4/19/19 Commentary

Twenty-four-hour shifts for firefighter/paramedics aren’t necessarily good or bad, even though the City Council’s argument Monday over their appropriateness nearly derailed its approval of the new contract with the local firefighters’ union.

To employ a metaphor drawn from other aspects of municipal government, shift duration is like the tax rate: it means nothing by itself, because it’s one factor of a two-part equation. If a property has zero value, for instance, it makes no difference what the tax rate is.

Similarly, the length of a shift has no effect on firefighter/paramedic performance if no calls for service are made during that period.

Although there’s no changing a shift schedule that’s already been approved, firefighter experts themselves don’t come down completely on one side or the other with regard to 12-hour versus 24-hour shifts.

It depends on how busy a shift is and whether personnel have time to sleep between calls for service. For obvious reasons, the ‘round-the-clock routine doesn’t work well if EMTs are being rousted every two hours for an ambulance run.

The evidence, however, suggests there’s no such thing as a shift that makes everyone happy. What firefighters prefer might not be what the organization needs and vice versa. It’s all a compromise, because so many other circumstances come into play, and with the Ocean City Fire Department answering about 6,000 calls for service a year, that’s a great many different circumstances.

As for critics who say they don’t like paying people to sleep, that doesn’t hold water considering that the duty sections at Coast Guard Station Ocean City don’t sit up all night waiting for the alarm to be sounded.

The new contract between the city and the local International Association of Fire Fighters isn’t exactly what either side wanted. The deal could have been done for less money but with more liberal shifts, or with shifts more to the council’s liking, but at greater expense.

With neither side eager to stand firm and push for arbitration, the result is a contract that nobody loves, but will have to live with for the next three years.

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