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New firefighter dilemma: overtime and shift trades

Navigating overtime and shift-trade expectations can be a minefield for a probationary firefighter; here’s advice on how to come through it in one piece

As a probationary firefighter, you know you will be expected to go above and beyond in helping your organization and fellow firefighters in any way you can.

Most will do the majority of less-desirable duties such as cleaning, cooking, raising flags, washing rigs, assisting with fundraising events, etc. You know you are expected to give a lot more and sacrifice a lot more in these areas both on and off duty.

However, one of the more recent expectations that I have been asked about involves shift trades and overtime.

Is it acceptable for a probationary firefighter to ask for shift trades and take overtime? This question is difficult to answer, because the culture and attitudes towards it can certainly vary for each agency and within the agency.

It’s cultural
Therefore, you may find yourself trying to understand and navigate these specific attitudes in an attempt to find a more general consensus within your organization. This may be a difficult, if not impossible task, since this has little or nothing to do with department policy and can’t be found in any MOA.

It has to do with personal opinions and department culture.

Although specific attitudes will inevitably vary, every organization usually has it’s own general attitude based on its culture, traditions and expectations with some departments being more extreme then others.

Do not make the mistake of expecting your new department to have the same expectations as where you came from. It is important to gauge where you stand as a new hire in your new environment in every way and know what’s commonly considered acceptable and what’s not.

While knowing what your rights are with regard to overtime and shift-trade policies as a probationary firefighter is important, it is even more important to know the unwritten expectations. Those who know their rights and the policies, but are ignorant to or choose to ignore the unwritten traditions and expectations may step on some toes and find themselves outside the good graces of senior personnel.

Don’t ask
I strongly suggest that new hires do not ask for shift trades unless the need for time off is of utmost importance. Asking for shift trades can leave a bad impression and it also takes time away from the job. This means possibly missing crucial training and experiences.

If you absolutely do need a shift trade, it is common courtesy to remain willing to re-pay that trade on any day that is asked of you, with exception of major holidays unless already agreed upon.

As for being asked to work a shift trade for someone, it is certainly a good idea to do so whenever possible. There are two very good and simple reasons for this.

One, it shows your willingness to help out a senior firefighter. Two, you’re putting more hours in at the firehouse during the crucial early learning stages of your career.

It also puts you with different crew and possibly at a different station with new equipment and zone challenges. You get to know and work with more people, possibly in a new area and learn more about your district and department.

Scoring points
I recommend not asking for the payback trade until you are either off probation or have established yourself within your organization.

To be asked to work for someone, whether it be directly or indirectly, and stepping up and offering to help is a good way to score points with your new fellow firefighters.

In one neighboring metropolitan department, firefighters have a trade request board at every station. The attitude there is that no trade request dies on the board or goes unanswered.

As the date approaches if no one has offered to take it, the pressure falls on the new guys to pick up the shift.

Slippery slope
No matter where you work, it is a good idea to offer to accept these shifts whenever possible. The pressure may not be direct or obvious, but it is a likely expectation, whether you hear about it or not.

However, keep in mind that some may begin to take advantage of your willingness to work and start to ask too much, too often. You may need to begin to say no.

Working overtime can be a slippery slope. Some feel new hires should not take any overtime unless no one else wants it.

In my opinion, this is an unfair and unethical attitude, but it doesn’t stop some from holding it. Senior firefighters harboring this sentiment expect new guys to only work overtime days that are not being picked up by senior firefighters.

Rarely does everyone take such an extreme view on probationary firefighters working overtime. This expectation held by some forces a new hire to decide if working extra shifts and earning a great deal more in salary is worth the risk of possibly upsetting a small minority of firefighters who feel more entitled to overtime.

Drawing the line
It is certainly not fair to expect anyone, even a brand new hire, to wait until an overtime shift is about to force someone into a mandatory shift before they take it. Some departments try to resolve potential mandatory overtime issues by creating a mandatory overtime hiring policy that is based on seniority, lessening the chance of senior guys getting forced in.

Such policies may be considered fair and equitable to the senior personnel, but there always seem to be some who feel they should never be forced to work a day they do not want as long as there is a less-senior firefighter available.

In this case you will need to decide if you want to make that sacrifice to make that person happy for the moment, or conclude that you can’t make all of the people happy all of the time and stop trying.

For this overtime dilemma I have no definitive answer other then suggesting that you gauge the general expectation and follow the more cautious, conservative line of thinking. Keep in mind that probation is a small dot on the map of your long career and it is where your reputation of work ethic and integrity is often established.

Carefully consider all things before going against the expectation and only do so if you truly feel you are being taken advantage of or sacrificing too much, while remembering that you are a probie who just months ago would have given your left arm for the job you now have.

The bottom line is that new hires are expected to give and sacrifice for the sake of their senior firefighters and the organization. This expectation will vary based on decades of tradition, history and personal attitudes.

Gaining an early understanding of all of these expectations and respecting them as best you can will help put you in the good graces of even the most-salty of senior firefighters.