There are many fire departments (and some ambulance services) in the United States where each employee works a 24 hour shift. Most work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. This schedule works out to 56 hours a week and requires three shifts.There are others, but this one appears to be the most prevalent. I worked this shift pattern for the last 15 years of my career. It requires you to report to work at 7:30 in the morning, and work straight through to 7:30 the next morning.

The 24 hour shift is a relic of a time when EMS was nonexistent, and firefighting wasn’t all that busy. Employers asked for and received an exemption from the 40 hour per week rule of the FSLA, using the excuse that late night fires were rare, and firefighters could sleep. This means that an employer can make a firefighter work 53 hours a week without paying overtime. The result is that the 56 hour work week costs the employer the equivalent of  57.5 hours of straight time pay.

Since the FSLA, fire departments have taken on many new roles: EMS, hazardous materials response, heavy rescue, rescue diving, and more. Call loads have been increasing steadily. In 1999, the station I was assigned to ran an average of 2,300 calls a year. By the year I retired, my station was up to 3,200 calls a year. My personal record was answering 23 calls in one day. That is not an unusual situation. The busiest fire unit in North America runs an AVERAGE of 16 calls per day. Not station, unit. There can be more than one unit in a station, which can see call loads of 50 or more calls per day. That call load is on top of all of the other duties like equipment maintenance, inspections, public education, and other routine duties.

Couple that with the staffing issues and employee burnout that causes frequent manpower shortages, and you create a large amount of mandatory overtime. For political reasons, firefighters cannot be seen sleeping during the day, so a paramedic firefighter may be 36 hours into a 48 hour shift, and be operating on no sleep. All of this means that emergency personnel are rarely as well rested as they should be, and this is aggravated by overtime.

That is why this incident comes as no surprise. You cannot expect that an employee that is 18 hours into a 24 shift to be making the same quality decisions that he did when he was just coming on shift. The IAFF, as well as many firefighters, will vigorously oppose a change to this schedule, mostly because it will cut into the 4-5 days off per week that many firefighters enjoy. Employers will fight changes, because it would mean having to hire more personnel.

However, there is no question in my mind that, as call loads and duties increase, this schedule becomes more dangerous and difficult to justify.

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