Fire and EMS Work Schedules: Using Thought Leadership Media

By: Robert Avsec

Welcome to our 2nd “Mail Bag” blog.  As I stated in our 1st “Mail Bag” posting, this is not your usual collection of reader comments/feedback/input because it actually comes from across several “platforms”.

I received the following comments in response to my recent piece,  The Slow Death of the 24-Hour Tour?   The comments, however, were posted by LinkedIn colleagues in response to my posting of the article on the Fire Engineering Group in LinkedIn.

WillieMichael Willie (Paramedic at Baltimore City Fire Department) I find this amazing that all of this information is being presented, but the CFD of Baltimore City and the mayor are trying to shove a 24hr shift down our throats. It is brought to negotiations every year. Now we are waiting to go to arbitration on the very same issue. To go to 24 hour shifts (49Hr work week) back to three shifts. We now work (2) 10 hr days – (2) 14 hour nights and off for four/ four shifts. They say that the 24 hour tour is up and coming. Not running 160,000 per year.

UlwellingEric Ulwelling (Captain, Monterey County (CA) Regional Fire District) Brother Willie: For what it’s worth – while attending a two-week course in August at the National Fire Academy campus, I was able to arrange a ride-along out of Station 19 (near the waterfront).

While I have nothing but good things to say about the crews I worked with during the shift, I left with the impression that this was an organization pushed to the breaking point with an extreme call volume, inadequate staffing and – no offense intended – low morale.

Firefighters were taking short cuts due to fatigue and the perception that what they did on the job was neither recognized or of significance. Just from the perspective of an outsider (I am a career West coast firefighter) my opinion is that a transition to a 24 hour shift is a recipe for disaster.  Thanks for your hard work in the city of Baltimore.

MelansonDean Melanson (Deputy Chief, Hyannis (MA) Fire Department)  Not all of us work a 24 hour shift with only 3 groups. Here in Massachusetts many of the departments work different variations of the 24 hr schedule. In my community we used to work the 2-2&4 schedule so we kept all the language in the contract the same and just changed how we work the 2 10’s and 2 14’s. We work a 10 hr day and a 14 hr night together ( a member may take the 10, or the 14, or both off, sick etc) we then have 2 days off, work another 10 hr day and 14 hr night and then have 4 days off. This maintains the 8 week cycle with an average 42 hour per week schedule (same as 2-2&4).

AvsecRobert Avsec (Retired Battalion Chief, Chief Content Creator, Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS blog) Great comments folks! I’d like to make one point and that is that the issue I’ve put forth is not a question of how many hours are worked in a week or how much time off a firefighter or EMT has between shifts. From the original piece:

“Put simply, long work hours — defined as shifts lasting more than 10 hours — have been clearly linked to errors in tasks that require vigilance and focused alertness, such as driving …”

I’m not advocating for elimination of 24-hour or longer shifts across the board. I think every department and its personnel need to base the scheduling on true workload data. When I see medic units (EMS ambulances) that leave the station at 0800 hrs and don’t get back for until 1700 hrs–like the norm at my former department and many other busy departments–and personnel who “wolf down” dinner so that they can get working on the 4 or 5 or more patient care reports that must be completed and uploaded to the department’s server…and then wind up running three or four calls after 2300 hrs I see a recipe for disaster.

And that’s what the research is starting to show us. How good is that medic or firefighter–physiologically speaking–at making a critical decision, or any decision for that matter, at 0200 hrs when they’ve been up since 0600 the day before to come to work?

Michael Willie.  We have another issue with respect to the way that our staffing Willieis made up. The EMS side depends on the fire side for staffing. We have suppression companies that are running over 3,000 calls per year. The EMS people would work 12 hour shift 2, 2, & 4. Now if you take a FF that has had two working fires in his/her first 12 hours and put them on a medic unit that runs 7,000 calls per year what type of energy level does that person have left to carry people down steps, do CPR and DRIVE the medic for the next 12 hours. Best part about all of this is our Fire Chief, James Clack did a research paper on the dangers of a 24 hour shift for a NFA class that he was taking. (Download the Applied Research Project) Thoroughly amazing.

PattiMike Patti.  (Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal at Central Mason (WA) Fire & EMS)  There is yet another variation to the traditional shifts that is trending throughout the Fire/EMS field…48/96’s! Yep…..some folks are taking to doubling their 24-hour shifts in the name of “reduced sick time and higher morale”, but the real benefit is the 4-days off.

Our department currently works this shift and I am constantly seeing the strain on our members when I come into the station each morning and I see how tired they are from the night before, and we both know they still have another 24 hours to go.

We all can recognize that, from a productivity stance, the crews will NOT be at the “top of their game”; however first and foremost, my constant concern is, “How will they make it through the shift if and when things go south?”

Scheduling is a sensitive topic here, and is a Mandatory Subject of Bargaining. No one is willing to give up their days off, but this manager, for one, is really concerned about the toll it appears to be taking on our staff.

Robert Avsec.  Great comments Mike. Thanks for taking to join the Avsecconversation. Reading those remarks prompts me to think: WTF? Here I am making a case for not working 24-hour shifts…and you bring up 48-hour shifts.

I remember working 48 hour shift–24 regular shift and 24 hour overtime shift–and that was no picnic and that was only once or twice a month.

UlwellingEric Ulwelling.  I work for a Fire District in coastal California — we went to the 48/96 that Chief Patti mentioned about five years ago. Due primarily to the community demographics and modest call volume, this shift works for us. We run a dedicated ambulance that can work continuously on occasion — however this is the exception and not the rule.

One strategy that we use to offset fatigue is to rotate ALS personnel through the ambulance on a volunteer basis. Perhaps it is an indication of a high morale agency, but senior staff with 15+ years of paramedic experience will rotate through the ambulance to give the assigned crews a break.

Our District borders a mid-size city with an inordinately high call volume, mostly due to a heavy gang presence coupled with older homes and virtually no fire prevention. A close friend of mine stated repeatedly that he regrets going to the 48/96. The amount of injuries and sick time use has skyrocketed. With a line staff of approximately 70, there are currently 12 firefighters out on injury disability, which only increases the pressure on those left standing to work longer hours.

In my opinion, this particular shift is not a one-size fits all staffing equation. It works for slower departments or those with deep back-staffing capabilities. It is my expectation that contract negotiations in the next few years will involve the reversal of this schedule for some departments.

Phillip Moyer. (City of Johnstown (PA) Fire Department, Hilltop Emergency MoyerMedical Services)  We work a pseudo “Philly” schedule: (3) 10 hour days followed by 3 days off, then (3) 14 hour nights, 3 off, etc. We have been “threatened by the 24 hours gig, but not with increase in pay for more hours worked. Like every other small department, we have faced reductions in manpower, station closures, unreliable equipment, etc. 24 hour shifts may look fine on paper and give the number crunchers and elected officials something to wave in the face of the public, but they fail to comprehend the toll it takes on us thereby effecting the citzens we serve.

MelansonDean Melanson.  Our elected officials fought against the 24 hr shifts, it was the members that wanted them. The elected officials stated that “they did not want to be the patient in the 23rd hour of the shift. They lost their quality of service and safety (fatigue) of the members argument in arbitration. The State’s position was “everyone else is doing it”. . . . I understand the issues but I don’t see anyone moving away from the 24 hour shifts, has anyone? what did they go to?

Clint Evers. (Fire Lieutenant at Summit (NJ) Fire Department)  My department Eversjust went to the 24’s just two years ago. I have seen more duty exchange forms come across my desk then I can remember. The morale has gone down, even the drive for education has gone down. It is extremely difficult to get any kind of rythm going especially when it comes to pre-planning, fire inspections and training. In the past if the day became busy you had other days to try to catch up before the tour ended. Now every shift you have to play catch up. Besides the FD items that can’t be completed, you miss an entire day with family. We used to work 2-10hr days, 2-14hr nights and have four days off.

Pretty good stuff, don’t you think?  So what’s the conversation like in your organization?

About Robert Avsec, Executive Fire Officer

Battalion Chief (Ret.) Robert Avsec served with the men and women of the Chesterfield County (VA) Fire and EMS Department for 26 years. He’s now using his acquired knowledge, skills, and experiences as a freelance writer for and as the “blogger in chief” for this blog. Chief Avsec makes his home in Cross Lanes, WV. Contact him via e-mail, [email protected].