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News Opinion Editorial

A more efficient fire schedule

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's proposal to change the shift schedule for city firefighters has set off a storm of protest, and not without reason. Forget the fact that firefighters' hourly wages would go down under the plan. Going from a four-days-on, four-days-off schedule and a 42-hour work week to 24 hours on, 48 hours off and a 49-hour workweek entails a massive lifestyle change that will be disruptive for many. It is, however, in the best interest of the city.

Baltimore's fire department has suffered from inadequate resources and outdated equipment and facilities for years. Firefighters struggled with rotating station closures and, eventually, the permanent shuttering of some stations. Nonetheless, thanks to public safety campaigns and an aggressive push to install smoke alarms in homes, the city last year enjoyed its lowest level of fire deaths in decades.

Rather than jeopardizing that success, the plan, which has the full backing of Chief James Clack, offers the department the chance for some stability, all while saving the city money.

The new schedule amounts to a 16.7 percent increase in a firefighter's weekly hours and would eventually allow the city to reduce the size of the department by 156 people, which would be accomplished through attrition. The firefighters who remain would see a pay increase of 12.5 percent — a more substantial raise than they are ever likely to see under other circumstances but still a lower per-hour rate. Over the next nine years, the plan would save the city more than $60 million while enabling it to step up purchases of new fire equipment and quadruple the amount dedicated to repairing and refurbishing the city's fire houses, which are more than 50 years old on average.

Some have questioned whether a 24-hour shift is safe. Firefighters working overnight can sleep at the station, but given that an alarm can sound at any minute, most people are not able to rest as effectively as they would at home. Critics of the mayor's plan say they fear that fatigue will put firefighters or the people they protect at increased risk.

In Canada, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs reviewed literature related to safety, health and performance for firefighters working 24-hour shifts and found that "Despite the fact that a number of American fire departments have been working the 24-hour shift for a number of years, no detailed analysis has been done on the effects of 24-hour shifts on the organizations and employees." The report extrapolated some lessons from studies of other workers with long shifts, such as medical residents, but the nature of firefighting is different from other occupations, so much so that the federal government sets special rules about overtime pay in the fire service.

Another answer to the question is simply that 24-hour shifts are not some newfangled idea Chief Clack and the mayor's budget department have dreamed up. They are the norm in most big city departments, and in many cases have been for decades. Mr. Clack says that in Minneapolis, where he was chief before coming here, firefighters were scheduled for 24-hour shifts and sometimes 48-hour shifts. He says he did find a slight increase in on-the-job injuries, disciplinary problems and other issues toward the end of the 48-hour shifts, but not with 24-hour ones.

Firefighters in cities that have schedules like the one the administration has proposed say they like it and wouldn't want to change. Indeed, there are some advantages to the 24-hours-on, 48-hours-off schedule, including the fact that firefighters in that system only go to work 120 days a year, compared to 182 or 183 days in Baltimore, a real benefit to those who commute long distances. Mostly, though, the preference probably has to do with what a firefighter is used to. Baltimore's firefighters have set up their lives (and, most pertinently in many cases, second jobs) to fit in with the current schedule. If the situation were reversed, they probably wouldn't want to switch off of 24-hour shifts either.

It is simply a more efficient way to provide residents with the same level of service, and that's exactly the kind of thing Baltimore needs to do so that it can cut expenses, cut taxes and make the city a more attractive place to live. The fire unions, whose members overwhelmingly rejected the idea, have a chance to make their case to an arbitrator later this spring. There is no question that transitioning to this new schedule presents a hardship, but the issue is the transition more than the schedule itself. That problem is a temporary one, but the benefits for the city would be permanent, and for that reason the mayor and fire chief are right to pursue it.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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