Here at Firefighter Garage we get the occasional reader question. And we usually try to answer these questions the best we can.
Recently we got this question from James in Canada:
“Hey Chris, I was wondering if you had any information on what it would be like to be a firefighter? Do you have any information on a sort of ‘typical day in the life’ of a fireman?”
This one was a little tricky because Rosie and I aren’t firefighters. We usually write about our own journey setting up our home for fire safety.
But we thought we’d give this one a shot. So we did the research for James and found out what it is actually like to spend a day as a firefighter. Here’s what we found.
It’s important to note that different fire departments do things differently. So this may be ‘typical’, but it’s not the experience of every firefighter.
Firefighters usually do 24 hour shifts at their station. This means they’re working long hours away from their families. But, the other people they work with quickly become family. So let’s start at the start of the shift and work out way through…
7am – Shift Starts & Changeover
It seems many firefighters’ shifts start around 7am, but there’s no consistency here – just anecdotally it seems that a lot of fire departments set up the shifts that way.
Almost universally, a shift will begin with a changeover. This is when the person ending their shift will give a debrief to the person about to begin. They might pass on some important information about things going on at the moment, as well as any important information about the rig (that big red truck and everything on it) or operating procedures that need to be passed on.
A larger unit may have a formal morning meeting, including a discussion of assigned roles (“riding assignments”) for the day or any pre-arranged events that will take place. Smaller units with fewer firefighters are likely to do a more informal changeover.
7.30am – 8am – Equipment Check
It may seem like overkill, but firefighters take daily equipment checks very seriously. This includes checking everything on the truck (sirens, horns, fuel levels, oil levels, hoses, firefighting pumps, equipment, etc. etc.) to ensure it’s clean, functional and ready for use at a moment’s notice. You’ll also need to check your personal protective equipment to ensure it’s in working order (full tank of oxygen, etc.). Paperwork must be completed showing that you have gone through the equipment check checklist to ensure everything is in order.
8am – 8.30am – Breakfast
One of the nice things about being a firefighter is that you’ll usually eat a prepared meal with your crew. One or two crew members might be assigned on cooking duty for the morning while others do an equipment check.
Eating together is one of the core bonding components of the fire brigade, and one that we think is a really cool part of the job.
During the day, there is usually a mix of different activities that take place. These activities are triaged. This means that the most important activities take precedence. For example, if there’s a medical call out, the fire fighters will have to put everything down to attend the call out. But if there isn’t a current call out, then the firefighters move down the list to do other tasks that still need to be done, but are less urgent.
Here are some common activities you might do during your shift.
Medical Call Outs
Firefighters in the United States often double-up as Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). You’ll at the very least be required to get basic EMT training, and someone on shift will likely have more extensive training on top of that.
In larger cities there may be a dedicated paramedic unit, while in smaller or more rural regions, firefighters may be the first line of defense for emergency cardiac arrests, car crash injuries, and so forth while waiting for ambulances to come from farther abroad.
Here’s David Wayne, a Florida firefighter:
In Florida, we are very heavy in EMS (emergency medical services) especially from central Florida on down. Most fire departments are not only ALS (advanced life support) but also transport patients to hospital.
Another common reason fire fighters are called to medical emergencies is to provide the strength required for lifting and carrying larger patients. If a paramedic unit needs some muscle, they might call in the fire department for backup.
You might find that you have just as many medical call outs as fire calls.
Fire Call Outs
Fire call outs are of course the core business of fire departments. But they’re not all to raging infernos.
There will be many false calls. Perhaps a customer in the local Walmart smells an electrical burn; or a fire starts on someone’s stove but the fuse cut and the fire is out by the time you arrive on the scene. Sometimes a smoke alarm at the cinema might go off, and while it’s a false alarm, you might be required to turn up to secure the scene. These false calls happen all the time.
Another type of call that you might attend but not be required for is as backup for another station. If a complex is large enough, you might be called to the scene even if it’s in a neighboring jurisdiction. Often you’ll just end up sitting in the truck waiting for the all clear to return to station.
Car crashes will also often require a firefighter call out, especially if there are fluid spills on the road.
And then, of course, there are the action calls. A candle set a sofa alight at 3am. It’s your job to ensure everyone gets out of the building alive. Someone left their clothes to dry over the space heater and suddenly their third floor flat is up in flames. You might need to rescue them with a fire escape ladder. Or a laundromat’s clothes dryer got clogged with lint which sparked and burned through the shop.
Schools may organize a visit to the station. Many fire stations have a set of dedicated lesson plans for teaching fire safety at the station. You might show the kids what to do if a fire catches, how to create a fire safety checklist for their home, or how to prevent wildfires. Once that’s done you get to do the fun stuff – let the kids sit in the truck, show them the equipment on the back of the truck, teach them how to check a smoke alarm, and even explain to them what it’s like in the day of the life of a firefighter!
Public Relations Events
Public education is all about getting the people in your community more aware of how to prevent and deal with fires when they occur. You might be asked to attend a seminar at a local business, answer emails and phone calls, or do an interview with your local newspaper. Another example is to attend a local county fair to give demonstrations on how (and when) to use a home fire extinguisher, or to remind people to change the batteries on their smoke detectors.
Some fire departments might also offer fire extinguisher recharging for a fee, which often happens on an on-call basis.
Here is Oak Ridge Fire Department doing an excellent public relations demonstration on just how fast a fire spread in a living room:
Someone’s got to keep the station clean! Each shift, there’s a good chance you’ll be assigned your fair share of chores. That might be to give the kitchen a deep clean, vacuum the public areas, clean the bathrooms, or to cook for your crew. There is also intermittent maintenance of equipment that might keep you busy on a monthly basis.
Yes, firefighters often get to work out on the job. You need to stay fit and healthy when fighting a fire. You’ve got a lot of heavy equipment on you, you’re in a high-stress situation, and you’re exposed to very hot temperatures. So fitness isn’t just a choice – it’s a necessity. So most fire stations have home gym and work out equipment and you’ll probably get to work out with your crew on a daily basis.
Ongoing Upskilling & Training
Training is never ending for firefighters. And many will take ongoing courses to help with career advancement or upskilling. Common training includes keeping up with advanced life support, EMT and other first aid training certifications.
There is also always ongoing upskilling and training on fire rescue. If your fire station is located in an industrial area, you might require specialized training in industrial fires; if you want to get promoted to another position on your truck, you might need the right tickets for that, too. There’s always something to train for.
If you’re not doing your chores or on call, your chief might expect you to be pursuing further education on your laptop in the station.
Another common type of training is group or team training. You might have regular activities designed to help build trust and rapport within the team.
Night Time Activities and Shift Close
The daily activities like call outs to car accidents, fires and medical emergencies may continue throughout the night. In fact, the late evening (4pm to 8pm) is a very common time of day for residential house fires.
But firefighters will often attempt to follow a routine during their night shifts that might follow the following steps:
7pm – Dinner
As with breakfast, dinner is often (but not always) a team activity. Eating together can help with team bonding and ensure everyone has good rapport with one another. You might be tasked with the job of cooking or doing the dishes at the end.
Unfortunately, eating together isn’t always possible – especially when there’s a call out inconveniently occurring right around dinner time.
8pm – Cleaning and Packing Equipment
While changeover isn’t going to occur for another 11 hours, you might want to ensure all the equipment is put back where it belongs after a day on the job and is clean and tidy for the next crew in the morning. If you don’t do it now, you’ll have to wake up an extra hour early to do it then!
9pm – Team Bonding
Some team bonding time might occur before bed. Maybe you’ll decide to watch a movie together, do some board games, or work on that jigsaw puzzle in the corner.
10.30pm – Sleep (Or try to!)
While it’s true that firefighters get to sleep and still get paid, it’s not quite that simple. Their sleep is never as good while they are on call. They aren’t in their normal bed at home cuddling up to their partner and part of their brain is always on alert, waiting for that siren call.
But, once chores are done, dinner is eaten, and the equipment is ready for changeover in the morning, it’s likely your average firefighter will attempt to get some shuteye and hopefully will have a quiet night in. If it’s peak residential fire season – December and January – when people are using more electricity, have their Christmas lights up, and are burning candles, chances are there will be a few calls throughout the night.
7am – Changeover
When it’s time to end your shift, you’ll probably have to do a final check-in with the people replacing you. You might have some important details to pass on about an ongoing fire incident, some recent issues with the truck, or a new rule that your chief has asked you to pass on to the next crew.
Once changeover is done, you’re off for another 24 or 48 hours – get some rest before it all starts again.
A Great Video
If you want to learn more, here’s a great video of a journalist doing a ‘day in the life’ documentary with a fire crew in Toronto:
We just want to reiterate that Rosie and I aren’t firefighters. This post is based on research we’ve done to help answer James’s question. So with that in mind, if you’re a firefighter and you think we’ve got something wrong, we’d love to hear from you! Get in touch and tell us what you think we should add or remove from the information above.
And to James – or you, dear reader – we hope this explanation has helped clear some things up. If you’re interested in becoming a firefighter, we think that’s awesome. Did you know we have some other resources you might like just for you?
Here are some great articles we’ve put together for aspiring firefighters: