Shift Day: a 24-Hour Extended Training Day


April 24, 2012, started out just like any other shift. We prepared our gear, checked off our trucks, and contemplated what the day would have in store for us. By the time our shift ended 24 hours later, we had responded to the following:

  • five working fires (three residential, two commercial);
  • six vehicle fires, including a school bus with people trapped;
  • three vehicle extrications;
  • two technical rescues;
  • two hazmat incidents;
  • one mass-casualty incident (MCI) on an interstate; and
  • numerous activated fire alarms and too many general illness, cardiac arrests, and diabetic emergencies to count.

No, we are not the busiest fire station in the country; we are the Virginia Beach Fire Academy (VBFA), and April 24, 2012, was Shift Day for VBFA Class 136.

Shift Day is a 24-hour training day designed to challenge and expose fire recruits to the emotional and physical stressors of the fire service. It is the culmination of the knowledge, skills, and abilities our recruits learned and practiced during their eight-month fire academy.

(1) Live fire training at the Class A burn building. (<i>Photo courtesy of VBFA.</i>)
(1) Live fire training at the Class A burn building. (Photo courtesy of VBFA.)

Why Shift Day?

The American fire service, career and volunteer, responds to emergencies and calls for service 24 hours a day, seven days a week but traditionally trains for these responses during regular working hours or on a weekly training night. Most career departments typically work 24-hour shifts or a day/night “trick” typically 10/14 or something similar. Regardless of the shift arrangement, “downtime,” or time spent not assigned to an emergency incident, is not guaranteed. Volunteer firefighters are never off duty and are subject to call-outs at any time of the day or night. On Shift Day, recruits experience the highs, the lows, and the uncertainties of a typical fire department shift.

Stress Exposure Training (SET) differs from stress training. Stress training teaches about the effects of stress, the physiological and emotional changes one experiences during chronic or acute stress. SET tests the ability of an individual to perform previously acquired skills under stressful conditions. Live fire training is a form of SET in which recruits practice fireground tasks under realistic fire conditions. Shift Day takes SET to the next level, exposing fire recruits to a multitude of real-life fire service demands in a carefully managed and safe environment.

The United States military has long used extended training days to test the emotional and physical endurance of recruits. The United States Navy boot camp culminates in a 36-hour “Battle Stations” evolution, and the United States Marine Corps uses the 54-hour “Crucible” to test a recruit physically, mentally, and morally. The climax of recruit training in the United States Army is the 72-hour “Victory Forge,” in which recruits operate in a simulated combat environment. Each of these extended training evolutions is designed to be a rite of passage, which, through shared sacrifice, provides confidence and experiences to draw on during future challenges.

(2) A recruit drills on a Mayday response. (<i>Photo by Rayford Smith.</i>)
(2) A recruit drills on a Mayday response. (Photo by Rayford Smith.)

The Virginia Department of Fire Program’s Fire Fighter 1 and 2 program currently requires 189 hours of documented training in various categories for certification. Shift Day is 24 hours of documentable training that traditionally would have occurred over three eight-hour days at our full-time academy. For volunteer or part-time training programs that use three- to six-hour training sessions, amassing 24 hours of training could require several weeks to months.

During the academy, we frequently discuss customer service as it applies to every customer the department serves. The individual with whom Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department (VBFD) personnel interact at a response is having the worst day of his life and wants us to make it better. This person doesn’t and shouldn’t care how busy, heroic, or miserable this shift has been.

Shift Day addresses gaps in traditional fire service training, providing our newest members with real-world experience and clear expectations of service delivery standards.

The Concept

During Shift Day, the Virginia Beach Fire Training Center (VBFTC) becomes a VBFD fire station and the surrounding campus becomes our first-due area. The Shift Day schedule is designed to resemble as closely as possible an actual VBFD shift. A typical shift begins with equipment check-off and vehicle maintenance, followed by station maintenance, physical training, and company level drills in no particular order. Normally, the company officer determines the order, but these routines are performed as calls for service allow. During Shift Day, we stage VBFD reserve apparatus at the academy and, as they would at an actual fire station, our recruits perform apparatus check-off and maintenance.

(3) A Shift Day participant performs forcible entry. (<i>Photo by Rayford Smith.</i>)
(3) A Shift Day participant performs forcible entry. (Photo by Rayford Smith.)


The training center has a fixed-facility, Class A burn building on site to use during Shift Day for live fire responses. All recruits and the instructor staff participate in a National Fire Protection Association 1403, Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, Safety Brief and burn building walk-through the morning of and immediately prior to commencing Shift Day. The content of this brief remains in effect for the entire 24 hours of Shift Day.

Station maintenance during Shift Day involves typical station chores-sweeping, mopping, and trash emptying-but includes converting a training center classroom into a dormitory. Desks are removed and replaced with camping cots borrowed from the cache of our urban search and rescue team, Virginia Task Force 2. Company level drills during Shift Day typically involve recruit companies doing “Teach-backs” or presenting information to the other companies of their class. The topics presented are assigned to each crew prior to Shift Day and focus on VBFD-specific training such as department history, emergency medical service (EMS) protocols, and VBFD standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Service Calls

VBFA recruits are organized into three- to five-member squads or engine crews on the academy’s Day 1 and remain so throughout the duration. During Shift Day, these crews are dispatched to a myriad of emergencies in and around the campus. A medical emergency in Building 15 would be a single-engine response, whereas a reported house fire in our burn building would involve multiple crews. All responses are scenario- or training-based. A scenario-based response might be a reported cardiac arrest in the VBFTC gym. When the crew arrives at its dispatch location, members are presented with a patient in cardiac arrest and possibly a bystander (the instructor responsible for the evolution) with pertinent information. The crew is expected to begin care of this patient until an EMS transport unit arrives and patient care is transferred. If a manikin is available, this scenario allows for cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), intravenous (IV) access, intubation, and defibrillation evolutions if appropriate. If resources allow, this patient can be loaded into an ambulance and care can be continued as the ambulance drives around the VBFTC campus “en route” to a fictitious emergency room. All medical calls during Shift Day require recruits to complete a prehospital patient care report on returning to the station-part of Shift Day reality.

(4) A recruit extinguishes a car fire. (<i>Photo by Rayford Smith.</i>)
(4) A recruit extinguishes a car fire. (Photo by Rayford Smith.)

In training station responses, crews are dispatched to a location for any random assistance request (e.g., a carbon monoxide alarm activation or an “I smell something burning” complaint). When the crew arrives at the location, an instructor meets them, explaining the purpose and guidelines of the training. One example was a state test practice station. All Virginia firefighter 1 and 2 candidates must pass a written and practical test administered by the Virginia Department of Fire Programs prior to certification. During Shift Day, our recruits performed a mock or practice test during one of these training station responses.

Throughout the 24-hour shift, our recruit crews responded to scenario-based or training/testing-based evolutions all over the training center campus. Shift Day tested the recruits’ application of learned knowledge, skills, and abilities. They received no new information but rather crews were placed in as realistic as possible environments to “put it all together!”

Operational Risk Management

We applied operational risk management to each evolution based on the likelihood of occurrence combined with potential for harm and included environmental factors such as time of day and ambient temperatures. Each evolution was ranked as high, medium, or low risk, and instructor-to-recruit ratios were adjusted accordingly. High-risk evolutions included live fire training and chain saw operations. Roof and ladder operations were medium risk, and EMS calls and classroom evolutions were low risk. Safety procedures, rules, and regulations for Shift Day remained the same as for any other academy training evolution except we reduced the instructor-to-recruit ratio from after midnight until sunrise.

Instructor Management

The VBFTC used staff instructors and field training instructors (FTIs). Staff instructors are assigned to the VBFTC full time and FTIs are specially trained operations personnel who assist the academy when additional staffing is needed for larger evolutions or when we require lower instructor-to-recruit ratios.

For the purposes of Shift Day, the academy staff functioned as the “White Cell,” an exercise planning term that identifies internal assets assigned to an exercise. The White Cell performed all planning and logistics for each evolution and provided the lead instructors for each practical evolution. The incident commander and the incident safety officer were both academy staff members and considered part of the White Cell. The academy staff worked the entire 24-hour period with frequent rest breaks between evolutions. The instructor office spaces inside the training center served as the incident command post (ICP) and our fictitious dispatch center. The ICP/dispatch center maintained communications on two separate networks. All White Cell communications were over family radio service (FRS) radios, which are relatively inexpensive and commercially available. Using FRS radios allowed the White Cell to communicate and coordinate evolutions unbeknownst to the recruits. Crews and their respective FTIs were dispatched via VBFD 800-MHZ radios.

(5) A crew practices vehicle rescue operations. (<i>Photo by Rayford Smith.</i>)
(5) A crew practices vehicle rescue operations. (Photo by Rayford Smith.)

The FTIs were limited to eight-hour overlapping shifts and were assigned as crew leaders or company officers. The FTI was included in the crew’s personnel accountability report and operated as a member of his assigned crew. The complexity and associated risk of each evolution combined with the FTI’s evaluation of the crew’s ability to succeed determined the FTI’s level of involvement in the evolution. During a typical EMS scenario, the FTI might elect to “appoint” a crew leader from among the recruits, but during high-risk evolutions, such as live fire training, the FTI functioned as the crew leader and directed the crew’s actions. Regardless, the FTI accompanied his crews on every response and was responsible for the physical safety and overall well-being of the crew during the assigned shift. Safety briefings were held at each FTI shift change so the off-going and on-coming FTIs could conduct a face-to-face passdown concerning the prior performance of each crew. FTIs served as their crews’ advocate and kept the White Cell briefed on the physical and emotional condition of their respective crews. The FTIs were told prior to dispatch to what and where their crews would be responding.

When not specifically assigned to a response, crews were free to go about their normal duties within the “fire station” such as cooking meals, studying, resting in the dormitory, or attending to personal hygiene.

Department Culture

During Shift Day 2012, one crew attempted to rest in the bunk following a working fire without showering first. Not only is this a significant health hazard, but it is well outside the established cultural values and accepted norms of the VBFD. This crew learned a valuable lesson in communal living during Shift Day.

Emergency responses continued throughout the shift as they would in real life with the operational tempo increasing and decreasing as instructor staffing and crew conditions allowed. We conducted instructor-intensive evolutions such as live fire training during the periods of FTI overlap. For example, incoming FTIs served as crew leaders, off-going FTIs as safeties, and the instructor staff as burn building management during the live fire evolutions.


The VBFA is a 28-week full-time academy. Course work includes firefighter 1 and 2; emergency vehicle operator; hazardous materials awareness/operations; national incident management system; Mayday, vehicle, technical, and water rescue; and emergency medical technician-enhanced. Shift Day is not extra training but a combination and culmination of several courses in a comprehensive 24-hour setting, such as the live-fire training portion.

The VBFA is a member of the Tidewater Regional Fire Academy and is committed to adhering to the shared curriculum established by the regional academy’s participating agencies, which far exceeds required state minimums. It requires a minimum of 40 hours of live burn training normally delivered over a five-day period called “Burn Week.” The live fire training performed during Shift Day, typically at night, is part of the required 40 hours, not an addition.

Other cost-saving adjustments include using “realignment.” VBFA recruits are assigned to a 40-hour workweek and would require overtime for any hours worked over 40. The week of Shift Day, our recruits only work two eight-hour days in addition to Shift Day to avoid exceeding 40 hours for the week, which is defined as Thursday to the following Wednesday.

The quality of any fire academy and that of the firefighters it produces is proportional to the instructors’ dedication, passion, and technical expertise. At the V BFA, I worked with quality recruits, excellent physical resources, and talented and dedicated fire instructors. Shift Day is still possible for areas with fewer physical resources. If you can deliver a firefighter 1 and 2 course, then you have the resources to incorporate Shift Day into your training program.

JOHN M. KEYES is a battalion chief with the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, assigned to the Operations Division. He was course supervisor for the Virginia Beach Fire Academy. Keyes is a paramedic, hazmat technician, rescue specialist, and Virginia Department of Fire Programs technical rescue instructor. He has a master of public administration degree from Troy University.

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