By Heather Abrey
Kitchener Post staff
In 2010, the Kitchener Fire department launched a pilot program that saw firefighters working 24-hour shifts. After positive results that brought down sick days, the program has been extended for another five years, according to fire chief Tim Beckett.
In this system, firefighters work a 24-hour shift, have two days off, then work another 24-hour shift before getting four days off, Beckett said.
“The 24-hour shift doesn’t mean they are working less time,” he said, adding that the average workweek is about 42 hours. “We just condensed their work into a 24-hour period.”
Previously, firefighters would get blocks of day shift or night shifts, according to Steve Jones, president of the Kitchener Professional Firefighter Association (KPFFA). This meant there would be a block of four 14-hour night shifts in a row.
“It was very fatiguing. When you complete nights you were expected to rehab during the day — sleep during the day. And you don’t sleep properly during the day, you don’t get into the deep sleep so that over those four days that you’re working nights you’re experiencing cumulative fatigue. So by the time you got to the fourth night you were going to work already tired,” said Jones.
“You don’t have that with the current shift schedule, so it’s a much healthier, less fatiguing shift.”
Jones and Beckett agreed that there was reluctance to switch to the 24-hour shift among some firefighters, but those misgivings have all but vanished in the three years since.
Along with providing firefighters with a better work-life balance and more rest, the shift system has allowed for increased training, has lowered WSIB claims and has reduced the average number of sick days taken, according to Jones.
“(In the previous schedule) there was less continuous hours for training evolutions,” he said. “So with this system, you’re there for 24 hours. If you get interrupted due to calls, since you’re there for the longer duration, you’re able to get back to your training and complete your training.”
Initial concerns that the change could increase the number of sick days and impact operation hasn’t panned out, according to Beckett.
“There was concern around the impacts it may have on public safety or operations. Over the three-year period we haven’t seen any negative effects on public safety. We haven’t seen any negative effects on operations,” he said.
“If there had been concerns with public safety or firefighter safety concerns we probably would have discontinued it and revisited something else.”
And since the change, sick days have decreased by 12 per cent, according to Beckett.
During the three-year pilot program, there was an annual average of 1,350 sick days.
In the three years prior to the pilot program, firefighters took an average of 1,515 per year. The difference in shift lengths was considered when collecting the data.
“We’ve compared apples to apples. A sick day was always 12 hours, and what we’ve done is if you’re off on a 24-hour shift it’s two sick days,” said Beckett.
While some firefighter were unhappy that the program was renewed on another five-year pilot rather than permanently, Jones sees the move as a compromise for the popular system.
“I know that across the province there have still been some fire chiefs who are reluctant to go to it, but our experience in Kitchener has been very positive,” he said.
Overtime costs in 2012 were expected to be less than half of what they were
in 2011, as the fire department cracked down.
In 2011, firefighter overtime cost the city $497,000. When the 2012 fire department budget was brought to Kitchener council, councillors decided to cut the proposed overtime budget nearly in half, leaving $225,000 to cover that expense.
Beckett estimated that overtime costs in 2012 would be about $200,000.
“We’re actually anticipating we’re going to come in under our budget on our overtime, where as in the past, we’ve been much higher,” he said.
This change can be attributed to a number of things, according to Beckett. Among them, an effort to create a work culture that promotes attendance and a council decision that dropped the minimum number of on-duty firefighters from 37 to 35.
“So we didn’t cut any firefighters out of the mix, all we did was, if we had absenteeism that dropped us below our 37, when we hit 36 we would typically call someone in to get to our 37. Now we wait until we drop below 35 before we’ll call anybody in,” said Beckett, noting that the decision amounted to about $100,000 in cost avoidance.
Absenteeism and overtime
Average annual sick days
2010-2012 (24-hour shift): 1,350
2012: approximately $200,000