For 17 years, Portland’s firefighters have worked 24-hour shifts.

The two-days-on, five-days-off schedule means firefighters can hold other jobs or take care of children. It also means firefighters can sleep at night while they wait for emergencies to respond to. In theory, the city gets around-the-clock coverage that’s less expensive than hiring people to cover shorter shifts.

Such 24-hour shifts have a long history and are common among fire departments in Maine and New England.

But are they good for taxpayers?

Unlike other professionals who work eight-, 10- or even 12-hour shifts, firefighters need longer schedules to protect the community, according to John Brooks, president of Portland’s firefighters union.

“The nature of the firefighter’s job lends itself both to longer shift lengths and longer recovery periods,” Brooks said in an email.

Portland firefighters work 24 hours on and get 24 hours off, before working 24 hours again. At that point, they get five days off.

After working more than their scheduled hours, firefighters are eligible for overtime, City Hall Spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said.

Portland switched to 24-hour shifts in 1995. Clegg said the change was negotiated with the firefighters union, and Brooks, head of the firefighters union, said it was at the request of the deputy chiefs. Staffing size at the department was unchanged when the switch was made, he said.

Kenneth Willette, of the National Fire Protection Agency, said more departments nationwide are shifting to the 24-hour schedule, because it reduces coverage gaps that can occur when changing shifts.

Fire departments often switch to 24-hours shifts as a concession to unions, several chiefs said.

Firefighters prefer the longer shifts and additional days off, allowing them to earn overtime by picking up more shifts, to work other jobs or to take care of their children, said Lawrence, Mass., Fire Chief Jack Bergeron.

In Maine, nearly all of the 25 or so fire departments represented by the Professional Firefighters of Maine are on a 24-hour schedule, according to Vice President Michael Williams.

“Firefighters aren’t the best-paid people in the world, so we look for advantages to do what we need to do,” Williams said.

As of Jan. 6, a firefighter with up to six months’ experience in the Portland Fire Department starts at $31,116 a year, according to the union’s most recent contract. A firefighter with 20 years or more of experience and advance medical training starts at $51,540 a year.

In fiscal 2011, five firefighters earned $30,000 to $36,000 in overtime alone, padding their base salaries, which ranged from $50,000 to $70,000.

Shorter shifts create hardships for families and are not healthy for firefighters, according to Williams, of the state firefighters association. He argues that a 24-hour shift reduces sick time, because of the longer recovery period. But, fire chiefs and an independent consultant said results have been mixed.

Shan English, chief executive officer of the Texas-based English & Associates, which reviews fire departments nationally, said his studies have not shown a correlation between scheduling and sick time. “We haven’t really seen an increase or decrease in our experience,” he said.

The city could not immediately provide information about sick hours and overtime used before and after the change because budget files from the 1990s are in storage, Clegg said.

Fitchburg, Mass., Fire Chief Kevin Roy said his firefighters gave up raises in order to get the 24-hour schedule in the mid-1990s; so did South Portland firefighters in 2001, said Fire Chief Kevin Guimond.

The Fitchburg department experienced a drop in sick time after switching to 24-hour shifts, he said, but the department simultaneously instituted incentives, such as awarding additional personal days when sick time is not used.

In South Portland, on the other hand, the use of sick time has nearly doubled since the city switched to the 24-hour schedule in 2001, according to Guimond. And that has meant more overtime to fill in, too.

“It’s a worker-friendly schedule, but it’s more expensive,” Guimond said.

From 1999 to 2001, he said, the department averaged 3,200 to 3,588 hours of sick time using a schedule where firefighters worked two 10-hour days, then two 14-hour nights, followed by four days off. In the last two years, the department has logged more than 5,000 sick hours on a 24-hour schedule, he said.

Portland Fire Chief Jerome LaMoria, however, doesn’t agree that the 24-hour schedule is inherently more expensive. With fewer shift changes, when overtime is common, a 24-hour schedule could save money, he said.

However, LaMoria said, the schedule will be part of an ongoing independent review of the department. “It really behooves us to look at our schedule to see if it’s the best fit,” he said.

Fire chiefs in other states said they changed to the longer shifts at the request of their unions, even though some commanding officers contend it breaks up the unity of the force and causes communication problems.

“My command staff really does not like it,” Bergeron said. “It’s a communication problem from group to group.”

The Portsmouth Fire Department hasn’t switched to the 24-hour schedule to avoid breaking up the family atmosphere of the department, said Portsmouth Fire Chief Christopher LeClaire.

“The groups become too individualized, too isolated,” LeClaire said. “If they took any vacation days, you could not see that crew for two weeks. It certainly doesn’t add to our mission where we have to be able to work together. We have to be able to train together.”

Wilbraham, Mass., Fire Chief Francis Nothe said his department adopted the 24-hour schedule in 2007, even though he was concerned about fatigue. The switch was made because Nothe felt an arbitrator would eventually rule in favor of the union-favored switch.

“Rather than have a bunch of angry employees, we decided to give it a try and see how it works,” said Nothe, who did not see a drop in sick time and increases in overtime costs. “We’ve been there ever since. It’s the new normal.”

On the other hand, not all firefighters like the 24-hour shifts.

In Lawrence, Mass., about one quarter of the department — mostly older firefighters — resigned when the department switched to 24-hour shifts, because it was more physically demanding.

The issue of firefighter fatigue has also been a concern for fire chiefs.

The International Fire Chiefs Association, U.S. Fire Administration and the Oregon Health & Science University released a study in 2007 about the effects of sleep deprivation on firefighters and EMS responders.

According to the report, fatigue can decrease a firefighter’s alertness, increase response time and reduce strength. Alertness falls after 10-12 hours of work and during the nighttime, it said.

Disrupted sleep patterns were recognized as a source of occupational stress for about one-third of 700 firefighters surveyed in 1994, the report says. Fatigue is common when firefighters are awakened by early morning calls.

Portland’s policy discourages firefighters from sleeping during the day and prohibits them from occupying fire station beds between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

The IFCA report highlights the need for chiefs to identify and address the issue of tired employees, but didn’t draw any conclusions about whether fatigue was more or less common on 24-hour shifts.

Staff Writer Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at:

rbillings@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @randybillings