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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 12 • June 17, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Too Much Time On Their Hands

It is not often that an act of incredible bravery is committed right before your eyes. So, read on. What is bravery to some can easily be regarded as foolishness or lunacy to others. Before writing this article, the HR Doctor updated his will, arranged for security, put on a protective Kevlar vest, and verified his life insurance benefits with the human resources staff. However, here goes.

I preface these comments by assuring the reader that some of my best friends are firefighters and I respect them all as “true heroes.” The HR Dog, Kamala, and I are also very respectful of every Dalmatian we meet!

Having said that, it’s time to boldly state what every county and city manager — and every firefighter— knows deep down in their hearts. The entire concept of a 24-hour shift schedule is a museum relic, a poor human resources practice and is not effective management. There, I said it! It didn’t hurt a bit! You know I’m right, don’t you?

The typical (i.e., the ancient, the venerable) 24-hour schedule involves an average of 48 to 56 hours per week of work time. Of course, work takes on a different meaning in the station. It means active duty for about eight hours, interrupted by meal time, grocery store time and exercise. After 5 p.m. the time is occupied by TV watching and social events when calls aren’t being answered.

This scenario varies widely, of course, depending on how busy the station is and whether the department is in the middle of a densely populated urban area or a more peaceful rural atmosphere. Many stations are literally on the run constantly. Others are unlikely to have their sleeping patterns disturbed at all.

The 24-hour schedule means there are, perhaps, two days on, followed by four days off, or some similar arrangement depending on the department. Add to these days off built into the schedule, three or four weeks of annual leave, Kelly days off, sick leave, holidays, workers compensation time, and shift swaps, and the reader can understand why increasing numbers of fire departments are requiring staff members to show picture IDs when reporting to work.

No, it’s not for security. It is done to reacquaint the management staff with the employees they had all but forgotten about! Granted, America is a nation of small businesses and changing the 24-hour shift pattern would threaten thousands of such businesses run, as they are, by off-duty firefighters!

This ancient shift pattern is as old as the fire service. It dates from the times when pretty white horses towed the wagons to the scene of the fires. The HR Doctor is convinced archeologists will announce any day now a startling discovery. I can hear the CNN report now: “In an ancient Neanderthal burial mound, scientists from UCLA uncovered the remains of a 24-hour shift scheduling log!” This scheduling approach predates “modern” laws, such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and non-discrimination laws. It is a breeding ground for grievances, unnecessary overtime costs and management problems.

In a world where perhaps 80 percent or more of the 911 calls to fire departments are for medical emergencies rather than fires, it is an anachronism. We claim to value innovation in the public service. We look for new medical procedures. We look for the best protective equipment (rightfully so) and the latest, very expensive trucks. We want to build the most comfortable stations and expand the system — even if the system overlaps with other fire department boundaries, etc. Are we ready to tackle modernizing the most outdated part of the mix? Is there a better alternative?

Sadly, the HR Doctor believes that, as a profession, public administration is not ready! Daring to seriously propose such a move would unleash a tornado of hostility so great even FEMA wouldn’t be effective!

There has built up over the decades powerful lobbying, campaign donation, and political effectiveness so great in support of firefighters and their unions that the opposition to a change in the 24-hour concept would be overwhelming! No manager will risk watching a career go down the tubes, or rather, the two-inch hoses, by making the proposal! No fire chief will last long by being the champion for this kind of change. In the face of reality, it is perhaps enough of a public service just to raise the issue and then rush back into the concrete reinforced bunker of convention!

However, the time will come, the HR Doctor predicts, when the costs in overtime, in liability, and in tax increases will become so great that even these kinds of schedules will be called into question by a rising chorus. Whether it begins in a hyper-busy urban department chorus or with private entrepreneurship, the time is going to come! It is already happening with the excessive scheduling of medical interns and residents work, and it will happen with firefighters.

Emergency services are going through an increasing crisis of organization. Their jurisdictions often resemble maps of 14th century feudal Europe, rather than rational service delivery areas. Everyone wants their own helicopters, hazmat units and separate departments. The county in which the HR Doctor lives has 24 separate departments! Paraphrasing St. Thomas Aquinas, “How many fire departments can dance on the head of a pin?”

The same rethinking will someday take place over the 24-hour shift schedule! Once this issue is improved, perhaps we can begin to tackle another ancient scheduling artifact — the summer-off school schedule. I know I’m glad that my children have the summer off so they can help with the harvest at our house. How about you? Well, one thorny issue at a time!

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •