January 13, 2012

There has been a good deal of public debate lately about the proposal to change firefighters’ work hours in the District. Allow me, the chief of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services, to explain what we want to do, and why we want to do it.

Currently, the department staffs fire trucks and ambulances using a four-shift system. Firefighters work 24 hours and then have 72 hours off. Emergency medical technicians and paramedics who are not cross-trained as firefighters work four days of 12-hour shifts, split between days and nights, and then get four days off. To staff each shift, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are divided into groups four ways, and all employees work a 42-hour week.

We propose moving to a three-shift system. In this system, firefighters, EMTs and paramedics would all work 12-hour shifts. Firefighters would have a “3-3-3” schedule: three days on, three nights on and three days off, but additional days off would make it rare that anyone would work six consecutive days. Firefighters would work a 48-hour week, while EMTs and paramedics would continue to work 42 hours. Additionally, EMT and paramedic start times would be adjusted to increase the number of employees on duty to provide “peak load staffing” of ambulances during our busiest times.

The result would be more personnel available during each shift, reducing the need to pay overtime to fully staff fire trucks and ambulances during vacations, illnesses and training. Over several years, the department would be able to reduce staffing through attrition, eventually reaching the optimal number of personnel to meet our service obligations — without closing fire stations or cutting services. We think the savings from this strategy could exceed $30 million annually by fiscal 2017.

It is important to note that the three-shift system is not new. Firefighters worked 12-hour shifts before 1986. EMTs and paramedics already work 12-hour shifts. There are arguments to be made regarding how 24-hour and 12-hour shifts affect job performance. But working 24 hours straight is too long for employees of the department, given our extremely heavy call load.

Since becoming chief in 2011, I have consistently called for reexamining how our department does business. I’ve regularly shared my plans and opinions with D.C. residents, public officials, union leaders and department employees. Much of this is a matter of public record. My priority as chief remains utilitarian: providing the best possible service at the best possible price.

Our plan would accomplish both of these objectives while preventing layoffs or reductions in service level. Although I appreciate the passion of all who have a stake in this process, I ask them to look at similar actions taken by other large municipalities to reduce public safety costs.

Some of our employees may consider the changes we are discussing to be a hardship, but this department’s commitment to D.C. residents remains unchanged. I remain hopeful that executive managers and the labor organization can come together to accomplish this.

The writer is chief of D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services.

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