The burning question

Some firefighting experts think seven 24-hour shifts a month is best. Others say it makes it ‘a well-paid part-time job.’


The burning question
During the trial, Ottawa will have the 24-hour shift judged on objective merits, with specific performance targets, including response times and absenteeism | Frank Gunn/CP; Angela Deluce/CP

On Jan. 1, Ottawa firefighters will begin a trial of a new schedule that has them taking 24-hour shifts, working just seven days of every 28. If the change becomes permanent, as is expected, Ottawa will join other Eastern Canadian cities on the 24-hour system; it’s used in Toronto, Mississauga, Ont., Kingston, Ont., Windsor, Ont., London, Ont., Fredericton, and Halifax. Out west, however, the “10-14” schedule many of these fire departments have abandoned remains the norm: Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, and Winnipeg are all still on it.

The debate between the 24-hour and 10-14 systems isn’t just labour-relations minutiae. A firefighter’s shift schedule determines everything about the texture of his life; it defines where he can live, when he sees his family, and what kind of work he can do on the side to supplement his income. Under the 10-14 system, a typical 28-day period for a firefighter includes seven 10-hour daytime shifts and seven 14-hour night shifts. The 24-hour system breaks up the same amount of work into bigger chunks.

As a general rule, firefighters’ unions tend to favour the 24-hour system, but chiefs and administrators are somewhat resistant. Perhaps the biggest point in its favour is that it cuts commuting time in half. In Vancouver, says department spokesman Capt. Gabe Roder, the 24-hour system enjoys strong support even after “15 or 16 years” of resistance from the brass at the negotiating table. “We have members commuting 1½, two hours each way,” says Roder. “In fact, we have firefighters who live on Vancouver Island and in the Okanagan Valley. Anybody in that situation would see a ton of benefit from a 24-hour system.”

Some bosses complain that the 24-hour system has a tendency to turn firefighting, in the words of Toronto airport fire Chief Mike Figliola, “into a well-paid part-time job.” The Globe and Mail’s glowing Dec. 9 profile of Firemen Movers, a successful Toronto business run almost entirely by off-duty fire personnel, will hardly reassure the chief, and other critics. The most obvious downside of the 24-hour shift, however, is that it lasts 24 hours. Studies of professions like emergency medicine and truck driving suggest that cognitive impairment starts to appear toward the end of a full 24-hour period without sleep, which a firefighter could easily face on a busy day. On the other hand, with back-to-back night shifts under the 10-14 system, the same problem exists in another form: a fireman has just 10 hours, minus commuting time, to get home, visit with his family, do household chores, and rest up.

The 24-hour shift has support from some sleep experts—notably Wisconsin researcher Linda Glazner, who consulted with Toronto when it made the change in 2006. But a discussion paper published by the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs that same year noted that the evidence provided for the 24-hour system by mavens like Glazner is heavy on theory and awfully light on hard empirical data. Some Ontario departments have met with unintended consequences from the change. Older personnel can find the long shifts difficult, if only because they conflict with long-established habits; Oakville suffered a rash of retirements after introducing the 24-hour system in 2008. Kingston (2008) and Kitchener (2010) both experienced spikes in sick leave, which led, in turn, to high overtime costs (and readings of the riot act to the rank and file).

Ottawa is following Toronto’s lead in trying to avoid problems by having the 24-hour shift judged on objective merits, with specific targets for performance indicators like absenteeism, response times, and worker-compensation claims. Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association president Ed Kennedy says he was personally against the 24-hour shift when it was first tested in his city, but now he’s convinced it leads to better morale, better health and better home life. “When we began trials, the support for it among members was barely 50 per cent,” he says. “At the end of the three-year trial period, it was around 75 per cent; the last time we voted on it, I believe it was over 90 per cent.”

But why the geographic divide? It is probably attributable to a mix of factors. Commute times, though high on B.C.’s Lower Mainland, are less of a pressing concern on the Prairies. Labour unions are less militant out west, where departments tend to provide a broader array of services beyond mere fire suppression, making their workload too unrelenting for 24-hour shifts to be practical. Winnipeg has a merged fire-paramedic service, and 60 per cent of Vancouver Fire and Rescue’s workload consists of medical first response.

Kennedy notes that there’s a simple familiarity effect at work, too. “We see our Ontario colleagues a lot more at seminars and conferences, and there’s a constant exchange of information,” he says. “We might only see western colleagues every couple of years, but they are definitely starting to ask us about the 24-hour shift.”