District Fire & EMS Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is moving to reduce the length of firefighter shifts, a controversial change that he says will eliminate overtime costs and reduce the number of firefighters who live as far away as New Jersey and South Carolina.
Ellerbe said the department is gearing up for a fight against the firefighters union, which wants to hold on to the current system.
The firefighters contract has been expired since 2007, and negotiations on a replacement are beginning soon, Ellerbe said at the monthly breakfast attended by Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and the D.C. Council.
Through the elimination of overtime costs and attrition that will likely take three to four years, the department would save $36 million annually under the new, 12-hour shift system, Ellerbe said.
Currently, city firefighters work a 24-hour shift, then get 72 hours off. Under Ellerbe’s proposal, they would work two 12-hour day shifts on consecutive days, then two 12-hour night shifts, then a day off before restarting the cycle.
Ellerbe said the system will increase the number of days worked from eight to 22 and add 60 to 80 firefighters per shift. He also said it will allow the department to more quickly recall personnel during an emergency and will reduce the chances of accidents on the job.
“During the second half of a 24-hour shift, mistakes can happen,” he said.
Ellerbe said 25 percent of firefighters live in the city while 41 percent live 30 to 100 miles away. “That can create a huge challenge for us if we need to recall our whole workforce,” he said, adding that it took “quite a while” for the department to fully muster after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
The city began a move to the current shift system in 1985 under then-mayor Barry and former Fire Chief Theodore R. Coleman. The system replaced a previous scheduling practice of a 10-hour work day followed by a 14-hour shift at night.
Many firefighters like the current system’s three-day block of free time, which allows them to commute great distances but still spend significant time with family and, in some cases, work other jobs.
The president of the D.C. firefighters union, Edward C. Smith, said Ellerbe's proposal would be "devastating" to union members. "Morale, people's family lives, day care, commuter costs, all sorts of problems," said Smith, a fire captain.
He said Ellerbe "has been floating this idea for a while now," so it comes as no surprise. The union, Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, has 1,800 members, from firefighters to captains.
"It's going to be a big issue" in upcoming contract negotiations, said Smith, who vowed to fight the proposal vigorously. "I speak for the membership. It's not me personally. The whole membership is against it."
Because the current shift system has been in place for many years, Smith said, firefighters have grown accustomed to having six days off out of every eight, and their lives outside the department tend follow that rhythm.
For example, he said, many union members have second jobs with healthy incomes on which their families depend. Ellerbe's proposal would not allow them as much time for other work, resulting in financial hardships in many cases, he said.
Smith disputed the chief's assertion that the change in work shifts would eventually save the city $36 million.
"I have numbers saying it would actually cost the city $16 million," Smith said. "I don't believe the savings figure of $36 million he's quoting. He really needs to back that up."
Smith did not contest Ellerbe's assertion that just 25 percent of union members are District residents while 41 percent reside 30 to 100 miles away.
He also agreed with Ellerbe that some live as far off as Delaware, New Jersey and the Carolinas, but said, "A handful, maybe, at most."
"A lot of my members would love to live in the city," Smith said. But living as comfortably in the District as they live now in other places would be too expensive, he said. "The city's not giving us the opportunity to live in the city. It's unaffordable."
Smith said Ellerbe was overstating matters when he told the council that changing the shift system and forcing firefighters to live closer to the city would allow the department to mobilize more quickly in the event of a public catastrophe.
"If you have people who live real close, and there's a major disaster, it's chaos," Smith said. "People will go directly to the scene. It's not an organized effort. What really needs to happen is, the command staff has to set up first, to be ready for the influx of members. So a reasonable delay in members coming back in is a good thing, to allow the command staff to set up and be able to deploy people appropriately."
Ellerbe said he expected resistance from the firefighters’ union.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) said Wednesday that he recently met with firefighters while campaigning and they argue that the eight-day figure is incorrect. Also, he said they noted they would work 48 hours per week versus 42 hours at the same pay under Ellerbe’s proposal.
“Your presentation is obviously dramatically different,” Evans said.
Other D.C. Council members were generally receptive Wednesday. David Catania (I-At Large) hinted at support for the shorter shifts, saying that quality of emergency medical care would likely increase and that “We ought not to be paying people to sleep.” Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) said “service was excellent” when the department worked on 12-hour shifts between 1965 and 1987. And Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) wondered whether 12-hour shifts were still too long, asking whether eight-hour shifts might be better.
Post staff writer Nikita Stewart contributed to this report.
This item has been updated.