Fire department staffing: Overtime vs. hiring

Here's why relying on overtime rather than adding staff is a penny-wise, pound-foolish proposition


By Robert Rielage

Whether it is a firefighter making overtime, or a salaried chief officer working more than 60 hours a week to keep the department on course, overtime at work can become a two-edged sword.

It may be needed in the short term to close critical gaps, but its extended use can lead to harmful effects for individuals and a continuing spiral of more overtime within the department.

A popular trends in public employment is using overtime to replace hiring additional staff, citing a long-term decrease in personnel costs due to savings in insurance premiums, training and pension contributions. A recent article out of Elgin, Ill., cites this growing trend for cities to use overtime for coverage in the fire, police and public works departments rather than adding additional staffing.

The article quotes Elgin City Manager Sean Stegall saying, "Bringing on a new employee is a multi-million-dollar decision, given that many if not most police, fire and public works employees spend 30 years or so, their entire careers, within the city."

Elgin's preferred use of overtime began in 2009 as a post-recession model due to their concern for "legacy costs." Statistics from the article show that some firefighters have averaged over $40,000 of additional income in the past two years, with one firefighter earning over $80,000 in overtime during 2015.

While budgetary concerns are an ever-present issue, I wondered if the overtime model isn't short sighted in three ways:

  1. The human cost to the employee and their family.
  2. The hidden cost to the department from fatigue, stress and injury.
  3. The defense and legal costs due to bad judgment, especially in the area of EMS, such as skipping protocol steps in patient care or miscalculating dosages when administering drugs in the field.

A case against overtime
I posed this question to several colleagues, including firefighters, chief officers and administrators. Collectively, their thoughts ran something like this.

Money alone, especially with Millennials, is not a prime motivator. Equal to job satisfaction, younger employees savor their time off with family and friends pursuing outside activities.

If married or in a relationship, most spouses or significant others also have a job. Their dual-income household is adequate for their financial needs.

Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Generation Next employees are increasingly heading toward retirement. Research shows that as we grow older, everyone's body becomes more attuned to a set routine for work, eating and sleeping.

A disruption in that cycle, whether in a nine-hour work day or a firefighter's 24/48 shift status, causes a lessening of endorphins released into the brain that subsequently disrupts sleep while increasing appetite and fatigue.

Overtime, especially mandatory overtime, can cause stress on the home relationship, and employees begin to dread the thought of working beyond their ordinary schedule.

With firefighters and police officers among the highest percentage of those who face at least one divorce during their career, and the addition of an inordinate amount of overtime can exacerbate the domestic tensions. Firefighters or police officers with children tend to want to work a schedule that allows them to attend most of the important family activities such as their children's school assemblies, athletic events, birthdays and anniversaries.

Stress factor
Excessive overtime can increase fatigue and stress. These two factors are shown to increase bad judgment or shortcuts that can cause injuries or deaths on the fireground or EMS errors such as incorrect drug dosage administered or an EKG misinterpretation.

These factors also lead some to skip pertinent reporting steps when documenting a fire call or a patient's treatment that can lead to civil suits and monetary judgments against both the individual and their department. When it comes to reports, if it isn't in writing, the procedure or step never happened. This alone can lead a jury to hold a department liable.

These lapses have been shown to occur more frequently when an individual is working back-to-back 48-hour shifts. Studies done by one West Coast fire department that used a 48/96-hour platoon system showed that firefighters, especially those assigned as paramedics, had a higher incident of fatigue-fueled mistakes the longer they worked consecutive hours.

The chief of that department changed its staffing requirements so that a medic could only spend one 24-hour period assigned solely to an EMS unit and the remaining 24-hour period had to be on a fire company. This practice can also serve the standard 24/48-hour shift firefighter as well.

By changing an individual's assignment from a busy EMS unit to a fire company after 12 hours, the firefighter/paramedic can avoid burnout and remain relatively fresh for decision making.

The article referred to studies done by the National Institute of Justice that shows that stress and fatigue can cause police officers to use more sick time as stress days, use of excessive force more frequently to quell incidents, have more auto crashes and have greater difficulty understanding the needs of residents and fellow officers. They cite that regular hours, including regular shift work, give them the necessary time off to relax and recharge.

One only has to look at the media each day to see the erosion of the sovereign-immunity defense and the potential for a city, state or even the federal government to be drawn into civil suits resulting from inappropriate action by their employees. One adverse decision from such a suit could easily negate the alleged savings of the legacy costs claimed by proponents of overtime vs. staffing.

Dangers of fatigue
General George S. Patton, quoting a line from Mark Twain, once told his Third Army that, "Fatigue makes cowards of us all." Fatigue leads to fear, self-doubt and stress that can increase the potential for injury to oneself or their crew members in an emergency.  

Fatigue also causes us to skip vital healthy routines such as exercise for fitness. It sometimes causes a firefighter to substitute comfort food or energy drinks full of caffeine and sugar for healthier choices.

The resulting added weight gain cycles the firefighter into greater stress, leading to more unhealthy options. Those unhealthy choices can lead to obesity, diabetes or heart disease, which causes prolonged absences from work, thus requiring more overtime from the remaining department members.

Finally, with the recent increased awareness of suicides in firefighters, mental health is a vital issue to a successful career in the fire service. We all want to have a meaningful career, but many have been cut short when individuals find difficulty coping with a combination of home, family and work issues.

Some deal with these conditions through drug, alcohol or physical abuse. Others deal with it by retreating into themselves until they are so depressed that they can find no way out of their dilemma.

That depression continues and can explode into violence. That violence may manifest itself with domestic or workplace violence.

Overtime, especially mandatory overtime, can contribute to that individual's downward spiral. When there is little or no reprieve from work and an inadequate time to spend with friends or family to unwind, many individuals turn to suicide.

The key to these issues is balance within a livable routine that provides an individual with all their essential needs. One only has to look as Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs to see that when the physiological, safety, social or self-esteem needs leading to self-actualization are not met, the individual cannot reach their full potential.

This is why relying on overtime rather than added staffing will have an adverse affect on individuals over time and will not deliver the long-term cost savings municipal administrators seek. 

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