The 24-Hour Shift, Part 1

Photo by John Odegard.

By Anne Gagliano

Sleep disruption is another form of trauma for the firefighter. On a 24-hour shift, a firefighter may get to “sleep” at some point during the night. But this is “sleep” in name only, as at any time they may be awakened suddenly and abruptly by a bunkroom light and some form of a bell indicating there is an alarm. This is shocking, to say the least. For the firefighter on call at home, the disruption from a radio or pager in the night has the same affect. Bobby Halton, editor in chief of Fire Engineering, once wrote of a study that discovered a firefighter’s heart rate typically rises to 80 percent of maximum when the alarm is received. This is a disturbing number, as 80 percent of maximum is rarely achieved even in strenuous exercise. Not only are they roused out of sleep, but the firefighters must then quickly don bunker gear, race to the apparatus, and receive instructions–all in a matter of minutes. The heart rate spikes for this very reason, as it provides the huge surge of adrenaline needed to transform the body from complete rest to complete action. The 24-hour shift is an unusual work schedule—far different from the rest. It is both a blessing and a curse, rewarding, yet consequential. And it is traumatic, as all shocks to the system typically are. The long-term effects are something firefighters and their spouses should be aware of.

Why the 24-hour shift anyway?  How did it start, where did the idea come from, and why don’t other professions operate this way?  The 24-hour shift dates back to the 1800s and the birth of big city fire department in the United States. The early firefighters didn’t work “shifts” at the firehouse; they lived there. It was a new profession that wasn’t overly stable or profitable or respected. For these reasons, it drew single young men who could survive on very low wages while also providing them with a place to live. And as the rigs were drawn by horses back then, someone needed to care for the animals around the clock as well.

But by the early 1900s, as populations grew, so did the need for and the respect of the fire department. The profession became recognized as honorable, life-saving, and worthy of full support from the communities. Born of a noble desire to preserve and protect human life, the wish to provide 24-hour protection, 7 days a week arose. To accommodate, firehouses sprang up all over the cities, strategically placed to reach every corner at every hour as quickly as possible.

With more buildings came more firefighters. And as the need grew, so did the appreciation—and the wages. Higher salaries drew men who could now actually support a family. And a family man couldn’t live at the firehouse, so firefighters requested “a day off” for every day worked to be with their families.

Why don’t cops work 24-hour shifts, as they, too, provide round-the-clock protection?  The difference is this: They must stay awake the entire shift and actively patrol. It is a vigil that is proactive, or protective. A presence on the streets. Firefighting, on the other hand, is responsive. They wait for the call. It is unnecessary to drive the streets looking for fires. And now, most firefighters provide emergency medicine as well (as they can get there faster than a hospital ambulance). These are reactive measures; they don’t drive around preventing fires or accidents the way police try to prevent crimes. And since it is responsive, the waiting can be done at the firehouse, where they may sleep but are never guaranteed to.

Critics have argued the need for the 24-hour shift: Should a firefighter actually earn a wage while eating, grocery shopping, even sleeping?  The research on the cost effectiveness of the 24-hour shift has surprised even the harshest critics. It is not a taxpayer loss but a taxpayer gain, saving them considerable amounts of money. To move to eight- or 12-hour shifts would require double, even triple staffing and lots more overtime pay.

And what critics find most surprising of all is the fact that firefighters don’t rest. They don’t just “sit around and watch TV” while getting paid to do so. Today’s firefighters have effectively evolved into specialized, multi-role responders who meet the diverse needs of citizens when they are at their most vulnerable. Their role is ever expanding as society continues to heap massive expectations upon their shoulders. Today, firefighters are trained for emergency medicine, building collapse, search and rescue, high-angle rescue, hazardous materials incidents, automobile accidents, water rescue, wildland fires, infectious disease, domestic terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and active shooter incidents. Oh yeah, and they fight fires too, more than a million a year. Citizens continually expect more and more of firefighters while giving them less and less, and yet they graciously comply—without ever going on strike to demand higher wages for their continuously increasing work load.

Arizona State University (ASU) did a study on cities that strive to adequately staff their fire departments. Critics claim that paid firefighters are not worth the 24-hour protection that comes at the taxpayer expense. The ASU study proves otherwise. It found that in a three-month period from June 1-August 12, 2012, the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department saved an estimated 2,300 jobs and $10.6 million in state tax revenue—after the cost of the firefighters’ salaries was deducted. $10.6 million in three months?  Firefighters, I’d say you earn your keep, and then some.

CPR and defibrillation administered within four minutes of the event dramatically increases the chances of survival for the victims of cardiac arrest. Because fire stations are located throughout communities, firefighters can reach far more citizens much faster than hospitals ever could. From Seattle, with its average annual EMS run load of 75,500, to New York, where the load is approximately 231,100 a year, people are consistently reached within that critical four minutes. Firefighters save numerous heart attack victims 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. What price can you put on that?    

The Golden Hour reflects the concept that survivability decreases significantly if the victim of a critical traumatic injury isn’t in the operating room within one hour from the time the injury occurred. From car wrecks to shootings, firefighters are there, securing and transporting fragile lives within that magical Golden Hour to life-saving surgery. Their skill, speed, and heroism turn tragedy into miracles in the light of day or in the deepest darkness of night.

The community reaps huge benefits from the 24-hour schedule and, in many ways, so does the firefighter. It is for both me and my husband Mike, hands down, the preferred schedule. The reasons we love it, and the price we pay to have it, will be addressed in my next column.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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