Open Thread: What’s the Best Way to Schedule a Fire Department?

Valley Breeze publisher Tom Ward has written an apology for a previous column where he described changes in the Woonsocket Fire department platoon structure and scheduling as being correctives to “overtime abuse”…

My column this week went over the line in its tone, and for that I apologize to our readers, especially the firefighters of Woonsocket and their loved ones. I regret using the term “overtime abuse” to comment on the $1 million in annual overtime pay that Mayor Leo Fontaine is now trying to remove from the 2012 budget.
At issue are changes that were unanimously approved by the Woonsocket City Council on March 20. According to Russ Olivio of the Woonsocket Call, the Woonsocket Fire Department currently uses a schedule where a firefighter works two 10 hour days — where “day” actually means a substantial period of time when the sun is up — followed by two 14 hour nights, followed by four days off.
Mayor Fontaine and the City Council are proposing changing that to a system of 24 contiguous hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off.
Also, I’ve come across discussions on the internet about a 48/96 system (two days on, four days off) in regular use or being tried by some departments. It seems to be more popular in the Western half of the US and is used in some places with populations as large or larger than Woonsocket (though their population densities may be very different, along with their density of triple-deckers).
Mayor Fontaine and the City Council have also approved changing the structure of the fire department from four platoons to three. I’m not sure if that is directly related to the scheduling change, or a separate issue altogether.
The two questions to kick off the open-thread are…
  1. How do the various scheduling structures impact a firefighting department’s operations and effectiveness, and
  2. Given that, under all three systes, a firefighter is on duty for 48 hours and off duty for 96 hours in a six-day block, how exactly does this relate to overtime?

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Pat Crowley
Pat Crowley
10 years ago

how about we ask fire fighters?
no, that would be too easy, right?
The folks on the Right need to read their Oscar Wilde and be wary of those who know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

There’s a lot to take into consideration regarding “the best way” to scedule a fire department.
As you touched on, Andrew, the particulars of a particular fire deoartment – density of population, % of multiple family homes, % of manufacturing & commercial structures, hazmat, etc. all must be taken into consideration. Especially if you expect your firefighters to work 24 or more hours straight.
Personally, I tend to (in my old age) favor things that would maximize firefighter AND public safety. Because of this I prefer the 2 ten hour day shifts followed by 2 fourteen hour night shifts as most departments in RI use right now. Working on a 24-hour shift can take its toll on firefighters and make them more prone to mistakes and injuries. This is especially true on busier fire companies and rescues.
One of the problems regarding O/T on fire departments is this. Cities and towns don’t fully staff their departments, relying on daily O/T to meet “minimum” staffing levels. If they didn’t do this there would be some days (or nights) where the city or town would be paying “more than” the “minimum” number of firefighters for a shift. There is no way the administrators are going to do this.
It has probably been over 20 years since I rode a truck with a single firefighter above the “minimum” required for that apparatus (with the exception of emergency conditions).

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

If it were being run like a business, firefighters would work 8-hour shifts each day, 5 days a week, with three different shifts per day. Then you could have some sort of weekend crew. Full coverage, everybody gets enough rest, everybody works normal schedules. No overtime unless absolutely necessary, no pensions. Salaries would be cut in half, obviously.
As long as we’re dreaming, I’d like one of the new iPhones.

John
John
10 years ago

The only way a city or town administration would intentionally under-staff with the expectation of covering vacation and sick time with overtime is if the cost of overtime (150% of regular pay) is less than the cost of pay and benefits for an added firefighter. SO, isn’t is ridiculous that the cost of firefighter benefits is more than 50% of their pay?
How much is the cost of benefits in private industry as a percentage of pay?
There is the real problem. Benefits must be reduced to an affordable level so that communities can afford to staff up their forces properly, and therefore safely.
Binding arbitration will always prevent such an outcome.

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

[[[ Salaries would be cut in half, obviously. ]]]
Why would salaries be cut in half if the firefighters would be working 40 hours per week?
[[[ How much is the cost of benefits in private industry as a percentage of pay? ]]]
When comparing private industry with fire departments you have to understand that private industry never works 24/7 all year round.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

“Why would salaries be cut in half if the firefighters would be working 40 hours per week?”
Because unemployment is 12%, and high school grads don’t deserve $50-90k and benefits for performing manual labor.

michael
michael
10 years ago

I respectfully decline the invitation to participate in this open thread. The vast amount of misunderstanding and malicious nature of Dan, and the rest makes the whole thing futile.
Sorry, Andrew, you just don’t have the right people to make this a productive thread.

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

I have to agree with Michael. I’ll try to answer any legitimate questions on responses but Dan’s comments make this counter-productive.

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

I have to agree with Michael. I’ll try to answer any legitimate questions or responses but Dan’s comments make this counter-productive.

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

[[[ Given that, under all three systes, a firefighter is on duty for 48 hours and off duty for 96 hours in a six-day block, how exactly does this relate to overtime? ]]]
This is correct for the two 24-hour systems (of 3 platoons), however, the two 10-hour days followed by the two 14-hour nights and then 4 days off is based on an 8-day schedule not 6. The result is that the “average” number of hours per week rises to 56 under those systems as opposed to 42 with the present setup.
That’s an over 30% increase in work hours per week.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Michael and Tom think it “malicious” to suggest that people be paid commensurate with education level, experience, and available applicant pool. A great example of why Rhode Island is doomed to perpetual budget deficits, unemployment, and economic stagnation.
Enjoy your pension crisis, guys. I stopped being a RI taxpayer last year so I’m just gawking at the freak show from my new low-tax, surplus-running county at this point. Want to hear how our fire departments run on budget down here with minimal overtime? Nah, you wouldn’t care about something as irrelevant as that. God forbid Rhode Island could ever take a look at an actually successful state to see what they’re doing right. That would just be giving up.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

P.S. Michael and Tom, if you don’t like my comments then feel free to simply ignore them and post your own solutions to Providence’s financial crisis. I haven’t heard any from either of you. Throwing up your hands and refusing to engage in the dialog the moment somebody says something to make you uncomfortable just makes you look like a bunch of crybabies. I have absolutely no problem debating the reasonableness of my own salary and benefits. If you don’t like it being a public conversation, then don’t work for the state.

michael
michael
10 years ago

EMS has spiraled out of control. The waste there is monumental. If this were a rational nation full of responsible rational people, fire department staffing and hour designation would be , in my opinion which has plenty of people in disagreement, a perfect way to provide quality Emergency Medical Services. Unfortunately, EMS has degraded into a social services program with an occasional emergency thrown in. The fire department is designed to respond to “emergencies.” Having teams of trained responders available in a moments notice is good government. We can squabble all day long about pay and benefits, and at the end of that day 99% of taxpaying citizens, when presented with the overall cost of providing that service will agree it is money well spent. Firefighters are held to high standards, on and off duty. Sure, most people can be trained to do our jobs, and thousands apply, but when it is time to go in, not everybody is willing to do so. Anyway, the hours, two days, two nights, three off (the misconception is four off, but we are working midnight to eight on our first day “off” works well, most of us can do the occasional thirty-four or thirty-eight hour shift without rest, but that is not how the emergency responder system should work. Time between calls is essential, for the body and the mind. It is the incessant calls from the citizens who profess a desire to do more with less, yet increase their dependence on government services yearly, especially the EMS calls that make it difficult to staff the trucks effectively, with well rested people, who have time for training, and enough time between calls to thrive for the long term. I have no idea what I just wrote, three coffee’s and I get on a… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Andrew – Cities can’t hire new firefighters to reduce overtime because it would be too expensive. An obvious solution to this problem is to pay new firefighters less. I understand your desire to keep this an “academic” discussion of 24 hour shifts versus 48 hour shifts and the like, but the real problem is that firefighter compensation has become out of touch with economic reality. The overtime/staffing issues are merely a symptom of that underlying market distortion, without which this entire discussion would be irreelvant. This issue is not, as a progressive might tell us, simply a matter of tinkering with the mechanics of the system. I’m sorry if you, Michael, and Tom consider this entire line of reasoning insulting, but it’s the two-ton elephant in the room while you three are playing Sudoku with staffing schedules.

EMT
EMT
10 years ago

If it were being run like a business, firefighters would work 8-hour shifts each day, 5 days a week, with three different shifts per day.
Congratulations, you’ve
So using Providence as an example, that increases the number of firefighters required per 24 hours from the current 184 (92 per shift x2) to 276 (92×3).
Congratulations- you’ve successfully wiped out the savings, and probably increased costs.
one point that I saw repeated in several of the 48/96 discussions I glanced at was that the optimal schedule for EMS may be different from the optimal schedule for the rest of a fire department
Huh… there’s something I didn’t even think of.

michael
michael
10 years ago

EMT-I knew the reasoning was in there somewhere, thanks.
Dan, I thought you left?

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

Michael,
We should be so lucky.
He hinted at telling us “Want to hear how our fire departments run on budget down here with minimal overtime?” but then just insulting once again.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Well, no, EMT and Michael, because it would eliminate all the overtime pay and I stated right in my original post that firefighters should be paid less in salary and benefits, which is why the cities are using the ridiculous overtime model in the first place.
This is a very simple problem at its root. You can either pay one person (S salary + B benefits + O overtime) to work 2X hours, or you can pay two people (S-c salary + B-c benefits) to each work X hours. If you want to eliminate O, then basic math dictates that you have to reduce (S + B) or raise additional revenue somehow. It isn’t going to be solved through accounting or staffing gimmicks.
Michael – I went to buy groceries and came back. I don’t see why my whereabouts matter to the discussion. Any more silly retorts?
Tom – Our public services run smoothly and we have a budget surplus because we are a right to work state and we pay our public employees less. That you consider the very discussion of reducing public employee pay to be an insult is your own psychological issue. I call it putting all cards on the table.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

“When comparing private industry with fire departments you have to understand that private industry never works 24/7 all year round.”
“Never,” Tom? There are no 24/7 businesses out there? Are you sure about that?

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

Almost none. OK? There a VERY FEW that are open every day of the year! A few convenience stores is about it…that have to have a single person on duty.

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

Here is a letter I sent to Mr. Ward of the Valley Breeze regarding overtime costs on the Woonsocket Fire Department. This is the reason for our posts here, is it not? Dear Mr. Ward: In regards to your recent editorial regarding the issue of firefighter overtime in Woonsocket and the proposed changing to 56 hour workweeks, I, as a firefighter in RI, took offense at the way you presented your case. I also, however, appreciate your subsequent apology. It is with renewed trust in an open discussion regarding the issue of overtime in fire departments across our state that I offer my humble opinion on this issue. Many politicians in RI blame minimum staffing provisions in fire union CBA’s as a built in means to produce overtime for their members. Many call it a scam. The truth is that minimum staffing provisions are set in contracts to assure that there is always a “minimum” number of firefighters on duty at any given time to adequately insure the highest level of public and firefighter safety that is reasonable. If these provisions were not enforceable via CBA’s there is little doubt that cities and towns would simply reduce the number of firefighters without regard for safety in the name of fiscal responsibility. Unfortunately mayors and town managers have no idea what these reductions do to these safety issues. As for overtime for a fire department, it is an unfortunate necessity. Let me explain. If cities and towns hire the number of firefighters that would be necessary to avoid daily overtime these departments would certainly have more than the minimum required number of firefighters on duty on many shifts during the year. To administrators, this is too costly a proposition – especially with the high cost of health coverage in recent years.… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

“Almost none. OK? There a VERY FEW that are open every day of the year! A few convenience stores is about it…that have to have a single person on duty.”
My bank, supermarket, and cable utility are all open and staffed 24/7. They pay their employees fair market wages and thus don’t have to resort to overtime schemes to achieve this coverage.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

“No overtime is ever paid in a call-center environment?”
Please be accurate, Andrew. I said that business that pay their workers market wages don’t have to resort to overtime schemes, as in built-in scheduled overtime every week like the RI fire departments do. I didn’t say that businesses “never” give overtime – of course they do on occasion when it’s absolutely necessary. But you won’t find people in the private sector earning double their yearly salary in overtime each year like a lot of firefighters do.
“Borders Books is in bankruptcy, in part, because company management couldn’t figure out employee staffing and schedule that kept the lines at the front of the store moving, at the same time the clerks were expected to take extra time hawking the rewards programs — but I’ll bet the line-item for clerks in the budget looked nice and small, so it can’t possibly have contributed to the bankruptcy.”
I don’t know or particularly care why Borders went bankrupt, but from what I’ve witnessed and read online, it seems that they over-invested in music and real estate and couldn’t compete in the e-reader market and web sales. Such is progress. In any case, as you yourself acknowledged in the original posting, overtime is not really a scheduling issue, it’s a workforce issue. We need more firefighters and we need them paid less. A lot less.

michael
michael
10 years ago

Dan, I try to ignore you for the most part, but feel the need to mention that the private sector you consistently compare firefighters to is not quite working out as planned. I’m a big supporter of Capitolism, and have benefited greatly from our system.Unfortunately, the wheels are off.
The private sector is responsible for the recession, for the shrinking dollar, for our standard of life’s diminishing trend, child and slave labor in other countries so we can have more trinkets,and an overall decline of the ideal that Laissez-faire Capitolism promised but has gone south due to human nature, the most base of which is greed.
Your incessant reference to a system that is in more need of overhaul than any fire department ever is absurd.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

“The private sector is responsible for the recession, for the shrinking dollar, for our standard of life’s diminishing trend, child and slave labor in other countries so we can have more trinkets” Michael, it’s ridiculous narrative fallacies like this that demonstrate your frighteningly simplistic approach to public policy issues and your fundamental misunderstanding of modern economies. Reasonable minds can differ on the underpinnings of the crisis, but any account that leaves out the roles played by hugely influential government entities like Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Federal Reserve in the overinvestment in housing and subsequent subprime housing crash should be approached with puzzlement and the utmost skepticism. Sweeping moral indictments of “the private sector” in totality may strike a chord with your drinking buddies down at the firehouse, but they carry absolutely no intellectual weight or basis in economic reality. Care to explain how “the private sector” is responsible for the shrinking value of the dollar? No? Didn’t think so. The Federal Reserve controls US monetary policy through the federal funds rate and open market operations. A proper analysis of the value of the dollar over time should probably start there. Our standard of life is diminishing? What metric are you using? Life expectancy is up. Health has improved. We have significant leisure time. Social networking is easier than ever through the internet and electronic devices. Even our poor can now afford cars, computers, air conditioning, and iphones. How is “the private sector” responsible for what you call “slave labor” in other countries? Is Nike enslaving people by offering them the free opportunity to work in their factories abroad? The reason people in those countries, many of which have had their economies wrecked by a history of dictators and central economic planning, line up around the block three times… Read more »

Tom Kenney
Tom Kenney
10 years ago

“Dan”,
Maybe I missed it earlier, but what is your name and what do you do?

michael
michael
10 years ago

My misunderstanding of the private sector doesn’t even come close to your ignorance concerning firefighters.

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

Tom – Dan is my name and I work in the legal field. Other than providing that basic information, I would prefer to remain anonymous here because I do not wish my family or employer to be harassed.

rich
rich
10 years ago

Sorry I missed this one, I was without internett for 3 weeks because my cable provider is understaffed to the point that this is their standard wait time for an installation. They dont like adequate staffing or overtime as much as Dan, I suppose lol. About the changes proposed in Woonsocket: The bottom line is, the city would like to increase an employees work week to 56 hrs with either no increase in salary or a very marginal one. While there are a few people like dan who view firefighting as nothing more than uneducated manual labor, those with any insight to the profession know better. It is a job requiring intense math for calculating friction loss, fire load, water flow, medication dosages, drip rates, medication concentrations in solutions etc all done under intense stress. So Dan, you and many politicians like you may know the legal world well but you don’t know firefighting at all, and therein lies the problem. Politicians only count the beans. They cant comprehend the abstracts. Two 10hr days followed by two 14hr nights is the optimal schedule. It allows for adequate mental and physical rest. Regular 24hr shifts are simply to mentally and physically taxing. Dan, you dont get it, but then, you dont live it either. Dan, you seem to think we are worth 30k a year, 2% 401k match and a barebones healthcare plan because you could find some people to do the job for that. But are they the right capable people? Probably not. Your boss (or managing partners or whatever) could find someone to be a paralegal or assistant DA or junior partner for much less than you. There is no shortage of lawyers, thats for sure. But that doesnt mean you arent worth the money they pay you now.… Read more »

rich
rich
10 years ago

Sorry I missed this one, I was without internett for 3 weeks because my cable provider is understaffed to the point that this is their standard wait time for an installation. They dont like adequate staffing or overtime as much as Dan, I suppose lol. About the changes proposed in Woonsocket: The bottom line is, the city would like to increase an employees work week to 56 hrs with either no increase in salary or a very marginal one. While there are a few people like dan who view firefighting as nothing more than uneducated manual labor, those with any insight to the profession know better. It is a job requiring intense math for calculating friction loss, fire load, water flow, medication dosages, drip rates, medication concentrations in solutions etc all done under intense stress. So Dan, you and many politicians like you may know the legal world well but you don’t know firefighting at all, and therein lies the problem. Politicians only count the beans. They cant comprehend the abstracts. Two 10hr days followed by two 14hr nights is the optimal schedule. It allows for adequate mental and physical rest. Regular 24hr shifts are simply to mentally and physically taxing. Dan, you dont get it, but then, you dont live it either. Dan, you seem to think we are worth 30k a year, 2% 401k match and a barebones healthcare plan because you could find some people to do the job for that. But are they the right capable people? Probably not. Your boss (or managing partners or whatever) could find someone to be a paralegal or assistant DA or junior partner for much less than you. There is no shortage of lawyers, thats for sure. But that doesnt mean you arent worth the money they pay you now.… Read more »

Dan
Dan
10 years ago

“In my addmittedly biased, but well informed opinion, a modern professional firefighter is easily worth 80k a year in salary with great benefits on top of it.”
Yes, well, this why employees are not permitted to set their own salaries.

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