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Monday, September 15, 2008

Should Firefighters Be Paid to Sleep: Questioning the 24-hour Firefighter Shift

Firefighters work in 24 hour shifts. This is a complicated process and increasingly it has become controversial with many groups and organizations now questioning the wisdom of paying firefighters while they sleep on their shifts.

A group called the Vanguardians, a public watch dog group headquartered in the city of Glendale, cover many of the same issues and concerns as the People's Vanguard of Davis. They report of an incident that occurred at the end of August.

The Glendale police apparently have been more forthcoming on the details of this incident than the fire department. A 911 call was placed at 2 am, someone yelled fire and hung up. They reconnected 41 seconds later. The Police are the first on the scene one minute, ten seconds after the call and the second officer arrives just a minute or so later.

However, the police are not able to do much because it is already too hot and smoky. The fire fighters are just a few blocks from the apartment unit fire--but they are asleep in bed and arrived too late on the scene to save a life.

The Vanguardians have put together a timeline. The call was received at 2:00:54 am and dispatched to a station at 2:01:34 that was less than 1/2 mile away. It took them until 2:06:26 to arrive on the scene. They did not locate the victim until fifteen minutes after the call.

The Vanguardians believe that the fact that the firefighters were sleeping at the time of the call contributed to the length of time it took for them to arrive on the scene.

The Vanguardians provocatively write:
"While Firefighters were being paid to sleep, the Glendale PD answered a call for help. Within 70 seconds they responded, confirmed the call and located the smoke filled apartment. The Fire Department arrived 5 minutes later even though they were less than ½ mile away. Even though the GPD pinpointed the area it took FFs 15 minutes to find the victim. Once again this points out another reason to have 12 hour shifts so our City workers can be bright eyed and bushy tailed without having to hop out of bed. No more being paid to sleep!"
While this scene certainly looks bad, especially since it apparently took firefighters five minutes to respond to an incident less than half a mile from their station. Those I have spoken to question whether a faster response would have saved a life. They question whether the victims were alive even at the point at which the police arrived.

There are difficult questions that must be asked with regards to the length of shifts and possible additional costs of having 12 hour shifts versus 24 hour shifts. The 24 hour shift was actually put into place as a cost control measure--helping to reduce overtime and cut overhead.

But it does appear that increasingly the idea of a 24-hour shift is being questioned--from both a safety point of view to the employees and now the public.

The Vanguardians cite research from OSHA Complaince Advisor:
"The common practice of working 24-hour shifts at U.S. fire and emergency organizations may be ripe for change.

That's the viewpoint of Chief Robert Avsec, long-time member and instructor with the Chesterfield County, Virginia, Fire and EMS. Avsec writes on the website "Changes may stem from decreased employee safety and decision-making capabilities while working 24-hour shifts."

He also cites increased organizational liability and changes in worker attitudes about schedules.

Avsec refers to a National Sleep Foundation study that found sleep deprivation has an adverse effect on physical health and well-being, cognitive performance, and mood. Wonders Avsec, "How functional is an EMT or paramedic in an ambulance at 2 a.m. when he or she has been awake and on duty since 8 a.m.?" Also, according to Avsec, more than half of all EMS accidents involve ambulance operation."
This is an old article from 1999, but it offers some advantages of a 10-hour day and a 14-hour night shift. The day shift would start at 8 am and end at 6 pm while the night shift would go from 6 pm to 8 am the following day.

The article cites improved safety as a key reason.
"Although it requires no additional staff, the 10/14 schedule offers a variety of advantages and opportunities.

Improved safety. Fatigue is a major factor in personnel safety. A physically and mentally challenging incident in the early hours of a 24-hour shift could subject fire personnel to injury or even death due to fatigue and decreased alertness at an incident that occurs later during the same shift. In addition, when personnel must handle multiple incidents during a single shift, the competence of the crews and the quality of service may be compromised. For example, is it in the best interest of someone needing sophisticated care to be the crew's 20th patient during a shift?

The 10/14 shift can provide relief for fatigued and extremely busy individuals and crews through proper rest periods at the end of the 10- or 14-hour duty shift."
Other cited advantages include reduced sick leave time and overtime pay, improved quality of life for personnel, increase productivity, improved project management, more opportunities for creative scheduling, among others.

[Read the full article here]

On the other end of the spectrum some have actually argued for longer shifts such as a 48 hour shift. The argument is that once you go past 24 hours, it doesn't really matter. And during slow times, that may be the case. However, on those rare occasions when firefighters have to respond to emergencies all day long whether they are fires or medical emergencies, there has to be a decreased ability to function properly.

It is unclear if the incident in Glendale was preventable by a change from the 24 hour shift. There would likely need to be an investigation. However, if the evidence shows that an arrival at one minute into the call could have saved the life, then the city is possibly going to face liability on it. There is no legitimate reason that it should have taken the department that long to arrive at a scene just half a mile away. Right there, that is a red flag.

These are all questions that need to be explored. I have heard compelling arguments from both cost and safety standpoints in both directions. One thing that is clear, we need to find out clearly if there is solid evidence to support the 24-hour shift both from the standpoint of costs and the standpoint of safety. Based on that evidence, we can make an informed decision that is not based either on tradition or on fears. Protecting the public is our top goal--making sure that the fire department provides top-notched and affordable service to this community is absolutely vital.

In my conversation with Bob Aaronson, who is investigating the Grand Jury report on the fire department, it was reassuring that despite whatever other problems exist, Davis is still getting great service from the fire department.
"If there are people in the public that having heard things are concerned about service to the public, the piece that I can share at this point, neither the grand jury report nor anything that I have seen in my work suggests that the public is being disserved. I think that the quality of fire service in the city of Davis is high."
However, that top level of service does not mean we cannot question other aspects of the department. The remains, should firefighters be paid to sleep.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting