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Coping with those 24-hour fire service shifts

The 24-hour lifestyle takes some getting used to, especially if you‘re assigned to a busy company

Sleeping during the day

Even though your shift is over, you‘ll be heading home exhausted and in need of rest. That “nine days a month” is about to claim a day of sleep.

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Welcome to a schedule of chaos, my friend.

While hearing you now only work nine days a month may sound very exciting, each of those nine days encompasses the entire day, from 8 a.m. one day, to 8 a.m. the next day. Morning, day, night, afternoon, breakfast, lunch and dinner.

It seems like no big deal until the first time you‘re working at a time you normally don’t. If you worked nights and had days with the family, those days are now gone. If you had a typical day job, now you‘re working nights and weekends.

The 24-hour lifestyle takes some getting used to, especially if you‘re assigned to a busy company. While our law enforcement brothers and sisters love to point out the recliners and big screen TVs, there‘s a good possibility you won‘t have a chance to enjoy them, especially as the new guy. But this is even more true as a member of a busy company.

Mornings will start early since you‘ll be arriving at least one hour before shift change to offer relief for the off-going firefighter. This will be your routine until further notice.

Uniform pressed and dressed, you‘re expected on the floor and ready to work. Chores and shopping will cover the morning hours, followed by a drill or two. By lunch you‘ll be tired and hungry. Aside from calls for service mixed in here and there, the afternoon will have some more drills and some physical training mixed in.

By dinner time — normal quitting time at your old job — you‘re not even halfway done.

After finishing the dishes you‘ll finally have time to hit the books and get some studying in. By the time you even get a chance to think about hitting your bed, you‘ll still have 12 hours left to go.

working ‘Nine days a month’

The next part of your shift will destroy your preconceptions about the fire service. Like I said earlier, depending on the call volume of your service you‘ll either learn the best part about being a firefighter, or learn why we sometimes need those recliners. I‘ve had four unique first nights in the firehouse, ranging from nightmares to dreams.

If you‘re busy, you‘ll do about one call every two hours or so. That‘s just when your body goes into deep sleep. This schedule will destroy any ability to recover quickly the next morning. When 7 a.m. rolls around you‘ll be dragging your boots along the floor, hair all askew, wondering just what you signed up for.

Even though your shift is over, you‘ll be heading home exhausted and in need of rest. That “nine days a month” is about to claim a day of sleep.

If you‘re not busy you may only get two or three calls after midnight or, if you‘re lucky, you‘ll strike out all night. There is nothing better than waking up in the morning in the firehouse without making a run. While some will think it an easy night, every little sound in the night will make you jump. It’s actually very hard to sleep soundly in the firehouse.

When you do arrive home in the morning the kids will already be off at school and all of yesterday‘s problems are waiting for your attention. That 24-hour shift will end up costing you closer to 30 hours once you finally get up to speed back home.

The benefits of the schedule will balance out the negatives in the long run, but being away for so long at a time will take its toll early on. If you have little ones at home they‘ll need an explanation as to where you were and why you have to go there. Late night phone calls from home about bumps in the night and unfinished chores or errands that you need to run in the morning may have you wondering why you chose this career.

Then one night you‘ll get awoken from a deep sleep by bright lights and a loud tone. Half awake, you‘ll shuffle to the engine and don your gear while the siren does its best to wake you.

While pulling on your gloves you‘ll notice your hands are still asleep and a sudden yawn will be interrupted by a bright orange glow. Stepping off the engine, with your 35-pound airpack half on, you‘ll have less than 60 seconds before the company officer orders you to search a house for its sleeping occupants.

All the lost sleep will be worth it.

This article, originally published June 2016, has been updated.

Next: Is the firefighter 48/96 shift a health hazard?

Justin Schorr is a rescue captain for the San Francisco Fire Department, where he has served as a field paramedic and a firefighter, a field captain and an administrative captain. He is ARFF-qualified and oversees EMS response for San Francisco International Airport. Schorr spent 25 years in the fire service and is experienced in rural, suburban and urban firefighting as well as paramedicine. He runs the blog The Happy Medic.