can do to get around them. Since most stations have adopted this shift style, you’ll most likely just have to suck it up and deal with it. Eventually, you’ll get used to this type of shift and actually prefer it over other types.
48 Hours On, 96 Hours Off (48/96)
As if the 24-hour shift didn’t seem brutal enough, some stations require their firefighters to take on 48-hour shifts. There are very mixed reactions regarding this type of shift from both departments and actual firefighters.
Many firefighters appreciate the greater amount of time that they get to spend with their families. But, the schedule can also be a little hard on your family and social life when you’re spending two straight days away from those you care about.
What to Expect
If the sound of working for 48 straight hours appears overwhelming and extremely tiring, that’s because it can be! The good news is, after your 48-hour shifts, you’ll have about four days off before your next shift.
This shift is usually referred to as a 48-96 or 2’s and 4’s. The scheduling style is very similar to that of the 24-48 shift.
Here’s a look at what your schedule might be with a 48-96 shift.
|Work 24||Work 24||Off||Off||Off||Off||Repeat|
Even though this seems very overwhelming right now, there are obviously some positive aspects of this type of shift. We’re going to go over some of them in this next section.
A lot of the benefits associated with the 48-96 shift are very similar to those of the 24-48, so we’ll try to focus more on what makes this shift beneficial in its own way. Here’s a brief look at the major benefits of this type of shift.
- Less Commuting. This shift is the best for your commute. You will only have to drive to and from work once every 6 days (4 times every 24 days). This is way less than the other schedules. Not only will this save you time and money, but it can making living farther away from work a reasonable option. This has become an issue in areas with a high cost of living, where firefighters can’t afford to live close due to the expenses of the area. Since fire departments can’t always keep pay high enough to support increased costs of living, this schedule can be used. Firefighters can live in more affordable areas and drive a few hours to work since it’s only about 5 days per month.
- Less redundancy of work. Rather than checking off equipment once or twice per day, some of this work can be completed once a 48-hour shift. This means more time to be involved with training, PR, and other activities to help the citizens and the department.
- You have even more days off in a row. If you like spending long periods of time with your family and friends, you’ll absolutely love having four days off in a row every week. This gives you much more time to spend with your family than other shifts might!
- The schedule alternates for better weekend time. Many stations have adopted a unique 48-96 schedule that allows for optimal and equal weekend time for all firefighters. That means you might work two Fridays in a row, but then have four Fridays in a row off. This is even better for making plans and spending time with family.
So, you see now that the longer shifts do have their perks. But, we all know that there are quite a few negatives that come along with long periods away from home, especially when you’re nearing 48 hours.
Now, let’s talk about the pitfalls of the 48-96 shift. For the most part, they’re just taking the negatives of the 24-48 shift, but just taking them a tad further. Here are the downfalls for this type of shift.
- You’ll spend long periods of time away from your family. Though you’ll be spending four straight days at home after a two-day shift, it still does require you to be away from your family for 48 hours at a time. This can be extremely difficult on your relationships with your loved ones, especially if you’re in a relationship and have kids.
- There’s an even greater risk for fatigue and burnout. Over the course of 48 hours, you’ll probably be able to find some time to squeeze in a few short naps, but that’s not always a guarantee. If you can’t find the time to nap or if you’re not sleeping well enough down at the station, you might become physically and emotionally exhausted to an extreme.
While this schedule can look daunting, it is quite popular with those who have tried it. My department switched to this schedule in the last few years, due to the very high costs of living in the area, and I much prefer this schedule to the others I have worked.
10 to 14-Hour Day/Night Shift
This is the most similar shift for anyone that’s used to working an eight or nine-hour day job. Unfortunately, these shifts are rapidly declining and are now being replaced with 24 or 48-hour shifts, which can be good or bad, depending on how you look at it.
If your station does offer shorter shifts like these, you’ll likely be working four days on, four days off for a total of up to 48 hours. However, it all comes down to your station and the needs of your community during the year.
What to Expect
Most shorter shifts come with a “two-two-four” schedule. That means you should expect to work two-day shifts in a row, two-night shifts in a row, and then have four days off.
For the most part, your specific station will have set schedules for the day and night shifts. So, when you clock out for your day shift, the night shift is beginning to clock in.
Here’s an example of what your schedule might look like with this type of shift.
|Work 7am-5pm||Work 7am-5pm||Work 5pm-7am||Work 5pm-7am||Off||Off||Off|
Because this schedule lasts longer than a period of seven days, you won’t always be working the same four days of the week.
Sometimes this type of day shift/night shift schedule will be 12-hour shifts, rather than the 10 or 14-hour shift.
Though you’ll still be working about the same number of hours per week with this shift as you would with others, there are quite a few benefits associated with this shift, in particular.
Take a look at the greatest benefits of the day/night shift.
- You have time off every day. If you can’t imagine yourself spending an entire day at the station or on a call, then this shift is what you’re probably looking for. You’ll love that you get to spend time at home on a daily basis. This is great for anyone with kids, a family, pets, or any type of social life.
- The time you spend off is in greater chunks. The average day job gives you five straight workdays per week, followed by two days off on the weekend. With this shift schedule, you’ll likely get four days off in a row. This is perfect when it comes to preventing burnout and allowing for more of a life outside of the station.
- There’s a reduced risk of fatigue. Let’s be honest. Even if you’re squeezing in a nap here and there while on a 24 or 48-hour shift, you’re still going to be exhausted. Being a firefighter is extremely physically demanding, which means these 10 to 14-hours shifts allow you more time to rest every day.
- There’s possibly less chance for mistakes. Along with fatigue comes the risk of silly mistakes and errors. This can be very risky when you’re considering the basis of what a firefighter actually does. So, this shift may be beneficial for reducing the liability of fire chiefs and promoting the health and safety of firefighters.
- Stations can develop a more strategic schedule. Let’s say your community experiences a large number of calls between 7 AM and 5 PM on a near-daily basis. If that’s the case, your station can schedule more firefighters to work during this period of time to account for the influx of calls. This shift allows for more strategy when it comes to scheduling.
- There’s less repetition. As much as you might like working a consistent 9 to 5 job, there’s no way that you can get bored with this type of schedule. You’ll work some nights, some mornings, and get about the same amount of days off.
Keep in mind that there are no definitive guidelines for this type of schedule. All stations do it differently, and, in fact, some stations take advantage of a schedule that involves 72 hours off (rather than 96).
Though there are a lot of benefits that come along with the day/night shift style, there are also a few risks that are associated as well. Here’s a look at some factors of the day/night shift that aren’t so great.
- More frequent commuting to work. Depending on where you live in relation to where you work, this schedule might make it tougher on your commute. You will be commuting to and from work 4 times (8 trips) every 8 days (about 12 times every 24 days), which is less than a normal 9-5 job, but much more than some of the other firefighter schedules. This can add time and costs (gas, car maintenance, etc.) to your work routine.
- There are more frequent shift changes. Though you likely enjoy the time off, the constant shift changes can cause a little confusion and be more disruptive. This is especially the case when it comes to calls or tasks that exceed certain shift periods. If there’s a lack of communication between shifts, there’s a greater likelihood of mistakes or errors.
- It puts a time limit on jobs. When you’re on a 24-hour shift, your time is practically unlimited when it comes to responding to calls and performing station tasks. It’s very likely that you’ll need to rush specific calls and tasks in order to be ready in time for the official shift change.
Some firefighters enjoy the day/night 10 to 14-hour shifts a lot more than the other types of shifts, but they are significantly less common in recent years. I, however, prefer the other longer shift schedules below.
This video talks about the Providence Rhode Island Fire Department and when they switched from the day/night shift to a longer shift schedule:
The schedules we talked about above seem to make up the majority of fire departments in the US. However, there are other possible schedules, such as:
What is the California Swing Shift?
This is also referred to as a Kelly 3/4 schedule in some areas.
The California swing shift consists of 24-hour shifts every other day for 5 total days (3 x 24-hour shifts, with a day off in between each), followed by 4 days off.
This calendar might make it easier to visualize:
|Work 24||Off||Work 24||Off||Work 24||Off||Off|
Kelly 4/6 (4’s and 6’s)
The Kelly 4/6 is a variation of the California swing shift.
The Kelly 4/6 shift consists of 24-hour shifts every other day for 7 total days (4 x 24-hour shifts, with a day off in between each), followed by 4 days off and then 6 days off the next time around.
Take a look:
|Work 24||Off||Work 24||OFF||Work 24||OFF||Work 24|
|OFF||OFF||OFF||OFF||Work 24||OFF||Work 24|
|OFF||Work 24||OFF||Work 24||OFF||OFF||OFF|
This is the shift schedule that I worked for years.
I liked it a lot, but I prefer the 48/96 schedule that my department switched to a few years ago. It allows for less redundancy and fewer days commuting to work.
How Many Hours a Week/Month/Year Do Firefighters Work?
As we have seen, most firefighters work 24-hour shifts, though some work 48’s or 12’s.
Firefighters, on average, work about 56 hours per week. This is an average, because depending which schedule they work, some weeks could be 96 hours on shift and others could be 24 hours on shift. It will usually equal 56 hour average per week.
There are some departments that have a different rotation or contract agreement that allows them to have a 42, 48 or even 72-hour average work week, rather than the standard 56 hour.
Firefighters, on average, work 240 hours (10 shifts) per month. Some months may be slightly more or less.
Again, this can vary, but most firefighters will work about 240 hours per month.
Firefighters, on average, work about 2900 hours (121 shifts) per year.
If the fire department has more than 3 shifts platoons (A, B, C) than these numbers may be less.
These numbers for hours worked don’t include and overtime hours worked or days off due to illness or vacation.
Do They Get Paid Overtime?
Firefighters are eligible to work extra hours and will get paid to do so. The number of overtime hours available and the overtime pay rate can vary based on state labor laws and contract agreements.
It is quite common for firefighters to work overtime shifts. After all, when 1 firefighter is off, it is pretty important for their spot to be filled and this usually means paying someone extra to work on an off-day.
(We call overtime shifts “Callback”, as you are being called back from your day off to work.)
Firefighters may also get some overtime hours calculated into their regular work hours, because they usually work more then the typical 40 hours per week. However, this will really depend on the laws and labor contracts.
Can They Ever Sleep on Shift?
Firefighters are usually allowed to sleep during the night hours of their shift. However, depending on the number of calls they get, they may not get any sleep. They are expected to respond to all calls while on shift, regardless of the time of day.
Most fire stations are equipped with bunk rooms or dorm areas for firefighters to get sleep when they are able.
There are slow areas where the firefighters sleep all night and other very busy departments that rarely get any sleep on shift. It really varies.
How Many Hours Do They Sleep?
Firefighters are usually permitted to sleep at the station during the night hours (after 9 pm) until the morning. However, the hours of sleep they get can be between 8 and 0. This will depend on how many calls they get during the night hours.
You can’t expect to sleep on shift as a firefighter.
Sometimes we get lucky and get a decent chunk of sleep, but most nights we have to respond to calls at night. This means trying to catch up on sleep on the off days to stay healthy.
How Do You Handle a 24 Hour/48 Hour shift?
Firefighters work 24-hour shifts and these can be difficult to adapt to for new firefighters. After getting some experience working these types of shifts, you will adapt and be better equipped to handle its stresses.
I’d like to say that it is easy to work long shifts, but that’s not always the case.
24 or even 48-hour shifts can be challenging. It is a long time to be away from family. It is also a long stretch to be expected to be at your best, performance-wise, in emergency situations.
That being said, you do adapt. You learn how to pace yourself. You learn how to take good care of yourself on your off days so that you can come back refreshed and ready to work.
Getting good sleep at home, exercising regularly, eating well, and taking care of your emotional health can all make a huge difference in your ability to handle stress; even the stress of long, sleepless shifts as a firefighter.
Shift work is necessary as a firefighter, and it offers many advantages over a regular 40-hour work schedule, but it comes with difficulties. However, these stresses are nothing that can’t be adjusted to.
I love the schedule that we work as firefighters and I would never trade it in for a standard 9 to 5.
It’s hard to say what your exact schedule will be like as a firefighter because there are so many different types of shifts. But, we can tell you what you should expect from each of the more common shift types.