Why Do Firefighters Work 24-Hour Shifts?

By:  Robert Avsec

What would be your answer to that question if posed to you by:

  • A member of your community’s governing body during budget ambwreck1discussions who wants to know why “we pay employees to sleep”;
  • A physician on a medical review board investigating a series of medication errors by paramedics from your department during post-midnight calls where sleep deprivation has been identified as a contributing factor;
  • The attorney representing a family who’s husband and father was killed in a motor vehicle crash at 5:oo a.m. on his way to work when his car was struck by a fire engine that was returning to quarters from an fire alarm activation (the fire crew had only gotten to bed at 3:00 a.m. after being out on a large fire most of the evening.

See: Ambulance Driver Falls Asleep on the Job

My previous post about the “death” of the 24-hour tour of duty for safety reasons provoked some good responses — most of which could be categorized as: (1) I understand the point you’re making, but times are tough and we have bigger issues; (2) I would love to do it, but labor would never allow changing the work schedule; (3) our people have to work second or third jobs to make ends meet lumber yardand need those off days; and (4) we’ve always done it this way and it works.

Research on sleep deprivation and its affect on worker performance is just as applicable to firefighters and EMTs as it is to workers in any other occupation. The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent agency tasked by the U.S. government with investigating all commercial carrier transportation accidents, regardless of the mode of transportation.

Over the years, the NTSB has investigated many accidents, in all transportation modes, in which fatigue was cited as the probable cause or a contributing factor…To make matters worse, people frequently are not aware of, or may deny, ability impairments caused by fatigue.  Just because a driver is not yawning or falling asleep does not necessarily mean that he or she is not fatigued.

Source:  National Transportation Safety Board,  Addressing Human Fatigue.

The English poet and philosopher John Donne wrote, “No man is an island Upside down fire truckentire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main….” The same holds true for the fire and emergency services in the United States. As the leaders of this noble and honored profession, we must constantly be scanning the environment and identifying those critical factors that will influence, for better or for worse, our organizations in the future.

See Related: Ambulance Crash Characteristics in the US Defined by the Popular Press: A Retrospective Analysis

Far too often, the fire service has had to react to external forces. Ponder this incomplete list of issues that many fire and EMS organizations took notice of and addressed only after litigation or regulation forced them to do so:

  • Creation of employment or advancement opportunities for gender and racial minorities.
  • Adoption and use of the Incident Command System.
  • Elimination of the tailboard riding position and open-cab apparatus in favor of enclosed cabs with a seat and seatbelt for everyone.
  • Requirement of post–high school education for promotion and advancement.
  • Use of two in/two out and rapid intervention crews on emergency scenes.

Several years ago, the Fire Safety Stand Down’s “successor”, Fire/EMS Safety and Health Week,  focused on members being fit to respond.  Several readers of the previous blog I posted cited issues with people working multiple 24-hour shifts in succession or working multiple 24-hour shifts for several different organizations, eventually being “tired when they show up for duty.”

See Related: IAFC Sleep Deprivation Study

Don‘t those employees who are showing up too tired for work have supervisors? If so, why are these supervisors enabling such behavior? Why aren‘t they fulfilling their responsibilities to their other employees and to the public by allowing only those who are fit for duty to respond to fire and EMS calls? Probably for the same reasons that supervisors allow members to:

  • Drive too fast.
  • Respond to calls without wearing their seatbelts.
  • Respond to calls without the proper protective clothing and equipment for the hazard.
  • Engage in unsafe acts on the emergency scene without consequences. Is anyone else as shocked as I am by what I read at the Close Calls Web site?)
  • Be overweight and physically out of shape

But wait…who do those supervisors work for?  Fire chiefs, deputy chiefs and battalion chiefs.  And those folks work for?  City Managers, County Administrators, County Supervisor Boards, etc.  And let’s not forget those labor unions that represent firefighters and officers.

(I was a IAFF member for my entire career with Local 2803, Chesterfield Professional Firefighters, so I know of what I speak when I say that Safety has always been a primary issue for the IAFF.  So let’s hear from Labor on this safety issue).

An Attorney’s Synopsis of IAFC Sleep Study: Advice to their Client

We are all together in recognizing and addressing the significant unmanaged risks posed by Fire & EMS personnel suffering from fatigue.  The dots are out there. We just need to start connecting them before, once again, someone else does it for us.

For more information, read:

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 FireRescue1.com 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].