A shift toward sleep-deprived firefighters?

December 30, 2011

D.C. Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is pushing to impose a work schedule that would dramatically increase work hours and decrease recovery periods for firefighters [“A shift for the better,” editorial, Dec. 27]. The proposed “3-3-3 shift” — a cycle of three 12-hour day shifts, three 12-hour night shifts and three full days off — is an old idea. The city tried a similar schedule in the 1960s and ’70s but, along with many other departments, moved away from it, and with good reason. Such a schedule wreaks havoc on firefighters’ bodies, family relationships and morale. Today, no other metropolitan area comparable to the District uses the 3-3-3 schedule; the most common approach in the region is the 24-hour shift in place in the District.

Firefighters have rightly raised objections to the change, but residents don’t need to take their word for the problems it would cause. A 2005 study of firefighter work schedules by Defence Research and Development Canada found that, “with respect to sustaining cognitive performance in the face of nocturnal alarms, clearly [24-hour shifts followed by 72 hours off] is the best schedule.” Noting that sleep deficits are cumulative, the study determined that working back-to-back night shifts is more exhausting than powering through a single, longer shift with more time to recover. The research concluded that recovery time, rather than shift length, is the most important factor to consider in creating a firefighter work schedule.

Imagine yourself working such a schedule: It can take weeks, or even months, to adapt to a full 12-hour change in sleep hours; it is simply impossible to healthily switch from day work to night work and back over the course of a week, every week, as Ellerbe proposes. Such a regimen will inevitably lead to sleep-deprived firefighters who are less able to perform their jobs.

Ellerbe’s budget calculations are also problematic. He has asserted that a 3-3-3 schedule will save the city $36 million a year by reducing overtime and allowing the city to use attrition to thin the ranks of firefighters.

However, there are practical problems with his figures. First, it remains unclear how long it would take for these attrition savings to materialize. Additionally, a 3-3-3 schedule would increase the number of shift changes, and more shift changes cost more money. Emergency calls don’t adhere to a schedule. If a firefighter is on a run at the time of a shift change, his or her replacement has to wait at the firehouse to assume duty, during which time the city pays two firefighters for the same job. Because of higher call volumes, afternoon and evening shift changes generate higher costs than the morning changes now used.

Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters has done its own analysis of Ellerbe’s proposal, and our math shows that the 3-3-3 schedule would actually cost the city between $16 million and $45 million the first year, depending on how it is implemented.

I appreciate The Post editorial board’s position on the need for negotiations between labor and management on this issue. It’s unfortunate that Ellerbe’s proposal is now being debated in the court of public opinion during what should be a time for good-faith discussions to run their course. Nevertheless, Local 36 will remain true to the concept of negotiating in good faith and believes that, in this way, this issue can be resolved.

In 2011, D.C. firefighters responded to more than 175,000 calls. Our agency continues to be the most trusted and highest rated of all city services. We were recently cited as the No. 1 fire department in the metro area for response times. D.C. firefighters and emergency responders serve the city’s residents and workers and the many tourists who visit the city with great pride and professionalism. That’s why we have to ask: What effect will giving front-line emergency workers longer hours and fewer recovery periods have on the public safety of the city? How is this even remotely “A shift for the better”?

The writer is president of Local 36 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.

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