June 13, 2024

What do firefighter work schedules look like?

firefighter schedules

Creating and managing firefighters’ schedules is a significant challenge for many departments, particularly for those with outdated or ineffective tools. Ensuring proper coverage is essential to keeping communities safe, and inefficient schedule management creates unnecessary burdens on these already busy firefighters and their departments.

One of the primary challenges agencies face is determining who to schedule–and when–based on the length of their most recent shifts, their availability, and their skills. This makes it difficult to match coverage needs to avoid overscheduling or under-scheduling firefighters. Last-minute schedule changes and poor communication make it even more arduous, especially with labor laws, minimum staffing requirements, and union collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) at play.

But effective scheduling practices and automated tools can help agencies optimize the process for a more efficient, effective operation and a happier, more productive workforce. To get started, we’ll take a look at how firefighter schedules work, the methods your agency might consider, and how your department, workforce, and community can benefit from using the right software.

Overview of a typical firefighter schedule

Firefighters usually work long hours—including weekends and holidays—to keep their communities safe. To ensure total coverage without risking burnout, they work shifts that differ from the typical 9-to-5 schedule used in many other industries. Depending on the state, city, or department, firefighters may work 24-hour, California swing, or 24/48 shifts, among others.

Because of its efficacy and stability, most agencies use the 24-hour shift schedule. With this type of schedule, firefighters work a 24-hour shift and then take 48 hours off, which creates a three-day rotation for the team. Firefighters are assigned to one of three shifts—A, B, or C—which rotate throughout the week like this:

firefighter schedules

This approach allows departments to stay compliant with the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) while limiting the number of employees required for each shift, making it a cost-effective option. 24-hour shifts also mean firefighters can complete training, tend to operations, and manage routine checks more efficiently than if they were working for shorter periods of time.

While a 24-hour schedule is typical, some fire departments use other types of shift schedules to maintain coverage.

Other firefighter shift patterns

Fire departments select their schedule types and shift lengths based on the needs of their communities and the well-being of their firefighters. When choosing a shift schedule for your department, it’s crucial to evaluate factors like community size and needs, number of active firefighters, and budget to determine the right fit.

It’s equally important to consider the mental and physical health of your department’s workforce. Certain types of shift patterns may increase the risk of exhaustion, burnout, and—ultimately—turnover, which can leave your agency short-staffed. And with 94% of firefighters reporting staffing challenges within their departments, this might exacerbate an existing issue within your agency.

One alternative to the traditional 24-hour shift is the California swing shift. In this pattern, firefighters alternate each day between 24 hours on and 24 hours off for five consecutive days, followed by four consecutive days off. Taking several days off in between shifts allows firefighters to have adequate downtime without being absent from their jobs for a long period of time.

Other departments may choose to implement the Panama pattern, which works as a 2-2-3 shift schedule. Firefighters are split into four “teams” and rotate their 12-hour shifts, like this:

  • Two 12-hour days on
  • Two 12-hour days off
  • Three 12-hour days on
  • Two 12-hour days off
  • Two 12-hour days on
  • Three 12-hour days off

For agencies that need firefighters to work more consecutive days, the 4-on/4-off schedule is an option. In this 12-hour shift rotation, firefighters work for four consecutive days and then take four consecutive days off, typically alternating between day and night shifts. Here’s an example of how this works:

  • 4 consecutive day shifts
  • 4 consecutive days off
  • 4 consecutive night shifts
  • 4 consecutive days off

It’s important to note that both the Panama and 4-on/4-off shift schedule patterns are much more common for EMS services, but may also be used when fire and EMS services are combined. Fire departments tend to avoid these two types of schedules because they’re extremely demanding and can lead to premature firefighter burnout.

Although firefighter shifts typically rotate, they’re often on a well-established pattern so firefighters have some stability in their schedules and can forecast future shifts.

Firefighter scheduling is complex—and you need software that can handle it. Learn how our public safety scheduling solutions can help.

What’s a “Kelly Day?”

To avoid preventable overtime and promote a healthy work-life balance, fire departments provide Kelly Days, or additional designated days off throughout the shift cycle. Even if a firefighter’s shift falls on a Kelly Day, they’ll have the day off. Within the 24/48 schedule, the Kelly Day typically falls every ninth day of the cycle so the department can maintain FLSA compliance. Even though they aren’t working on Kelly Days, firefighters are still paid during that time as if they’re responding to emergencies and handling other firehouse tasks.

What do firefighters do during their shifts?

In addition to responding to calls, firefighters usually have specific tasks to complete to keep the firehouse running smoothly. While these duties vary by fire department, they generally include:

  • Cleaning – Unlike many other types of public safety agencies, most firefighters are responsible for the upkeep of their workspace. They must all pitch in to clean the fire station and keep it free of potential hazards like waste and clutter.
  • Cooking – Because firefighters work such long shifts, they’re typically required to buy their own groceries and cook their own meals. Some departments choose to have a rotating schedule for preparing meals, wherein on-duty firefighters take turns cooking family-style meals for one another.
  • Checking equipment – Firefighters conduct daily, weekly, and monthly equipment checks to confirm everything is in working order. These thorough inspections require forms to track equipment history, record their status and maintenance, and ensure everything is checked promptly.
  • Regular training – In addition to habitual physical training to ensure they stay in shape, firefighters undergo regular training on fire safety, prevention, and procedures. They’re also sometimes responsible for helping to train new personnel or educating visitors from the community on fire safety.

Sharing each of these duties is essential to making sure firefighters stay busy during their lengthy shifts and get the rest they need; especially those who work 24-hour shifts.

Can firefighters sleep during their shifts?

Firefighters have a dangerous job that requires a high level of attention and coordination, so it’s crucial they get the rest they need during downtime. Sleep deprivation can also contribute to burnout among firefighters, but the ability to nap during overnight shifts reduces this risk. Most departments permit their firefighters to sleep when they’re not running calls, but that sleep is often interrupted.

During a 24-hour shift, firefighters often go to bed at a reasonable time to try to squeeze in as much rest as possible. They might eat dinner as a crew, engage in a group activity—such as watching a movie or playing a card game—and then sleep until the next call comes in. Sleeping between calls and having a schedule that accommodates adequate rest are essential to ensuring the safety of both firefighters and their communities.

How does firefighter scheduling software help fire departments?

Creating and maintaining effective schedules is key to ensuring proper coverage and managing operations efficiently, but it often leads to significant challenges. This is particularly true for those who use manual or outdated tools to build their firefighters’ schedules, as these methods are extremely time-consuming, error-prone, and inflexible.

Regardless of the shift pattern an agency chooses to follow, scheduling firefighters often involves following complex rules and regulations. This makes it difficult to efficiently create schedules that reduce overtime costs, maintain compliance with minimum staffing requirements and agency policies, and ensure the department has the right people in the right place at the right time. Working with government budgets when seeking out technology to help with scheduling creates yet another obstacle, as justifying the investment requires a solid demonstration of future savings.

But automated tools designed to take the guesswork and burden out of the equation can streamline the process for both schedulers and firefighters. Specialized software enables departments to quickly and easily create and manage effective firefighter schedules that support total coverage without sacrificing productivity, safety, employee satisfaction, or the agency’s bottom line.

With the right technology, your department can automatically build schedules that streamline coverage and remove the time-consuming, manual phone calls otherwise required to get shifts covered. Without taking precious time from other high-value initiatives, your team can ensure schedules that are cost-effective, compliant, and flexible. The result is a more seamless operation and a happier, more productive workforce.

While there are several scheduling tools on the market, the right firefighter scheduling software is the one that can be configured to the specific needs of your agency and its personnel.

Automate your fire department scheduling process with TCP Software

Creating and managing a scheduling process that supports the fire department, its firefighters, and the community as a whole can feel like an impossible feat, especially if your agency relies on outdated, insufficient tools for support. The inability to match coverage needs, maintain compliance, resolve scheduling conflicts as they arise, and enable seamless communication among team members can stop efficiency in its tracks.

To rationalize technology spending, agencies need to assess their current scheduling operations and evaluate how an automated platform can actually help them save money down the line. Powerful tools can enable fire departments to greatly reduce overtime, avoid costly issues with noncompliance, and maximize their operational efficiency through a scheduling process that runs like a well-oiled machine.

TCP’s Aladtec does just that, with fully customizable tools that empower your fire department’s workforce. With TCP, agencies can overcome common hurdles that can otherwise lead to legal fees, worker attrition, and unnecessary costs, such as:

  • Excessive labor budgets
  • Compliance fines
  • Employee turnover
  • Lost time due to dealing with scheduling issues via inefficient means, like text messages, spreadsheets, and paper calendars

Armed with TCP’s intelligent tools, fire departments have everything they need to control costs through automatic schedule creation and communication, efficient shift trades, time off requests, availability access and updates, and certification management. Rather than contending with lower capacity and issues of retention and recruitment, agencies that use TCP empower their workforce with standout flexibility, transparency, and longer-range visibility into shifts. Plus, workers have self-service tools for seamless shift trades and availability submissions, which contribute to a positive employee experience and greater retention rates.

TCP believes fire departments shouldn’t have to choose between creating effective schedules and keeping firefighters safe and happy, no matter how complex their needs are. With a holistic firefighter scheduling solution from TCP, you can improve your scheduling accuracy and efficiency, support compliance, and optimize your employee experience—all while staying on budget.

Learn more about how TCP’s Aladtec can address your fire department’s scheduling needs, or speak with an expert today to see how TCP can help you streamline your team’s scheduling processes.