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Maintaining the Work and Life Balance in the Fire Service

In my fire service career, I have worked various different shift schedules.  When I first started as a volunteer, I signed up for 24-hour shifts on a Kelly Schedule as a paid reserve.  About a year later, I received the opportunity to be a wildland firefighter and transitioned to the 72-hour shift schedule.  As a wildland firefighter, I soon discovered what strike team deployments were; which involved chasing campaign fires all over the State of California.  The next shift assignment I worked was a little different and it was a rotating 12-hour schedule between day - night shifts.  My body really never knew what time it was and I learned that I could sleep just about anytime during the day.

My last shift assignment was more common, called the 48/96 schedule with working two straight days in a row.  This assignment is known as the “commuter schedule” and I was indeed a commuter for three years.  My residence was three hours one way from my duty station and this commute made it extremely difficult working in a very busy system.  On this schedule, I drove my personal vehicle three hours to work and I was driving the fire engine for a total of 24-48 hours at work.  There were some nights where you were known as the “Sleepless Knights” and didn’t get any rest while on duty.  I would drive home at the completion of my shift and literally sleep a full day once I got back home.

The reason why I am sharing all of these different shift assignments is to paint a picture of all the various work schedules one could have in their Fire Service career.  In my earlier years as a seasonal wildland firefighter, I would work a whole 28 days in a pay period.  This was known as “Blocking out” a pay period.  If you were really fortunate one could block out two pay periods in a row if you were on a lightning siege or on a major campaign fire in Southern California.  During this schedule, I met my soon to be bride and discovered that there was more to life than just being a firefighter. 

Over the last seven years I have been married to my bride, I have struggled with maintaining the work - life balance for various reasons.  The demands of a public servant are extreme with overtime, shift trades, mandatory training, off duty community events, union meetings and of course vacation - sick coverage.  It is extremely easy to pour yourself into the demanding role of a public servant in the fire service.  It is also very easy to let the fire life consume you!

Then life happens with starting a family and you begin settling down with children.  This is when life and its responsibilities sink in. Then you start struggling with this whole work - life balance concept.  You want to be at home with your family and you also want to be a dedicated public servant at the same time.  I almost felt like I was living two different lives.  One of those lives was at my home residence with my family and the other life was at the firehouse with my work family.

A very wise mentor shared with me that it is necessary to manage my time better just in case there were any unexpected events.  He would always give me hints that things happen and you have to leave room in your schedule for these events.  Everything was starting to make sense, when sure enough, life happened and I was again struggling to maintain this work - life balance.  A lesson lived is a lesson learned and I learned the hard way.  Life happens when we least expect it and your family at home should be your ultimate priority.  Through experience, I have learned to pace myself in my fire service career and leave room for my life at home.  There is only so much time in the day and you have to find that balance between work - life.

In reality, there is no such thing as balance. We will all be overwhelmed or over committed at some point in our lives. The key is to have an open and honest relationship with your spouse and friends who aren’t afraid of reminding you that you’re “out of balance.”  We have to receive these words of admonition with appreciation because in our passionate pursuit of the fire service we often lose sight of the ones we should be committed to the most: Our families. Our great love and passion for the fire service should be out of our greater love for God and our families.  I leave you with this advice, before you commit to another opportunity ask yourself these questions:

  • Will this strengthen my faith?
  • Will this make me a better husband/father?
  • Will this make me a better firefighter?

If the answer is no to the first two, we should be very cautious about accepting these opportunities. A mentor once told me that the worst thing he did in life was when opportunities came knocking and he said yes to all of them. And by doing so, he said no to God and his family.

Cover Photo Courtesy: California Fire Foundation

Chris Baker has over 10 years of experience in volunteer, combination and career fire departments in California.  Chris holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Anthropology and Associates of Science Degree in Fire Service Command Company Officer.  He is a California State Fire Training certified Fire Officer, Driver-Operator, Fire Instructor, and Lead Firefighter I Certification Evaluator.  Chris is a Fire Science Instructor in the California Community College System.  He is a member and educator with the International Society of Fire Service Instructors.  Chris is an Advocate and Regional Coordinator for the Everyone Goes Home Program through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. 

You can contact Chris through his website:

Twitter: @instructorbaker

Facebook: @InstructorChrisBaker

Instagram: @instructorchrisbaker

LinkedIN: Instructorbaker

or by email:

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