Those individuals who are new to EMS careers or just beginning to think about starting their training often wonder what hours an EMT or paramedic will typically work. It’s a valid question as careers in EMS tend to have very different shifts than other jobs. And those shifts or work hours will largely determine many other aspects of your lifestyle outside of work. For example, if you’re working night shifts and off during the day, you’re likely going to have to make some drastic changes to your current lifestyle in order to adapt to working hours you’re not accustomed to.
Furthermore, shifts in EMS can rotate or change according to set numbers of days or weeks. This means that as a new EMT, you’re going to face the grueling fact that you’ll be tossed around between shifts until you gain seniority within your agency. This flip-flopping of schedules can drive some new medics absolutely crazy. Despite the unusual work hours, most new candidates enter the EMS system for the purpose of helping others and are willing to make these lifestyle sacrifices to make a career for themselves in which they can make a difference in their community.
Typical EMS Shifts and Hours
Typical work shifts for an EMT or paramedic vary widely by agency. While you may find some 8 hours shifts among certain employers, more commonly shifts are 12 or 24 hours, again depending on the agency and what type of units they are deploying. For example, some agencies that have a high volume of inter-facility transports (IFTs), will staff an extra transport unit during peak hours, generally from morning to evening such as 9:00am to 9:00pm.
The 12 and 24 hour shifts are used in different combinations depending on the current demands of the agency’s capabilities. For example, some medics may do two 24 hours shifts during a 5 or 7 day rotation (24-24). Some agencies may employ four 12 hours shifts (12-12-12-12), some may employ a 24 hours shift and two 12 hour shifts (known as 24-12-12), and some may even utilize a grueling 36 hours shift with one additional 12 hours shift during the rotation (36-12).
As you’ve probably noticed, these shifts generally add up to over 40 hours per week, and often closer to 50. In a recent survey, it was found that close to 70% of all medics worked overtime on a nearly weekly basis. While this adds up to a nice sum of additional income at the end of the year, these long hours and frequent transitions between day and night shifts can cause some EMTs and paramedics to burn out early in their career, leading to them taking long breaks from the industry or finding work in other sectors. You’ll need to learn techniques to take good care of your body, both physically and mentally, to succeed in EMS over the long run. These techniques may include various ergonomic considerations to prevent injury on the job, exercise on your days off, frequent rest in between calls whenever the opportunity presents itself, and also completely unplugging from the job on your days off.
Start times for shifts also vary drastically also. With 12 and 24 hours shifts, start times for those shifts tend to be either strictly morning or evening, such as 8:00am – 8:00pm for a 12 hour shift or perhaps 9:00pm – 9:00pm for a 24 hour schedule. These are simply examples for illustrative purposes, and these shift times will depend on the current demands on the agency you’re employed with.
Seniority Makes a Difference
Within the EMS system, it should be noted that seniority tends to play a role in the selection of available shifts, as with most public service jobs. For example, some agencies will allow senior paramedics to choose day or night shifts, or weekday versus weekend shifts, to allow them to better incorporate work/life balance or family demands. The agency will also still be subject to staffing requirements, for example, if ALS is required, a paramedic may be required on staff 24 hours a day, meaning night shifts are still mandatory in some agencies regardless of seniority.
Understanding the unusual and demanding hours and shifts that an EMT or a paramedic will generally work is incredibly important prior to jumping into an EMS career. You’ll need to be flexible and able to work with the demands of a work schedule that may rotate or change on a consistent basis. These unusual schedules are one of the top causes of agencies being unable to maintain qualified staff. Young new EMTs get out of training and into the EMS system with very few demands outside of work. However, as time goes on and medics start families and have new priorities in life, they often leave the system to find more work life balance.
Before taking a job offer, be sure you are clear on what shifts will be required and how those work hours will fit into your lifestyle. The shifts that we currently use in the EMS system were developed long before it was typical to have two working household members. If you have a significant other who will be responsible for household duties while you are working (whatever they may be), it’s important for you to discuss how you will arrange those responsibilities and share them. Be up front and forward thinking about how your shifts will affect your lifestyle and plan accordingly. By doing this, and taking good care of yourself physically and mentally both on and off the clock, you’ll be a successful medic for as long as you choose.