What a difference a day makes (24 short hours)
By Peter Sells
Three questions on the 24-hour shift
OPFFA president Fred Leblanc answers three questions on the 24-hour shift and its increasing popularity among Canadian firefighters.
As Peter Sells notes, the Friday/Sunday/Wednesday 24-hour shift rotation is widely known in one Canadian fire department as a killer – but by another name.
By Peter Sells
March 9, 2011 – Firefighters have traditionally worked a 28-day rotation
of 10-hour days and 14-hour nights. Every four weeks the cycle repeats
and there is some regularity to the connection of the firefighters’
shift to the rest of the working world. If you were designing a shift
schedule under which four platoons each work rotating 24-hour shifts, a
good first start would be to simply have each platoon come on duty every
fourth day. So, in a four-week period, each platoon would work seven times.
A 28-day rotation of 24 hour on duty / 72 hours off-duty would go like this; Monday, Friday, Tuesday, Saturday, Wednesday, Sunday, Thursday. After each shift, firefighters would have three full days off – regular as clockwork. Not bad; even if you had a busy shift and needed the first day to catch up on your sleep, you would still have two days to yourself before going back to work. However, on the old 10/14 shift, the days off came in groups of four or six. That kind of freedom is hard to give up.
The 28-day rotation that is being adopted by fire departments across Ontario is as follows; Monday, Thursday, Friday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday, Tuesday. What is the advantage of this schedule over a regular 24/72-hour rotation? Firefighters have seven full calendar days off between a Thursday shift and the following Friday. Not bad – a full week off every month without using any lieu time or vacation days. The five days between a Tuesday shift and the following Monday are also a pretty good break. The trade off is that the rest of the shifts are compressed a bit. The remaining shifts are separated only by, at most, two days off, and, in one case, by just one day off. This quick turnaround can be difficult, since there is not much time to recover before going back to work. In fact, in at least one fire department that has been using this schedule for a few years, the Friday/Sunday/Wednesday swing is referred to as The Ball Breaker.
The Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs and the Ontario Municipal Human Resources Association have just released a discussion paper called The Health and Safety Impacts of 24 Hour Shifts in Fire Departments. Some of the concerns in the discussion paper include the creation of a sleep debt and the effect of the shift schedule on the performance of apparatus drivers. Here is an excerpt concerning sleep debt (omissions were for length, I’ve tried to maintain the context):
Loss of sleep is cumulative and creates a sleep debt … Performance will suffer until that sleep debt is overcome. To overcome a sleep debt, a longer period of restorative sleep is required to return the body and mind to its normal rested levels … A 24-hour shift with no sleep will create a sleep debt that may require two days of regular sleep to recover. A 24 hour shift with interrupted sleep may create the same sleep debt.
This discussion would seem to back up the Ball Breaker moniker. A busy Friday night would require two nights of sleep to properly recover, but a firefighter who worked on Friday is back on duty, or back behind the steering wheel of an apparatus, on Sunday morning. Add a broken Sunday night’s sleep at work and the sleep debt could easily carry on to Wednesday.
As for apparatus driving, I cannot improve on this section from the discussion paper:
Safety-sensitive industries such as aviation and trucking have done extensive research and have recognized the risks of long hours on the job. Legal time limits for consecutive hours on duty were legislated. Under Canadian law, aircraft pilots can be on duty for 14 hours or up to 17 hours if there are unforeseen circumstances. The rules for commercial truck drivers are that no driver can drive after accumulating 13 hours of driving time in a day or 14 hours of on-duty time in a day. A firefighter on a 24 hour shift is on duty for a 70 per cent longer work period than that allowed for pilots and truck drivers.
Note that rotating drivers would not change the amount of on duty time or sleep debt; since everyone at, say, noon on a Sunday or midnight on a Wednesday would be at the same point in the Ball Breaker.
The discussion paper concludes with a recommendation that fire departments should not commit to changing to a 24-hour shift pattern until the recommended research has been completed. My recommendation is that you read the paper at this link: