D.C. fire chief to push for controversial change in firefighters’ work shifts

January 25, 2012

Dozens of District firefighters showed their displeasure with proposed changes to their schedules by standing at attention and marching off in unison after their chief’s “state of the department” speech Tuesday.

Kenneth B. Ellerbe, chief of the city’s Department of Fire and Emergency Medical Services, said he will fight for a change from the current 24-72 system, in which firefighters work for 24 hours and then rest for three days, toward a 3-3-3 schedule — three consecutive 12-hour shifts during the day, three consecutive 12-hour shifts at night and then three days of rest.

The proposal, which Ellerbe has called a bid to cut costs and increase the department’s visibility in the community, had already drawn the ire of some firefighters and their union’s leader after it was proposed late last year. The public nature of Tuesday’s display, however, was unusual.

Immediately after Ellerbe spoke, a firefighter in the audience stood and shouted “D.C.F.D., attention! About, face! D.C.F.D., dismissed!” Perhaps 100 members of the department who listened to the speech in a room at the downtown Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library followed suit, turning their backs to the chief and then walking out of the auditorium, their movements captured by television cameras.

Ellerbe said he is prepared to battle for the changeduring negotiations for a new contract with the 1,800-member firefighters union. The city’s contract with Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters expired in 2007.

“We’ll put it before the union, and it will be part of collective bargaining,” Ellerbe said. “We’ll see how that goes.”

Ellerbe said the proposal would eventually save the department $36 million a year through workforce attrition and the elimination of overtime. He estimates that up to 400 firefighters would leave in the next four years. The plan would also result in firefighters working for 22 days a month; they now work eight days.

The union wants to keep the current system. Union President Edward C. Smith has said the change would be bad for morale. Mike Rogers, a firefighter technician with the department’s Tower 3, opposes the change. He said after Ellerbe’s speech that his father worked a 3-3-3 shift as a firefighter until his retirement in 1986.

“I never saw him as a kid,” Rogers said. “If you have a family life and you work that kind of schedule, you’ll never see your family.”

Opponents of the change have referred to a 2005 study by Defence Research and Development Canada that concluded that the best schedule studied was one identical to the one the D.C. firefighters now use. Ellerbe wrote in a Jan. 13 Washington Post op-ed that the current schedule is “too long for employees of the department, given our extremely heavy call load.”

Ellerbe also used his speech Tuesday to trumpet other efforts, including replacing the department’s vehicle fleet and the practice in the summer of having fire department and EMS personnel patrol high-crime areas alongside police.

Bob Roberts, a member of the department who declined to identify his company, said he was frustrated by some of the changes Ellerbe mentioned.

“We want to do our job, we want to do it proudly and continue to protect the citizens and visitors in D.C.,” Roberts said. Ellerbe “is making it very difficult for us to do that.”

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