Fire Dept. critics call for 24-hour shifts
Block, Cote say change would not jeopardize safety, cut costs while giving firefighters 243 days off
Should the Warwick Fire Department consider moving to a three-platoon, 24-hour work shift system, similar to what East Greenwich voted to do on Monday?
Two outspoken fire department critics Rob Cote and Ken Block, former Republican gubernatorial candidate and chairman of Watchdog RI – are convinced that should be the case, and they are in the midst of a large-scale, data-centric effort to support their position.
Working together on data derived from fire department accountability sheets – which catalogue shifts worked by firefighters – that Cote began to collect through APRA requests a year ago, Block is convinced that changing the shift system could result in huge cost savings for the city, including significant reductions to the amount of overtime necessary to cover four platoons.
The current four-shift system operates on a 48-hour schedule in which firefighters work two consecutive 10-hour day shifts from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. followed by two consecutive 14-hour night shifts from 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. They then get four days off before repeating the cycle.
Under a proposed three-platoon system, firefighters in each platoon would work one 24-hour shift and then take the next 48 hours off and repeat. Cote and Block assert that a three-platoon system would immediately require 25 percent fewer firefighters, which would still leave room for cost-saving reductions in personnel even after accounting for keeping floaters on staff to cover overtime necessities as those situations arise.
Even further, Block asserts that Warwick is essentially already utilizing a 24-hour shift schedule and accruing large amounts of overtime as a result.
Data that he has digitized from the accountability sheets gathered by Cote revealed that, between July 1, 2016 and May 31, 2017, there were a total of 1,754 shifts worked that were at least 24 hours in duration. In total, 219 firefighters in the department worked at least one 24-hour shift, 52 worked at least one 48-hour shift, seven firefighters worked at least one shift of 60 hours and one firefighter appears to have worked for 96 hours consecutively from Sept. 27 to Sept. 30 in 2016.
“What has happened here proves that we’re already working pretty much on a 24-hour shift schedule, so Warwick should be aggressively moving to go with a 24-hour on, 48-hour off schedule,” Block said on Tuesday. “Because if they did that they could nuke all the overtime they’re suffering right now.”
The actual amount of money spent on overtime for the current fiscal year (which ends on June 30) could not be immediately provided by Marcel Fontenault, who has assumed the role of acting chief after James McLaughlin retired earlier this month, along with fellow assistant chief Edward Hannon.
However, in the city’s proposed FY19 budget it is projected the department will expend a total of $1,729,049 on overtime, which would be nearly $1,130,000 over their allotted overtime budget for FY18 of $600,000. Comparatively, while the number is high due to a significant reduction in their overtime budget from past years, the department also overspent on overtime by $293,703 in FY16 and $119,289 in FY17.
Adding to Cote’s frustrations with the department is the fact that the department had its overtime budget reduced to $600,000 in FY18, in part, due to the department bringing on a full class of 24 recruits in February of 2017, despite only needing to fill 16 vacancies. Then Chief McLaughlin said at the time, in agreement with former Mayor Scott Avedisian, that the move would drastically cut overtime costs. However, as illustrated above, the figures tell a different story.
Central to the problem, Block and Cote claim, is that under the current system firefighters are able to voluntarily pick up an available second consecutive shift, or swap shifts with another firefighter, in order to work a full 24 hours, and that second consecutive shift is compensated at overtime rates of 1.5 times normal pay.
Fontenault responded to inquiries on Wednesday, saying that the department has never considered moving to a three-platoon system but that the fire union could negotiate in that direction if they felt so inclined, as they are currently negotiating with the city for a successor collective bargaining agreement.
Fontenault said that a mandatory 24-hour shift system would be unfair to firefighters, as they would be forced to work significantly more hours in a year without being compensated for it. Under the current system, firefighters work approximately 2,190 hours not including vacation or sick time. Under a 24-hour system, they would indeed work significantly more – about 2,920 hours.
However, Block asserts that this equation isn’t factoring in sleeping hours. Firefighters are allowed to sleep from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m., according to Fontenault. Block maintains, for the sake of debate, if a firefighter gets an average of six hours of sleep during their 14-hour night shifts, this would calculate to 547.5 hours spent asleep during a year – or about 1,640 actual hours worked a year. With an average of six sleeping hours accounted for in a 24-hour system, firefighters would work about 2,190 hours.
Block further asserts that a 24-hour system, while requiring more hours to be worked by firefighters, would significantly increase their amount of time off. Under the current system, firefighters get about 182 days off. Under a 24-hour on, 48-hour off shift system, that increases to 243 days off a year, not including vacation and sick days, to compensate for the longer hours.
In cases where a firefighter has taken a second consecutive shift at overtime rates, which occurs in a majority of the cases outlined in the data cataloging 24-hour or longer shifts, Block poised the question, “Should we be paying a lot of overtime for time spent asleep?”
In response to the numbers that show that nearly all firefighters in the department had worked at least one 24-hour shift from July 2016 to May 2017 Fontenault said, “It does happen. But it's their choice. If they feel they're fatigued and need to go home, they can go home [and not pick up another shift].”
Fontenault said that a mandated 24-hour shift system would arise possible issues from fatigue-related injuries on the job, as there is no way to guarantee or predict how busy any given day and night might be, especially on Rescue 1, which he claimed is the busiest rescue apparatus in the state.
But Block isn’t buying this line of reasoning either as he believes that Warwick is not inordinately inundated with calls at night and that the high occurrences of 24-hour shifts already being worked indicates the safety of such shifts is not of true concern to the department.
“My challenge back would be how many nighttime calls do you get and at which station, how much sleep are they getting?” he said on Wednesday. “There is no way a firefighter is up for 24 hours straight. It might happen occasionally, but those are exceptions, not the rule.”
Block and Cote have cryptically made it clear that there is more data to be revealed in the near future, specifically related to the department’s change of shift, sick time and vacation time practices.