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

(Continued from page 1)

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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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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:


Twitter: @randybillings


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