How Much Do Firefighters Really Work?


The average firefighter’s work schedule is anything but a nine-to-five. For some people, that can be exciting, and for others, it’s exhausting. If you’re thinking of becoming a firefighter, even on a volunteer basis, you need to know what your schedule will look like. How much do firefighters work?

A firefighter’s workload varies from week to week, but a shift can be as short as eight to 12 hours or as long as 24 hours. A shift of 10 hours working, then 14 hours off is one such schedule. If a firefighter works for 24 hours, they get the next 48 hours off, sometimes up to 72 hours. They’re on all call along though. 

In this article, we’ll talk more about the schedule of a firefighter, including volunteer firefighters, so you can see what an average day in the life of a firefighter looks like. Make sure you keep reading, as we have lots of great info ahead! 

How Many Hours Do Firefighters Work Per Day? Per Week?

As we said in the intro, a firefighter’s schedule is not the standard eight-or-nine-hour day, 40-hours-per-week, Monday through Friday schedule. You’ll work nights, you’ll work weekends, and you’ll work holidays. 

For example, where I work we operate on a 52 hour work week, and it rotates on what is referred to as the California swing schedule.

If you’re wondering about the different types of firefighter schedules, I have an extensive article and video explaining firefighter shift schedules and working hours.

Fires don’t care what time of day it is or what the holiday is. If anything, the rate of fires increases around holidays. According to the National Fire Protection Association, 160 house fires in the United States that occurred from 2014 to 2018 were due to Christmas tree fires. Thanksgiving is a day where fires are even more common.

Okay, so when does a firefighter work? Well, that will depend on the fire department that employs them. Here are the common schedules.

Shifts

Firefighters might work in shifts, although you’re not as likely to come across this anymore. The shifts are divided into daytime and nighttime hours. 

For example, during the day, a firefighter might work eight to 12 hours. Then they’d take the remaining 12 to 16 hours off. The next day, they’d work a night shift that lasts for 12 to 14 hours and bleeds into the next day. They might repeat this schedule for several days in a row, as many as three or four days.

The firefighter needs rest to continue to work their best, so they’d be scheduled for time off for the next three or four days in a row. Then they’d go back to working a day shift and then several days in a row of the night shift. 

There’s always a risk that a firefighter could be called into work on their time off. That’s just part of being a firefighter. At that point, the firefighter’s shift schedule would likely be negotiated for the next few days since their time off was disrupted.   

24 Hours on, Then 48 to 72 Hours Off

More fire departments follow an on-off schedule. Firefighters will work for 24 hours at a time and then get the next two to three days off. 

Now, just because the firefighter is working for 24 hours doesn’t mean they’re putting out fires the entire time. Mostly, they’re at the fire department waiting to be called into action. However, the firefighter will not be at home and on-call. 

So let’s just say that a firefighter’s 24 hours on began on a Sunday. They’d work from Sunday into Monday, then take the next two days off, so Tuesday and Wednesday would be break days. They’d be back at the fire department from Thursday into Friday, then return to work on Sunday.

The average number of hours a firefighter works is usually well over 40 hours and more in the ballpark of 50 hours. Per month, if the firefighter’s schedule is that many hours per week, they will work about 10 shifts, each shift lasting approximately 24 hours. 

How Much Do Volunteer Firefighters Work?

What about volunteer firefighters? What kind of schedule do they have?

Volunteers are unpaid, so they’re willing to put their spare time into firefighting. Most hope to become paid firefighters someday, which is why they do it. 

According to jobs resource Public Service Degrees, as many as 55 percent of firefighters who work do so on a volunteer basis, so they comprise a good portion of many fire departments.

A volunteer firefighter’s schedule might involve them spending a few hours of their week putting out fires, as many as eight hours and as few as five. If they’re learning to become an Emergency Medical Services or EMS firefighter, then they could undergo their training at the firehouse, spending 10 to 15 hours there every week. 

Per month, you might expect to do volunteer firefighting work between 24 and 72 hours. That’s six to 18 hours per week, which is 1.2 to 3.6 hours per day. You could work a full-time job outside of firefighting and certainly a part-time job and still be a volunteer firefighter.  

Do Firefighters Sleep at Work?

You hadn’t realized that firefighters worked so many consecutive hours. There’s no way a firefighter stays up for 24 full hours though, right? How would they be in any shape to do good work if they were sleep-deprived like that?

Indeed, the 24 hours of work a firefighter spends at the firehouse does leave room for other relaxing activities. For instance, the firefighter is allowed to cook and eat, shower, and sleep. They might cook for the other firefighters, or another firefighter might cook for them. 

The problem is though that the firefighter can be roused out of whatever relaxing activities they’re doing at any time to go into work, as we said before. That means abandoning their meal or waking up out of a restful sleep to quickly don their firefighting gear and hop on the fire truck while they’re still mentally waking up.

The firefighter could always resume their sleep when they get back to the firehouse, but their adrenaline will likely be high, which can make it difficult to fall asleep. Plus, they might want to shower at that point to wash the smell of smoke off them or have something to eat because they worked up an appetite. 

You must chalk this up to an occupational hazard of being a firefighter. It’s something you’d have to come to expect. 

Firefighters work some long hours. They could do shifted work for up to 12 hours several days in a row, then get a couple of days off. Most firefighters will work for 24-hour periods and then take off for two to three days. This kind of schedule leads to a firefighter spending one-third of their entire careers at the firehouse rather than at home. 

Although it’s tough work, it’s gratifying, as you can’t put a price on saving lives and helping your community.

Mike Pertz

I’m Mike, I’m a full time firefighter/paramedic/diver for a department just west of Cleveland, Ohio and the founder of FirefighterNOW. I’m also a columnist for FireRescue1. If you’re reading this blog my guess is you are interested in the fire service. There's information on fitness, gear, interviews, tests and more. I hope you find what you're looking for.

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