AMU Emergency Management Opinion Public Safety

Time Off is the Preferred Benefit

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I read a study recently that acknowledged [] that 72% of employees would prefer an increase in time off as opposed to any other benefit. While the article did talk about unlimited paid vacation as being the preferred benefit, which likely skewed the results, as I do not know of companies that offer this benefit, it does ring true that people enjoy their time away from work more now than in generations past. Secondly, as the labor market tightens in the fire and EMS service, we will be subjected to either making our organizations competitive or losing the top talent. There are opposing arguments that having a fun place to work and other factors are what employees want, we are bound the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in which basic pay and benefits must be reasonable in order for the previously mentioned items to matter. Additionally, you note that even the richest people in the world will tell you that you can make more money, but you can not make more time. With this change in culture and job market come changes to the thought process related to staffing a department.

Doesn’t the Schedule Already Allow Enough Time Off

Many administrators would argue that the traditional 24 on 48 off schedule already allows the employee to only work roughly 100 days per year. This looks good in theory, but with the increased mobility and travel of this generation, the schedule only allows very local travel without taking a day off. This also assumes that the person working was able to get a restful night’s sleep, which with increasing call volumes in many fire/EMS organizations, does not equate to sleeping at night, as many may believe is the case. This means that the firefighter must get off in the morning and go home to regain the needed sleep to function, whipping out the first day off. On the reverse side of the days off, the firefighter must go to bed at an early hour to get up and go to work at 06:00 or 07:00 start time. As we know, most arrive at least 30 minutes early, so walking back morning preparation and driving to work, this equates to 4:30 wake up time. As you can see this great amount of time off equates to a reduced time when all factors are considered.

Many are looking at the 48/96 schedule, which is 2 days on and 4 off. This can be rough for the 2 days, but benefits n the 4 off, as you have 2 solid days that sleep deprivation and preparation for the next day’s work is not taken into effect. Additionally, if one wants to go out of town, they can feasibly travel a decent distance in the 4 days off, which would be nearly impossible on the 24/48 schedule.

How Do You Plan for the Extra Days Off?

Days off are exponentially more expensive than raises. When time off is awarded, the organization has 3 options. The first is to allow the vacancy and have less personnel on duty. In the fire/EMS realm, this is often not possible, as there is a need to staff units in a certain location and number based on the expectations of the citizens. The second is to allow off duty employees to fill the vacancy with overtime and the third is to hire extra full-time employees to fill the positions.

Examining the first option, we know through studies and standards that a certain amount of personnel must be assigned to certain apparatus to allow it to function and meet laws, standards, etc. For example, an ambulance can not have 1 person, it must have 2; one to drive and one to deliver care. The staffing of fire companies is always a hot topic, but most expert agree that 3 are needed to perform any type of rescue or interior attack. Based on these know facts, a certain “minimum manning” is a given in an organization whether it is called minimum manning or not.

The second option is often the preferred option by many organizations, as it is considered the most efficient operation and often costs less money. Because the benefit package for public safety employees is nearly the price of the annual salary, there is much overtime that can be worked and not have to pay for additional healthcare premiums and possible sick and additional days off that come from hiring additional personnel per shift. However, there becomes a balance in which you must account for the near minimum staffing to derive from full time positions. The game of working excessive OT has 2 large drawbacks. The first is the reduced performance and possible increased injury to firefighters. Depending on the call volume, this increased work can have significant negative effects on the body, which can shorten the length of service of a firefighter or cause injury. Both have short- and long-term costs associated. The second issue is the public perception of a firefighter making double their salary, which many times puts them in the top 10% of the income in the area. This is looked on as extreme to the community that pays the salaries through their taxes. Unfortunately, no one stops to look at the overall cost savings or the number of hours that one must work to achieve this level of pay, only the high pay is recognized. An additional problem with this model is that if employees truly wanted more time off, this model defeats the idea, as they must work all of the time off.

The third way to cover the additional time off is to hire additional full-time employees. This is often a last resort for compensating for the additional time off due to the nearly double cost of the option. As noted prior, you have healthcare costs, sick time accumulation costs and the employee gets the additional days off as well. All of these factors combined can add up to a significant cost as compared to the overtime option. Additionally, this option is heavily weighed prior to implementing due to the long-term effect. Will the organization have the same or increased funding guaranteed in the future? Will the call volume increase? The last image a municipality wants is to hire the personnel and two years later, layoff the people hired.

The options are present to cover the extra time, and many can debate the need for the time, but as the labor market tightens related to quality fire and EMS workers, departments will become competitive in both time off and salary to retain employees, thus plans for how to deal with the new norm must be planned now.

Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.

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