Monday, October 17, 2016

Firefighter Work Schedules

Note: The following post refers to work schedules at fire departments with paid personnel. Volunteer fire departments typically do not operate on a fixed schedule.

The issue that recently triggered a California columnist’s rant about “cushy” firefighter jobs was a proposed change in fire department shift schedules to 48 hours on/96 hours off. On the surface, this sounds great – work two days and get four days to do as you please! Heck, who wouldn’t want that kind of work schedule? Especially when, as the writer claimed, much of that time is supposedly spent on leisurely activities such as grocery shopping, polishing fire trucks, and playing cards.

The problem with these kinds of uninformed, blanket statements is that nothing about firefighter shift schedules is as simple as people want to think. Emergencies happen at all hours, every day of the week, so emergency responders must also be available 24/7/365. At the same time, those charged with managing budgets and complying with federal labor laws must determine how to keep payroll and overtime costs in check while ensuring adequate coverage for emergency response. And that’s where the shift schedules come into play.

Fire App Screenshot

The fire service has long used variations of a 24-hour shift schedule. Some examples:

  • Three or four 24-hour shifts with a day off in between the first two shifts and four days off after the last shift.
  • 48 hours on duty with 96 hours off duty.
  • 24 hours on, 48 off.
  • 12-hour shifts (either for the whole department or just for the busiest companies).
  • 10- and 14-hour shifts. In one arrangement, firefighters work two 10-hour day shifts for two days in a row, then two 14-hour night shifts two days in a row followed by four days off.
The average number of hours that firefighters work each week can run 56, 60, or even 72 hours depending on the schedule. By comparison, a 40-hour workweek is considered standard fare for full-time employees in this country. Results from a 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey and a 2014 Gallup poll revealed that the average number of hours worked by full-time employees in the U.S. has increased to between 44.5 and 47 hours per week. And let's be honest: In the age of texting and social media and online shopping, just how many of those work hours are actually spent working?

I won’t argue that firefighter work schedules can be pretty great at times – but it all depends on the department, the station assignment, and the call volume. Twenty-four hours at a slow station is much different than the same shift at a busy firehouse where breaks are few, meals are wolfed down between responses, and sleep deprivation becomes a lifestyle. Even slow stations have days where the action is non-stop and the crews go home exhausted.

Another consideration of shift schedules is quality of life for the firefighters. The 48/96 schedule is gaining popularity nationwide, especially for those who work in large metropolitan areas with high costs of living. When firefighters can’t afford housing in the communities they serve, they move to areas where they can afford to live but then must contend with lengthy commutes. Working for 48 hours straight means driving long distances fewer times a week and provides a compromise for firefighters who want to work for large departments but also have families to support.

These are just a few of the considerations that go into fire department shift schedules. As for the things firefighters do to fill their work hours, take a look at my blog entry from August 2014. I will also talk about a typical day at the firehouse in an upcoming post.

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