There’s no denying that firefighters have a very unusual job, prepared to lay their lives on the line every day. Yet, not only is their work life unusual, their work schedule is non-traditional as well.
Cedar Rapids firefighters work a 24-hour shift, starting at 7 a.m. one day and working until 7 a.m. the next day. This schedule has been in place for many years, to maintain constant coverage throughout the day and into the night. After working a full 24-hour shift, firefighters then have 48 hours off before the schedule starts all over again.
“We live a third of our lives at the fire station,” says Amy Kunkle, a Cedar Rapids firefighter who has been with the department for five years. “The hardest part to adjust to is missing holidays or birthdays, or not being able to come home every night.”
During each 24-hour shift, the firefighters don’t necessarily have a lot of downtime. “I think a lot of folks think we just sit and wait for a call,” Kunkle says. The opposite is true. “Our day is pretty structured. We have set things we do every day.”
Training is a huge part of each day. “Usually, from 9 a.m. to noon is some kind of training every day,” says Justin Jensen, a Cedar Rapids firefighter who’s been on staff for 20 years. “The job has evolved so much from the days of the bucket brigade,” Kunkle says. “It’s so important that we’re always educating ourselves, always trying to think ahead to have a good response and a good outcome.”
“Training can cover tactics, EMS, you name it, the full gamut of special disciplines, from water rescue and ice rescue to confined space and rope rigging training,” Jensen says. Time also is set aside each afternoon for more training, as well as inspections and tours. Of course, everything gets put on hold when a call comes in. “We start and stop quite a bit and you just pick up where you left off,” Jensen says.
An average of 10 firefighters work out of the new Central Fire Station, or Fire Station 1, each day: three firefighters on the engine company, three to four on the truck company, two on the rescue truck and two battalion chiefs. The station responds to emergency calls in and around downtown Cedar Rapids, as well as housing a variety of specialty vehicles that can respond to unique calls, like a haz-mat emergency, anywhere in the city.
“The fire service has morphed into bigger responsibilities,” Jensen says. “ We weren’t into EMS 20 to 25 years ago. Whenever there’s been a need, like swift water rescue, ice rescues, rope rescues, we’ve taken it on. Whenever there was a need that wasn’t being filled, the fire department’s been looked at to now take that on.”
In order to meet those needs, every firefighter has general training but can also volunteer to be trained for a special unit. For example, Kunkle has received additional training to handle water rescues.
Working a 24-hour shift, the firefighters live and work out of the station when they’re on duty. When it comes to mealtime, the firefighters eat breakfast and lunch on their own, but cook and eat dinner together each night. This is one of the things that helps build the sense of camaraderie at the station.
Each day, the firefighters work out in the cardio room and weight room. In fact, they are each required to exercise at least an hour a day to stay in top physical shape.
“Heart attacks are the number one killer of firefighters,” says Greg Buelow, special projects coordinator and public information officer for the department. “You literally put a lot of stress on the heart. One minute you’re at the station and within five minutes you could be climbing a ladder with 60 pounds of gear and hoses.”
“We have nice equipment here so we have no excuses not to be in shape,” Jensen says. Kunkle adds that working out is a great stress reliever for the crew.
At night, firefighters sleep in small, individual dorm rooms. The dorm rooms are situated right next to the truck bay, so the firefighters can jump out of bed and get right out the door when a call comes in.
At the end of the day, Kunkle and Jensen say the crazy schedule and the personal risk is well worth it. “It’s something I’m very proud to be a part of,” Kunkle says.
“I’ve never had a day where I couldn’t wait to get to work,” Jensen adds. “It’s a great honor to be a firefighter.”