2 days on, 4 days off, WCESD#4 slows down working rhythms

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By WAYLON CUNNINGHAM

Williamson County Emergency Services District #4 has begun a six-month trial run for a new shift schedule that will see firefighters clock in for two-day shifts, followed by four days off-duty.

The new “48-96” hour schedule went into effect Monday, and marks a doubling of the previous hours. The firefighters have historically worked for 24 hours with 48 hours off.

The department will decide in September whether to keep the new 48-96 schedule.

Chief Anthony Lincoln said, “This is about providing a quality of life for our employees, to see if they’ll come into work refreshed and ready to work.”

The longer spans of uninterrupted time off, he explained, should allow firefighters more time to rest and see their families.

“Working a 24-hour shift with two days off, you pretty much don’t get any rest,” said Battalion Chief Mark Rosenbush. “The first day off, I can’t get go back to bed because I see daylight. The second day, you’re preparing for the next shift.”

The decision to try the 48-96 schedule saw approval through a majority employee vote. Two pre-surveys also accompanied the vote, and asked questions such as “How would you rate your quality of sleep on duty?” and “Do you feel productive in your time off?”

Post-surveys will be given in September, when the department will vote whether to keep the new schedule.

Some already report optimism about the new schedule.

Last week, before its implementation, Lt. Clayton Huggins said that the 48-96 schedule would allow him more flexibility with the community college classes that he attends on his days off.

The trial follows in the lead of a growing national trend toward the 48-96 schedule, which has gained traction since its first implementations in the early 1990s.

“Once a department adopts the schedule, very few go back from it,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln said the decision in favor was influenced by the studies showing improvements in employee satisfaction, and a meeting the department had with firefighters in Marble Falls, where their force already operates on a 48-96 schedule.

Lincoln shared with The Independent an academic analysis that had been circulating among the department. The analysis called the schedule a “progressive alternative” that “takes into account emerging trends in the fire service as well as economic and environmental factors.”

“Perhaps the biggest contributing factor to the rapid spread of this schedule is the overwhelming level of satisfaction displayed by personnel who have made the change,” it states. “This can be seen by the fact that in votes after the trial periods, most departments adopted the 48-96 schedule with 90 – 100 percent in favor.”

Although studies across the board show an improved rest for days off the clock, a possible countervailing concern raised by some is the fatigue endured during the 48 hours on shifts.

Lincoln said that the amount of sleep the firefighters get on the job is dependent on the call volume, which can become intense for long periods.

“If you get hammered for 24 hours, that can make for a long day. And that can still happen on a 48-hour shift,” Lincoln said.

Rosenbush said that the fatigue of employees is weighed by the acting chief on duty.

“We want to make sure that everyone is ready to respond to a call,” he said. “If the crews are exhausted, the (battalion chief) will know. He’ll allow some rest period for that.”

Not all six firefighters on duty at a given time respond to every call.

Because pay periods will contain the amount of hours for each employee, the new schedule will require no additional funding.

“It’ll actually probably reduce some of the costs,” Rosenbush said. “Now our trucks get checked every day.”

Rosenbush also said that the two days on the clock also allows the department to complete more tasks without interruption.

“As a smaller department not in a city, we don’t have a city staff or a truck shop to help us,” he said.

The department is responsible for maintaining their fleet, performing fire prevention measures, and of course, responding to calls.

The schedule is not subject to decision by the Emergency Service District’s Board of Commissioners, since it is an operational decision.

Waylon@LHIndependent.com

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