The Unwritten Rules of Trading Shifts


Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Photo Courtesy Landon Jensen

There are many drawbacks to shift work for first responders, however one of the great benefits is that the multiple rotating shifts allow individuals with the same title to “trade” shifts with one another. Though everyone is responsible for their own shift being covered, in many departments if two people agree to trade shifts, they work each other’s shift and get the day off they needed without ever taking a vacation day. Convenient right!? This can be great when there are events that are important to your family. This is a great tool to use when you desperately want your first responder home. There may be some very specific rules in how to use these that limit their capabilities such as a limited number available to one person per month or putting in for them ahead of time etc. So it is important to check what the written rules are for your department.

The unwritten rules, I’d argue, are equally if not MORE important. The first responder culture can be hard to understand as an outsider. You’re going to have to trust your first responder on the unwritten rules and how it might impact their reputation or relationships with co-workers. In general, a culture of trust, respect, and not pissing other first responders off is very important! Some examples of potential unwritten rules might be…

1. You’re expected to work a similarly taxing day that you got off (such as weekend day for weekend day). Wouldn’t it be great if your family got a Saturday back and your spouse only had to give up a Wednesday for it? It would also be pretty unfair to the family on the other end.

2. If we’re asking for someone to work for us last minute, we have to also commit to breaking some unknown future plan at the last minute. Example: My spouse gets someone who kindly offered to work for him last minute for a plan that is important to us. Then, when this kind person wants a trade back last minute we say no because we have plans. Then that happens a couple of times… that cool person who was willing to get your family out of a bind may decide to never work a last minute trade for your family again. The kindness wasn’t reciprocated. Little by little you’re going to shorten your list and in turn the little flexibility you might have as a first responder family.

3. Seniority is important. There may be some unwritten rules that newer individuals offer to work holidays for those who have been on longer etc. There’s a pecking order in first responder culture and this means that individuals on probation and newer to the profession are expected to take on as much of the sucky parts of the job they can in order to prove themselves worthy and also pay respect to those who have been there longer. If you’ve ever played team sports in high school or college you’ll understand why. This helps build a culture of trust and respect which is absolutely necessary in a profession where your lives may be in each other’s hands.

One of the most incredible parts about the first responder culture is that co-workers will literally risk their lives in order to make sure they have yours covered. That type of risk also means it’s going to take more sacrifice for first responders to prove themselves trustworthy to their co-workers than other professions. Co-workers essentially may decide how much they want to help others out and how much they trust them based on their actions. This can influence so many aspects of the ways they approach their job. You see this from the hiring process to promotions. As a spouse, we’re an extension to that culture because we influence it and we’re also influenced by it. Understanding the culture and respecting it can go a long way in navigating the first responder lifestyle.

About Dr. Rachelle Zemlok

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California specializing in working with first responder families and supporting parents with children diagnosed with ADHD or pose behavioral challenges. For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website at