January 27, 2013

Are 24-hour shifts more expensive?

Some argue that the schedule the Portland Fire Department has been using for 17 years benefits firefighters and reduces coverage gaps. Others say it comes with potential costs.

By Randy Billings rbillings@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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

click image to enlarge

Portland firefighters tackle a blaze at 660 Congress St. on Jan. 14, 2010. Nearly all of the 25 or so Maine fire departments represented by the Professional Firefighters of Maine use a 24-hour-shift schedule.

2010 file photo by Tim Greenway/Staff Photographer

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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.

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