When Do Firefighters Work? A Look at Their Schedule

The allure of firefighting extends beyond the adrenaline-fueled rescues and the noble mission to save lives; it’s a vocation steeped in camaraderie and purpose. Yet, those considering this profession should recognize that it’s not just the inherent risks that set this career apart, but also its atypical work routine. Unlike many professions that adhere to the conventional 8-hour workday and predictable weekends, firefighters operate on a distinctive timetable. Delve deeper to understand the nuances of a firefighter’s work schedule and how it intersects with their day-to-day life.

Key facts:

Median Pay (2021)$50,700 per year
Job Outlook (2021-2031)4% growth
Work EnvironmentHazardous environments; higher-than-average rates of injury and illness
Entry-Level EducationAt least a high school diploma or GED; post-secondary education may be required in some jurisdictions
On-the-job TrainingFire academy or an apprenticeship, the latter of which can last 4 years

Overview of Typical Firefighter Schedule

Firefighting isn’t just about dousing flames and rescuing the trapped. At the heart of this critical public service is a meticulously designed work schedule that guarantees the community’s safety every second of the day. Fire departments, by necessity, run on a relentless loop, often deploying their brave professionals in 24-hour shifts. This round-the-clock service, while demanding, ensures that there’s always a team ready, willing, and able to tackle any emergency.

Much like other essential service sectors, constructing an efficient firefighter rotation isn’t straightforward. It’s a jigsaw puzzle, where each piece, or in this case, each firefighter, must fit perfectly within the broader picture. As a solution to this intricate challenge, many expansive fire departments have adopted a triadic shift system. Here, crews circulate through a pattern of on-duty and rest periods, typically culminating in about ten of these comprehensive 24-hour shifts monthly.

These elongated shifts are more than just extended work hours. They provide firefighters with the necessary window to address a wide range of duties—from routine maintenance, safety inspections, drills, and of course, emergency responses. For departments embracing the tri-shift modus operandi, a hypothetical week might unfold as follows:

Three Shift Rotations (A, B, C):

  • Shift 1: A – B – C – A – B – C – A
  • Shift 2: B – C – A – B – C – A – B

This rotation ensures that firefighters don’t have the same shifts every week. It means that occasionally you’ll have weekends off, while at other times, you’ll be scheduled to work on weekends and holidays. Most fire departments, particularly those dealing with significant incidents or located in large cities, opt for a 24-hour shift schedule.

Various Shift Patterns

The realm of firefighting, while universally committed to safeguarding communities, is not monolithic in its approach to shift arrangements. Beyond the commonly discussed 24-hour cycles, fire departments employ a spectrum of shift patterns to ensure optimal performance and maintain work-life balance for their personnel. One such variation is the 12-hour shift rotation, which, while shorter in duration, offers its own set of benefits and challenges. Another intriguing and less conventional shift design is the swing shift, a model that brings both continuity and variety to a firefighter’s routine.

The California swing shift stands out as a noteworthy embodiment of this concept. Under this framework, firefighters engage in duty for 24 hours on alternate days, encompassing a total of five days. This rhythm of work is then counterbalanced with a generous 96-hour break, equating to four full days off. Such a structure not only gifts firefighters a considerable pause after their five-day stretch but also ensures they’re not absent from their roles for an overly extended period.

This meticulous blending of rigorous work periods with ample relaxation time ensures firefighters can recharge adequately, fostering both their personal well-being and their readiness for the demanding job. By allowing for four consecutive days off, the California swing shift ensures firefighters can immerse themselves in quality moments with loved ones, hobbies, or other pursuits, before diving back into their life-saving duties with renewed vigor. Through such adaptive scheduling, fire departments strive to harmonize the demands of the profession with the human need for rest and recreation.


The 24/48 Shift: A Common Firefighter Schedule in the U.S.

In many American cities, firefighters adhere to a scheduling system characterized by a 24-hour duty period followed by 48 hours of rest. Under this regimen, firefighters are stationed at the firehouse for an entire 24-hour stretch, poised to answer any emergency calls that arise. Once this demanding day-long shift concludes, they get a 48-hour break before embarking on their next shift. Consequently, a firefighter’s workweek often extends beyond 50 hours, typically encompassing around ten of these comprehensive 24-hour stints each month. To ensure alignment with the Fair Labor Standards Act, an extra day off is usually incorporated into their monthly schedule.


  • Consistent Coverage: This schedule ensures that there is always a team available to respond to emergencies 24/7, providing consistent protection to the community.
  • Team Cohesion: Extended hours together foster stronger bonds and teamwork among firefighters, which is vital during emergency situations.


  • Extended Work Periods: Being on duty for a full 24 hours can be physically and mentally exhausting, especially when multiple emergencies occur.
  • Sleep Disruption: Emergencies can happen at any time, which might mean responding to calls in the middle of the night, leading to interrupted sleep patterns.

What’s a “Kelly Day”?

The term “Kelly Day” may sound unfamiliar to those outside of firefighting circles, yet it plays a pivotal role in shaping the work-life balance of many fire professionals. Kelly Day is essentially a sanctioned day off within a firefighter’s cycle, which, under regular circumstances, would be a working day. This isn’t just any ordinary day off; it’s a compensated respite, meaning firefighters receive payment for this time, just as they would for their standard rostered days off.

The incorporation of Kelly Days into a firefighter’s calendar is especially prevalent among departments that adhere to the 24- to 48-hour shift rotations. This strategic insertion is born out of a twofold rationale:

  • Budgetary Considerations: Fire departments, like any other public service institution, must keep a vigilant eye on their finances. Kelly Days allows these departments to judiciously manage their budgets, particularly concerning overtime pay. By offering these compensated days off, departments can regulate their spending more efficiently.
  • Optimal Scheduling: Kelly Days aren’t whimsically assigned. They are methodically placed within the shift rotation to guarantee the continuity of services. By doing so, fire departments can ensure that there’s always a ready team available without having to bear additional overtime costs.

A Day in the Life of a Firefighter on Shift

Firefighters perform a wide range of duties during their shifts to ensure the smooth operation of the fire station and maintain their readiness for emergency response. Some of their daily responsibilities encompass:

  • Station Maintenance: Firefighters are responsible for the cleanliness and orderliness of the fire station. This includes routine cleaning and organization tasks to keep the facility in top condition.
  • Culinary Skills: Preparing meals is a crucial aspect of daily life at the fire station. Firefighters take turns cooking meals for the crew, fostering camaraderie and ensuring everyone is well-fed and energized.
  • Equipment Check: Regular equipment inspections are essential to confirm that all firefighting gear and tools are in optimal working condition. This ensures that firefighters are prepared for any emergency that may arise.
  • Apparatus Care: Fire apparatus, including fire engines and trucks, must be maintained and kept clean to ensure their immediate readiness for response.
  • Physical Fitness: Firefighters must maintain a high level of physical fitness to perform their duties effectively. Physical activity is often incorporated into their daily routines to stay in shape and be prepared for physically demanding situations.
  • Training and Development: Firefighters engage in ongoing training, which may involve simulations, drills, and skills development sessions. Continuous learning and improvement are essential aspects of their profession.
  • Inspections: Firefighters conduct inspections of public buildings and facilities to ensure compliance with fire safety regulations. These inspections help identify potential hazards and prevent fire emergencies.
  • Study Time: Firefighters dedicate time to study and stay updated on the latest firefighting techniques, medical procedures, and emergency response protocols.
  • Team Collaboration: The fire station operates as a well-oiled machine, where every member plays a vital role in its efficient functioning. Teamwork and communication are key to achieving their collective mission.

Is Sleep Permitted During Firefighter Shifts?

fireman in a protective uniform sitting in the fire truck and talking on the radio

Sleep, an essential component of human well-being, can be a complex matter in the demanding world of firefighting. The capacity for firefighters to catch some shuteye during their shifts is intertwined with multiple factors, each shaping the sleep protocols of different fire departments.

For starters, the length of the shift plays a significant role. Firefighters stationed on 12-hour shift schedules, given their shorter durations, generally don’t find ample opportunities to sleep, as they are on alert throughout this period. Contrastingly, the longer, 24-hour shift rotations usually afford firefighters some window to rest, granted there are no pressing emergencies or calls to attend.

Yet, it’s not as straightforward as it might seem. The latitude to sleep during a shift can differ markedly across fire stations and departments. Some departments have strict regulations against napping on duty, advocating for a state of perpetual readiness. On the other hand, some understand the importance of rest, particularly in the face of a potential 24-hour duty period, and may have designated areas or times for crew members to rest.

However, even in departments that sanction sleep, it’s a conditional luxury. Firefighters, even while asleep, are on a metaphorical tightrope — they need to remain primed to leap into action should an emergency arise. This means that the sleep they get, while beneficial, can often be fragmented and disrupted.

The Advantages of Scheduling Software for Fire Departments

Effective scheduling within fire departments is a multifaceted challenge. With their lengthy shifts and around-the-clock operations, improper firefighter scheduling can lead to substantial departmental overtime costs.

Take, for instance, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), which achieved a remarkable 98% reduction in overtime management time by implementing automated scheduling software. This significant improvement was made possible through streamlined scheduling processes, enhanced overtime management, and improved inter-unit communication.

Scheduling software offers fire departments a multitude of benefits, promoting operational efficiency and fostering enhanced collaboration among various departments. It empowers fire departments to optimize workforce management while minimizing overtime expenses.


Firefighting is not only a physically demanding job but also one that requires flexibility in scheduling. The typical firefighter schedule, often consisting of 24-hour shifts followed by 48 hours off, contrasts significantly with the conventional 9-to-5 work routine. This schedule, although challenging, ensures that our communities are protected around the clock. It requires firefighters to adapt to long workdays, interrupted sleep patterns, and a balance between work, rest, and family life. As we’ve seen, while this schedule might not be for everyone, it has been crafted out of necessity, keeping in mind the unpredictable nature of emergencies and the paramount importance of public safety. As we appreciate the brave souls who put themselves in harm’s way to protect us, it’s essential to understand and respect the unique demands of their profession, including their distinct work schedules.


Q: How many hours do firefighters work in a week?

A: Firefighters often work 48 to 56 hours per week, depending on the specific department and its scheduling practices. These hours are divided into shifts and include both day and night shifts.

Q: What are the most common shift schedules for firefighters?

A: The most common shift schedules are 24/48 (24 hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off) and 24/72 (24 hours on duty, followed by 72 hours off). Some departments may also use 12-hour shifts.

Q: Do firefighters work weekends and holidays?

A: Yes, firefighters work weekends and holidays as emergencies can happen at any time. Fire departments usually have a rotating schedule that includes weekends and holidays for all personnel.

Q: Do firefighters have any downtime during their shifts?

A: Firefighters often have downtime during their shifts when there are no emergency calls. During this time, they perform various tasks, including training, equipment maintenance, physical fitness, and firehouse chores.

Q: Can firefighters have a second job or work part-time elsewhere?

A: Some firefighters may have second jobs or work part-time during their days off, but it depends on department policies and regulations. Many departments have restrictions on secondary employment due to potential conflicts and fatigue concerns.

Q: Are there variations in firefighter schedules based on location or department size?

A: Yes, firefighter schedules can vary based on the location and size of the fire department. Larger urban departments may have more complex schedules, while smaller rural departments might have simpler, on-call arrangements.

Q: Do firefighter schedules change in response to major emergencies or disasters?

A: Yes, during major emergencies or disasters, firefighters may be placed on extended shifts, called in on short notice, or have their schedules adjusted to meet the demands of the situation.

Q: How do firefighters balance work and personal life with such demanding schedules?

A: Balancing work and personal life can be challenging for firefighters due to their irregular schedules. Many rely on support from family and friends and may need to plan personal activities during their days off.

Q: Are there any special considerations for firefighter schedules for those in specialized roles, such as hazardous materials or technical rescue teams?

A: Yes, specialized roles within the fire service may have unique schedules and training requirements. These schedules are often tailored to the specific needs of the specialty and may involve additional training and on-call responsibilities.