Full time, part time, overtime: How to fill fire department vacancies

Disrupting the fire service’s legacy approach to staffing by breaking down constant and continuous staffing models

By Steven Knight, PhD

As an assistant chief with a metro department, it was always a humorous and slightly embarrassing endeavor to determine exactly how many vacancies the department had when it was time to hire. Although we managed our daily staffing well, it seemed we had to start from scratch on just how many actual vacancies we could fill.

Using my old department as an example, the staffing was determined on a legacy basis and that legacy pre-dated most, if not all, of the institutional knowledge. For example, the department staffed five personnel for every seat on an engine, four for every seat on a truck company, and two for every seat on a rescue. While the daily minimum staffing was consistently applied, it had to overcome the inconsistency in staffing for each position.

There are two generally accepted staffing strategies for 24/7 service models such as the fire service: constant and continuous staffing, respectively.
There are two generally accepted staffing strategies for 24/7 service models such as the fire service: constant and continuous staffing, respectively. (Photo/MaxPixel)

In fairness, these legacy-staffing strategies may have been compromises over the years and budget cycles, but to clearly articulate the strategy at a future moment in time proves difficult.

Therefore, there are two generally accepted staffing strategies for 24/7 service models such as the fire service: constant and continuous staffing, respectively.

Constant staffing models for the fire service

Departments that utilize a constant staffing model hire for the number of “seats” they are going to fill each day, and any time away from the work assignment is covered by overtime. This overtime could be at straight time or premium time following the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) and may vary to the employees’ benefit by state laws or negotiated labor contracts.

For example, if a department needed to fill 30 seats per day in minimum staffing, a constant staffing model would only hire 90 (30 minimum staffing x 3 shifts = 90) personnel on a 24/48 schedule. All personnel leave, sick leave and training off shift would be covered by overtime. With respect to FLSA, all hours worked above the minimum threshold for the average workweek and work cycle would be calculated at premium pay, or time and a half (1.5) rate.

Each municipality or district has its own unique perception and tolerance for overtime. In some communities, the overtime line item gets considerable attention. If applying a constant staffing model, the trade-off of less full time employees (FTEs) with salary and benefits for the increased cost in overtime should be clearly articulated. Depending on the rate or proportion of premium overtime, an assessment could be made to whether it would be better to hire additional FTEs versus to carry the overtime.

A continuous firefighter staffing model

There are three notable benefits to utilizing a continuous staffing model.

  1. First, it reduces the frequency or need to hire back firefighters on overtime. The reliance on overtime in the constant staffing model could have a negative effect on work performance, morale, retention, sick leave usage, etc.
  2. Second, it reduces the fiscal impact of overtime for communities that are sensitive to the amount of overtime expenditures and/or the fact that some line firefighters may earn more compensation than some high ranking officials within the department or governance.
  3. Third, having additional FTEs on the payroll provides greater depth and surge capacity for major events.

When a fire department utilizes a continuous staffing model, the base service is calculated the same way as a constant staffing model. In the earlier example, 90 (30 minimum staffing x 3 shifts = 90) personnel are employed on a 24/48 schedule. Additionally, a relief staffing multiplier is generated based on average leave usage or annual accruals that would account for the time away from work.

Most fire departments that staff on a 24/48 schedule and a 56-hour work week have a staffing multiplier which – once calculated – is between 3.4 and 3.6. As the work week is reduced through Kelly days or other schedules, the staffing multipliers will increase. For example, a 48-hour work week may require a 4.2 multiplier, and a 42-hour work week may require over a 5.0 multiplier.

The best way to interpret the staffing multipliers is to consider the first “3” as the constant staffing model (i.e., one person for each shift). Then the remainder of the staffing multiplier would be how many additional FTEs are needed to maintain continuous 24/7 coverage while covering employees’ leave from the work assignment.

For example, with a 3.4 staffing multiplier, and 30 personnel per day minimum staffing, it would require a total FTE count of 102 FTEs, calculated as follows: 30 minimum staffing per day X 3.4 multiplier = 102 FTEs. As you can see, this would require an additional 12 personnel to cover employee leave and to reduce the overtime usage and costs. In contrast, the constant staffing model would require purchasing the hours contributed with the 12 personnel, at times, at a premium rate.

Firefighter time off slots

One area that is often overlooked in the staffing strategies is the impact of the available number of slots that employees are able to access in order to use their time off. In states with collective bargaining, this is often a negotiated item which is established in a separate venue, but which has a considerable impact on the shift staffing and overtime.

For example, if the department policy is to have enough slots for every employee to utilize the full annual accrual of vacation, then mathematically, the number of available slots can be calculated. Since not all days are as desirable as other days, the department could agree to increase the number of slots off in negotiation as a no-cost employee benefit. However, if employees are able to accrue more than a single year’s worth of annual leave, then there could be peaks in time off usage (with the additional available slots) that require backfill on overtime.

It is important to remember that any changes to the staffing strategies, including available time off slots, will have an impact on the calculated staffing multipliers. Staffing should be recalculated during the planning phase of any changes to ensure full understanding of the impact and also to maintain transparency.

Peak-demand staffing

In nearly every community, the majority of calls are run during the daytime peak demand periods. This is typically between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., with some communities extending the busy period to 10 p.m. The overnight or non-peak period has a considerable drop in demand, at times three- or four-fold less than during the daytime peak period. It is a cost-effective staffing strategy that has a greater return on investment once the base-level services are established.

In many communities, the concept of the 24-hour shift attracts attention and the assumption is that shorter shifts would be more cost-effective. In truth, the 24/48 schedules (or equivalency) with a 56-hour work week is generally the most cost-effective manner to provide 24/7 coverage. However, once the base level services have been established and adopted, then increasing call demand can be handled effectively through the introduction of 12-hour shifts. In other words, if call volume has increased by 20 percent and the majority of that 20 percent occurs during the day, then it is more cost effective to purchase only the peak demand time where the growth has occurred.

In most communities, peak demand staffing is either staffed on overtime from shift personnel or by creating a new 12-hour schedule. The 12-hour schedule equates to a 42-hour work week and the employees make the same rates for the same certifications. However, the benefit is that relief staffing is considerably less because the work period is only 12 hours instead of 24. For example, when considering the staffing multiplier of a 5.0 on a 42-hour 24/7 operation, the staffing multiplier on the peak demand schedule may only require 2.5 personnel. In other words, the needs are addressed at approximately half of the cost equivalency.

Local conditions should drive fire department policy

This article is too brief to explore the full extent of deployment decisions, risk assessment, risk tolerance policies and other matters to determine local staffing strategies. Local conditions including political, economic and risk factors should be the primary drivers of local staffing decisions.

About the author

Steven Knight, PhD, is a partner with the public safety/EMS consulting firm, Fitch & Associates. He serves as the fire service practice lead. You can contact him directly at sknight@fitchassoc.com

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