Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Is the “24 hour shift” safety issue a “red herring”?

The first indications that contract negotiations between the Town of Longmeadow and the Firefighters Union were not going very well occurred at the Select Board Meeting on September 22. During the comments period at the beginning of the meeting, Robert Taylor, president of the local Firefighters Union read a strongly worded message charging the Town Manager and the Select Board of not acting in good faith during the ongoing collective bargaining process.

Then, there was the Public Forum on October 7 at Glenbrook Middle School regarding a proposed Special Town Meeting Warrant Article. At this forum the Select Board was seeking public input on the question of public employees working scheduled shifts of greater than 14 hours per day. I attended this public forum and found the discussion to be quite concerning and contentious. The Town Manager and Select Board argued that there were safety concerns for both town residents and firefighters with the move to a longer shift schedule. Firefighter representatives and other speakers argued that the move to a 24 hour shift schedule was being successfully used by 75% of the fire departments in Massachusetts and actually resulted in less sleep deprivation and safety issues as compared to the current shorter duration 10/14 hour shift schedules. Threats of additional lawsuits and additional town charter changes for self interest were made.

A statement made by one of the firefighters’ representatives at the forum confused me.

...The Select Board has already proposed a 24 hour work shift but with a longer work week. How can the Select Board now use the safety issue to argue against 24 hour shifts?

I walked away from the town forum with considerably less conviction about my previous support for the Select Board position. From the tone of the discussion it also sounded like this disagreement was going to be settled in the courts at the expense of us taxpayers. The most surprising thing was that this controversy involved a small group of 21 firefighters whose union in the past has almost been invisible to town residents.

In an effort to better understand this controversy, I spent some time last Saturday night at the Longmeadow Fire Station talking with John Dearborn- a long time firefighter about fire/ medical emergency coverage and long shifts. John convinced me that 2- 24 hour shifts can actually result in less sleep related problems than the current 2-10 hr + 2-14 hour shifts and that the system has built-in mechanisms to monitor fatigue and to adapt to long hours.

Below is a schematic outline of the current schedule….

[click to enlarge chart]

You can see from the above chart that on day 6 of a typical 8 day schedule, a firefighter will get only 10 hours time off between 2- 14 hour night shifts and that time off comes during the day which may make it difficult to get needed rest. John explained to me that going to a 24 hour shift schedule was simply running the 10 hr + 14 hr shifts back-to-back into a 24 hour shift.

A firefighter’s schedule seems a lot more complicated than what I was exposed to during my work career. Occasionally, I did work 24 hour shifts on plant coverage and in most cases it was without “house rest”. My work experience was in large part why I originally supported the Town Manager/ Select Board to change the Town Charter and block the move to 24 hour shift schedules because of safety related concerns.

John Dearborn also shared with me that all affected department members are in favor of the change to a 24 hour schedule.

Here is the red herring question…
Are there additional reasons other than safety for the Town Manager/ Select Board to block by extraordinary means (by changing the Town Charter) the move to a 24 hour shift schedule by the Longmeadow Fire Department?

Unless the Town Manager/ Select Board can provide stronger evidence for the safety related issues regarding longer work hours or identify other reasons, I would urge town voters to attend the upcoming Special Town Meeting on October 27 and vote NO on Article 13.

In addition, I would encourage both the Town Manager/ Select Board and Firefighters Union to return to the collective bargaining process where this type of issue should be resolved and not allow it to move to the courtroom wherein our taxpayer money would be spent in a less than desirable manner.