The fire service has some of the most unique working schedules and staffing practices of any industry, business, or service in the world.
The increase in responses, expanded duties, greater complexity, staffing shortages and the recent pandemic are revealing that some of these staffing practices and work schedules may actually be detrimental to employee health and safety.
Ever present indicators are appearing more frequently. Reports of employees working beyond 70 continuous hours, fatigue related errors, more frequent mayday calls, accidents due to operators falling asleep, fatalities during return commutes due to “unknown medical conditions“, or complaints of workers needing a full day to recuperate after being ‘wiped out’ from a long shift are common. Even anecdotal references of employees earning multiples of their base pay by overtime reveal massive numbers of hours worked by them.
The consequences of fatigue influenced errors and injuries are becoming more evident.
Unique and unusual fire service scheduling and staffing practices, unparalleled even among continuous duty military combat units, are usually negotiated and implemented by contractual consent. It is difficult to expect that advocates of these practices would admit that their successful initiatives may now be harmful in an evolving work environment. A previously perceived benefit is difficult to surrender or revise without seeing it as a loss of negotiating power.
The time for honest and objective introspection in revisiting some of these practices has arrived. Schedules that permit the aggregation of work hours to minimize the number of commutes, that minimize the number of separated attendance days per week, that permit full-time second careers and other benefits may in fact be leaving employees at greater risk of injury, death or workplace liability than ever before.
It is ironic that rehabilitation on the fire ground is well established, yet limitation of duty hours and mandatory rest per shift is circumvented. Truck drivers and aircraft pilots are examples of workers with defined and regulated work/rest schedules. The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938 and the 40 hour workweek has been law since 1940. Overtime pay does not compensate for necessary rest.
“Eight hours labor, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest,” stated Robert Owen, an 18th century Welsh mill owner and labor rights activist, in 1817.
Fire service scheduling and staffing practices can camouflage underlying staffing deficiencies. Overtime compensation coerces the silence of overworked employees. Among these practices are 24 hour shifts, mandatory overtime, consecutive shifts, shift swapping, crew integrity policies, and constant minimal staffing and deployment around the clock.
No other profession, that requires 24 hour continuous staffing, normally schedules employees to be actively working during the entire 24 hour shift. While the nearest example might be military combat ships, even the Navy does not have crew members stand watches longer than six hours. Relief watch standers are nearby but the entire crew is not on watch for the full 24 hour period. No one has claimed that the ability to sleep in the workplace is as restful as the ability to sleep offsite, away from the workplace.
Departments are not known to provide offsite rest accommodations for workers who combine regular, swap, and overtime shifts into long periods of continuous duty.
Mandatory overtime to achieve minimal staffing results in individuals working multiple contiguous shifts when relief cannot be provided. It can induce stressful unplanned commutes when ordered during normally scheduled off shifts.
Because each fire service responder position has two or three equivalent counterparts on other shifts, some agencies tacitly permit employees to swap shifts (also known as mutuals). This is usually an informal agreement between members of opposite shifts as a means of consolidating work shifts and time off into contiguous periods of time. Because this is a voluntary agreement between individuals, restrictions on excessive on-duty time become difficult to enforce and affected individuals may work far longer than was ever safely intended. Because shift swapping also frequently results in the ability to live further from work, multiple contiguous shifts also lead to longer fatigued commutes. Second simultaneous careers, enabled by shift swapping, multiply total hours worked, introduce another source of fatigue, and erode rest time both acutely and chronically.
Crew integrity policies that deploy units staffed for fire suppression to emergency medical calls attended by EMS, police and fire, and large pre-emptive responses expose more crew members to activity levels where their presence is not actually necessary.
Internal staffing flexibilities, that could take advantage of the fact that calls for fire and medical service tend to diminish during periods when the population is asleep, are defeated by staffing requirements that discount daily wake/sleep cycles in response activity. The healthcare industry and police departments have long recognized this in their staffing models. The stress levels induced by requiring constant staffing levels around the clock, even when all statistical data shows that demands vary during the daily cycle, illustrate a resistance to reality at the expense of employee health and safety.
Fatigue errors are often accepted as an inevitable consequence of workload and scheduling rather than identified as a preventable deficient condition. They are dismissed rather than addressed. Yet fatigue and prior activity are key components of NIOSH and NTSB investigations.
Employee favored work schedules and staffing are not considered objectively as an employer liability. The absence of honest objective introspection and analysis of benefits versus liabilities is understandable. It is not easy to change beliefs but the impact and consequences on employees, their families, and the public that they serve, deserve that professional consideration.