As I am sitting here on a recliner at the station, I was watching a youtube video about some guy talking about how useless firefighters are nowadays, because there are barely any fires anymore, and what is the point of them paying us full time income, if we barely go to fires in this day and age. So instead of me becoming upset, possibly like other firefighters may, I figure it is a fair question, and I will answer it. What do firefighters do when there’s no fire?
In modern firefighting, it is true that there is nowhere near the amount of fires there used to be. 80% of a fire department’s call volume are all medical emergencies while about 20% of our calls involve fire. When we are not responding to a fire, we are probably responding to medical emergencies, vehicle accidents, rope rescues. We could be preparing for our next call, going through department wide training, physical fitness, doing housekeeping and more. I will show you about 19 solid different things firefighters are doing when not fighting fire.
1. Responding To Medical Emergencies
In modern firefighting, we are responding mostly to medical emergencies. Gone are the days where large and medium or even small departments staff firefighters only. Just about all departments staff firefighters who are at the very least EMRs , EMTs, AEMTs and Paramedics. In many jurisdictions, the fire department has fire based ambulances. They tend to be the primary prehospital care units in the jurisdiction that they serve.
This is why whenever someone calls 911 for a medical emergency for a fall, difficulty breathing, heart attack, or a fever, a fire truck pulls up with firefighters. Pretty much all firefighters are now cross trained in prehospital medicine.
2. Responding To Accidents
Whenever firefighters are not responding to medical emergencies, they also respond to car accident scenes. In any car accident, the victims need medical attention, possibly broken bones, could have gone through the windshield. It is very common for victims to be trapped. When they are trapped, firefighters need to literally cut the crushed vehicles apart to remove the patient from the vehicle, then the same firefighters render medical aid. If those same vehicles catch fire, now the firefighters have to put that fire out, extricate, and then provide medical aid.
Not only are car accidents, but other accidents as well. A few days ago, we responded to a home where a tree log fell on top of a homeowner who was attempting to cut down a tree in his house. Not only did we need to get tools such as a wood saw and chain saws to cut the log into pieces, then we had to carefully extricate the patient from the pile of logs, we had to care for his injured spine, as we loaded him onto our stretcher, and transported him to the hospital.
3. Responding To Technical Rescues
We’ve covered 2 other things that firefighters do when there is no fire. Firefighters also do specialized rescue efforts. Things like confined space rescues are just how they sound, rescuing people who are stuck in very tight spaces. You see this commonly happen in manufacturing environments. Many big name manufacturing companies such as Georgia Pacific or even Procter & Gamble have many large machines, boilers and other large structures that require maintenance. Some of those maintenance personnel need to go inside very small openings and do some work with limited amounts of time due to the limited amount of available oxygen.
Well, when those same people find themselves stuck when attempting to get out, or suddenly begin to suffer from a medical emergency such as a seizure or low blood sugar. If these companies do not have a specialized team for confined space rescues, the fire department will respond for this confined space rescue.
Have you ever seen whether in real life or in movies, when a car loses control and ends up in a ravine? The fire department is the agency to extricate the patients, and rescue them with ropes up a cliff, ravine or very uneven terrain. This can even include patients stuck in trees, or other high or low locations with no easy access.
4. Responding To Hazmat Incidents
Fire departments also respond to almost all hazardous materials spills, releases and other related incidents. Firefighters are taught to recognize hazardous materials that are carried on trucks, trains, boats and airplanes. Although I only named 4 hazardous materials methods, the most common transport method is over the road on tractor trailers. When a tractor trailer overturns that was carrying toxic chemicals such as ammonia. Exposure to it can have drastic effects on your health and the environment.
If this same truck overturned with liquefied ammonia starting to roll down to a water source, who responds to this? The fire department. The fire department is responsible for recognizing the material, protecting themselves from exposure, and protecting the environment such as the water source. Firefighters respond to gas leaks and fuel spills as well.
5. Responding To Downed Power Lines
Downed power lines are so common during thunderstorms all across the world. Unless you don’t have electricity where you live. When there is a thunderstorm, hurricane, tornado, tropical storm, electricity tends to be affected very quickly. Firefighters respond to these scenes, with the power company, and assist with keeping the public safe from the power lines. If a vehicle with passengers in it, and the power lines fall on top? With the help of the power company, firefighters have to remove the victims from the dangerous environment they’re in.
6. Fire Inspections
Another thing firefighters are doing when there are no fires are fire prevention efforts. And we’re good at it too. Fire safety is very important for us, and fire departments have select people who serve as fire inspectors, and they go around inspecting commercial buildings. Fire crews do also do these inspections themselves, and if something comes up that needs attention like an extension cord being used in place of a permanent electrical outlet (violation of NFPA 1), the crews will contact the fire inspector and the inspector will come back in a few days to follow up.
Another thing firefighters are doing after each and every fire call, medical call, hazmat call, rescue call is preparation for the next call. After a medical call, firefighters on an ambulance need to resupply all of the items they used during the previous call such as IV bags, needles, and disinfecting the ambulance stretcher. After a fire call, firefighters need to switch out of their turnout gear and get it washed, so they do not expose themselves to possible hazardous materials on their gear from the fire. Firefighters also need to refill their air tanks. You do not want to be the firefighter that does not refill their O2 tank, and get another call where you need your SCBA, and it is only a quarter full.
Have you ever wondered why firefighters drink so much water? It’s not only for health purposes, or because the fire service prohibits anything other than water or coffee. It is because if there is suddenly a structure fire you are now responding to, the heat from the fire, and your trapped body heat in your turnout gear will get you sweating extremely quickly. If you are not hydrated, you will become dehydrated very quickly, and this can become life threatening.
Firefighters are constantly training for the work possible scenarios, as well as constantly practicing fundamentals. While it may be true that structure fires are rare nowadays, since any skill is perishable if it is not practiced often, we firefighters are constantly training to perform at very high levels. We practice performing on major vehicle accidents, hazmat incidents, fires, and major medical emergencies. It can be very easy to become complacent with skills, and that’s why we practice like we play very often.
Another thing firefighters do when there is no fire is physical training (PT). Physical fitness is literally a requirement to be in the fire service. If you are not strong, you will not be able to be safe and productive on the fire ground. I talk a bit more about how big guys in the fire service, or even anybody in the fire service or looking to join, can physically prepare themselves for the demand of this job in this article here.
Good physical fitness also has a direct correlation on how much a single bottle of oxygen will last you. In general a firefighter in great cardio shape will run through a bottle in approximately 30 minutes. Another firefighter who has neglected his/her cardio can go through the same bottle in 15-20 minutes.
Even though the firehouse is like a second home, it is still a government building. So the place needs to remain clean and presentable at all times. Every single day, cleaning needs to be done. Bathrooms, the toilets, mirrors, showers, trash needs to be taken care of. Need to vacuum the carpet, clean the kitchen and dining areas, and do dishes as well. So if you are looking to get into the fire service, and you do not like doing chores, you need to fix that ASAP.
11. Equipment Maintenance
I touched a little bit on the importance of equipment maintenance, such as refilling your SCBA bottles, but there’s more to this. You need to be testing your SCBA before every single shift you work. If the batteries are about to die, and you didn’t test it, that could mean you are not being able to properly use your SCBA or God forbid you get trapped in a structure fire, with dead batteries, other firefighters may not be able to find you. You also need to test that the mask on your SCBA is able to properly seal and flow oxygen. Sometimes there can be rips and tears in the masks, and you will not notice it unless you are testing your equipment.
You are also responsible for maintaining EMS equipment and their batteries. Imagine someone having a potential heart attack, and you forgot to change the batteries on the cardiac monitor. Or if you have someone in need of CPR, and you forgot to change the batteries to the Autopulse or Lucas or another similar device. Not properly maintaining our equipment is a huge liability to ourselves and the public we serve.
12. Vehicle & Apparatus Maintenance
Firefighters are constantly testing and maintaining the apparatuses and ambulances. Things like oil and gas are constantly being checked and need to be checked because of how much these vehicles are used. Tire pressure, and other common vehicle aspects that need to be checked are checked.
Now more firefighting apparatus specific things that are constantly checked for and maintained are the nozzles and hoses that are on the truck. Firefighters have to constantly check that water pumps through correctly to where it needs to go. Did you know that all that folded up hose lines you can see on the back of a fire truck or engine are all measured and set up in a way that a firefighter can grab a bundle and know exactly how much feet of hose he/she is carrying.
13. Report Writing
After each and every call, whether that is a medical call, lift assist, structure fire, or confined space rescue, a report needs to be written about what had happened. Reports serve multiple uses. Reports are considered legal documents, and if the fire department were to get subpoenaed on a call that happened 3 years ago at 3am on a busy friday night, it is likely that the firefighters on that call will not remember what happened.
Reports are used to give an account of what firefighters observed throughout the call. From things observed coming up to the address, in the middle of the call, what was said, what they overheard, peoples reactions, observations and more. This also covers a fire department or EMS provider if a patient refused care, and died after fire or EMS left the scene.
14. School Visits
Firefighters are frequently asked to come talk to kids at school about fire safety and more. Building trust with the public starts at a young age, and this is both an opportunity for both those things, and to teach the staff about fire safety.
15. Station Tours
Remember earlier in this post how I talked about the importance of housekeeping in the firehouse? Well not only is it a government building, but it is also open to the public. Station tours and visits are very common in the fire service. Many times they’re unannounced as well. As much as you would like to tell them to go away, the firehouse is a government building that is open to the public. Hopefully you’ll get a call mid tour and they’ll have to leave.
16. Public Outings
Something firefighters also may be doing when not fighting fire, firefighters are often asked to make an appearance at public outings, especially those involving children. We take great pleasure in making a child’s day, especially the chance to get to look inside of a truck or engine.
17. Studying For Promotional Tests
Another thing firefighters are constantly doing is studying for promotional tests. You have to test out to be promoted to Engineer, to fire lieutenant, to fire captain, to battalion chief and higher. Not only does a firefighter need to have a certain amount of years before they can even test for a position, they need recommendations as well.
18. School Work
Many firefighters are college students, or even business owners outside of firefighting. After all those station duties as previously mentioned are performed and completed, some firefighters study and complete class work.
19. Relaxing & Watching TV
And finally the most common thing known to the public, but the least done is relaxing and watching TV. When you are working on a shift, it is usually at least 24 hours. You do not get a specified time to rest or take a lunch break. When you get a call, you literally have to drop everything you are doing and go to that call. Imagine having to rescue someone out of a burning building or a wrecked car after no sleep for 18+ hours. As firefighters, we literally have to try to nap whenever you get the chance. Sleep comes after preparation and things that need to get done.
Watching TV and spending time with the people on your crew is essential to build relationships with firefighters who may be the one to save your life and vice versa. And watching tv helps us relax a little bit.
Firefighters are not useless lazy people who get paid to go on rare fire calls. Yes, the amount of fires are down, but as you can see, there are so many things we do as firefighters to serve the public. Just because firefighters are not often outside roaming like police officers do ( Fire engines and trucks use way too much gas just to drive around neighborhoods just to do it) does not mean they are not working.
I hope this article was helpful, as well as an eye opener if you genuinely wondered the same thing. If you are interested in joining the fire service, make sure to subscribe to the Firehouse heavyweights newsletter, where you will receive tips and advice to achieve your goals.