A century ago, almost all paid firefighters worked in what is known as the continuous duty system. This meant that firefighters practically lived at the firehouse. The modern 40- or 56-hour workweek did not exist for any paid firefighters. There were no platoons, groups or shifts as there are today.
In 1918, it was reported that 95 percent of career firefighters worked under a continuous duty system. The continuous duty system involved all the firefighters in a department being on duty continuously with a scheduled day off periodically was well as daily off-duty time for meals. The most common schedule was every sixth day off and three hours off each day for meals. This equaled 48 hours off and 120 hours on duty each week. Firefighters worked the most hours per week of any occupation. At that time the average worker worked around 60 hours per week.
Most firefighters usually had a full day off about once per week. Sometimes they only had a full day off every two weeks or only once per month. Some departments were more generous and allowed men a day off every fourth or fifth day. Typically, firefighters were allowed a few hours off each day for meals. These periods of off-duty time would be staggered so that no more than one or two men from a company of five to ten men would off duty at any given time. During these times firefighters could leave the firehouse and visit their family. Firefighters also had an average of about 10 vacation days per year.
For about 6000 hours on duty, the average firefighter in 1918 was paid $960. This is less than $20,000 in 2022 dollars. This equals about 16 cents per hour. To put this in perspective, bakers were paid an average of around 50 cent per hour for an average 54 hour work week and carpenters were paid about 75 cents per hour for an average 44 hour work week. Despite the long hours of the continuous duty system and the poor pay, firefighting provided a steady income. The fire service gave many immigrants and working-class poor men the opportunity to achieve a middle-class status.
The continuous duty system made firefighting an undesirable job to many men who wanted to spend time with their family or do something besides living in a barn 90 percent or more of their time. In Alton, Illinois, for example, there were many resignations from the fire department in 1913. When the City Council asked the Chief why there were so many resignations from his department his response was that the job was "long on hours and short on pay." This probably was the best one sentence description of the continuous duty system.
Often fatigue and lack of sleep were real problems for firefighters in many large and busy fire departments that had a continuous duty system. According to a 1913 FDNY study, fatigue was identified as a factor in many accidents, including several fatal ones. The study attributed this fatigue to the continuous duty schedule that rarely let firefighters enjoy any significant time away from the firehouse or a solid night's sleep.
Paid firefighters a century ago also had to fight boredom. Fire companies were far less busy then than they are now. Fire departments did not provide emergency medical services. They were fewer automobile accidents, fire alarm activations and other non-fire related alarms, which today make up the majority of the alarms to which modern firefighters respond.
A century ago, it was common for a fire company in a major city to answer less than 500 alarms per year. Some companies answered less than 100. Today most career fire companies answer a couple thousand alarms each year. The busiest fire companies often answer twice as many.
In the teens, progressives and reformers pushed for better working conditions for workers in all industries. For the fire service this meant the adoption of the “two-platoon system.” Under a two platoon system a fire company would be divided into two platoons or groups. Each one would be on duty while the other had off. This reduced most firefighters’ work weeks from more than 120 hours to a more manageable 84 hours.
By 1918 only 15 American cities had adopted a two-platoon system. Among these was Bridgeport, Connecticut, which was the first city in New England to adopt two-platoons. After the First World War, the efforts of urban progressives and the unionization of firefighters began to transform the fire service. By 1925, 24 states and the District of Columbia had adopted laws requiring a two-platoon system. Also, by 1925, the average annual wages for firefighters increased to about $1800 and firefighters’ wages generally were greater in larger departments. Eventually, after World War Two most fire departments adopted a three-platoon system and later some adopted a four-platoon system. Under these modern systems, most career firefighters work somewhere between 40 to 56 hours per week.