Should Watertown allow firefighters to work 24-hour shifts?
Watertown officials didn’t seem very comfortable with a proposal previously made to allow firefighters to work 24-hour shifts to save on overtime.
The idea has been floated during the city’s negotiations with the Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191 over a new contract. Some members of the City Council weren’t thrilled with the notion of having employees sleep while on the job.
So this recommendation hasn’t gone anywhere in the ongoing labor dispute. But it was reintroduced as a way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
However, council members recently took a pass on this suggestion. This is unfortunate as it makes sense as a way to have fewer employees traveling to and from work.
“Daniel Daugherty, president of the Watertown Professional Firefighters Association Local 191, hoped to have a deal with City Council members that would prevent a nightmare scenario that large numbers of the Fire Department could be sidelined by the COVID-19 crisis. But a majority of council members turned down the proposal,” according to a story published Friday by the Watertown Daily Times. “Last week, Fire Chief Matthew R. Timerman and Mr. Daugherty worked out a plan for firefighters to be on duty for 24 hours and then have three days off. By doing so, fewer firefighters would be involved in changing shifts, and that could prevent an entire shift from getting the virus and end up missing work, Mr. Daugherty said. … At this point, no city firefighters have contracted COVID-19.”
The argument against this measure wasn’t very convincing.
“Mayor Jeffrey M. Smith contended the 24-hour shift is not any safer than working eight or 12 hours,” the story reported. “Instead, he recommends limiting contact from those who might have the virus, isolating anyone who comes in contact and everyone wearing personal protective equipment, or PPEs, as ways to prevent the coronavirus. If it’s safer to work a 24-hour shift, then why not do the same for the police and public works departments, Mayor Smith asked, rhetorically.”
Health care professionals urge people not to leave their homes unless it is absolutely necessary. If the city instituted 24-hour shifts for firefighters, no more than 15 of them would be commuting to and from work each day. With two 12-hour shifts a day, this number doubles to 30. And with three eight-hour shifts a day, this number triples to 45.
Mr. Smith needs to ask himself what’s safer under these conditions: Having only 15 Fire Department employees traveling each day, or forcing between 30 and 45 of them to do this? The answer is obvious.
As to why this arrangement is sensible for firefighters but not police officers or public works employees, this too should be a no-brainer. As they wait for emergencies that may not occur on their respective shifts, firefighters often have long periods of time where they don’t have that much to do. So they’re in a position where they can catch some sleep if they work for 24 hours.
The same cannot be said for either police or public works employees. Officers on patrol can be called to investigate incidents much more frequently than can firefighters. And if the city has public works employees sitting around for hours at a time with nothing to do, officials need to consider downsizing this department.
Perhaps city officials are concerned that allowing 24-hour shifts for firefighters could prove beneficial when it comes to overtime, and then this issue could be placed back on the negotiating table. This idea is worth a test, so council members should put it into effect.