BY TODD L. POOLE
A growing trend mostly among progressive western U.S. fire departments is the implementation of a 48/96 work schedule. In this alternative to traditional 56-hour workweek patterns, employees work 48 hours, followed by 96 hours off. My research has revealed benefits and challenges of the 48/96 schedule. A significant question, however, is do the benefits of a 48/96 schedule outweigh the potential negative effects that can result from working firefighters 48 consecutive hours?
The idea of working a 48/96 schedule likely originated in Kern County, California.1 Firefighters, unable to afford homes in the area, were forced to live great distances from their places of employment. The long commutes of the employees resulted in the development of the 48/96 rotation, which reduced by half the number of commutes for the employees and resulted in significant cost savings to the firefighters. As the 48/96 schedule became more prevalent, additional unintended benefits were observed. (1)
In evaluating the 48/96 work schedule for West Metro Fire Rescue in Lakewood, Colorado, Dr. Allison Hawkes discovered an overall increase in employee satisfaction.2 Employees felt the 48/96 schedule interfered significantly less with activities outside of work than their previous schedule. Prior to implementing the trial of this new work schedule, only 52 percent of employees supported the change; however, after the six-month trial period, 68 percent of employees indicated the advantages of the new 48/96 schedule outweighed any disadvantages.
Although Hawkes found that employee perception of spousal support decreased from 88.9 percent satisfaction to 83.1 percent after transitioning to the new shift rotation, a later study refuted this finding. Hawkes reported that 11.9 percent of employees indicated their spouses were fairly or extremely unsupportive of their new work schedule, a significant increase from the 3.7 percent indicating unsupportive spouses before the shift schedule changed in January.
JVA Consulting, LLC was hired in 2006 to perform a focus group study on how the change to the 48/96 schedule affected West Metro Fire Rescue employees’ quality of family life. Three focus groups, each consisting of 11 spouses and 13 firefighters with an average of 11.5 years of service, were established.3 The focus group study revealed that overall spousal support remained high after transitioning to the 48/96 schedule. Spouses across all focus groups noticed their firefighter partners were happier, more relaxed, and less fatigued. (3) Additionally, spouses across all three focus groups indicated more quality family time was a significant strength.
However, spouses working a Monday-through-Friday 40-hour schedule expressed concern with firefighters working both Saturday and Sunday consecutively. (3) They found this phenomenon, which occurred every six weeks, difficult because of the lack of quality family time during those periods. (3)
Overall, it was discovered that disparity exists between an employee’s perception of spousal support and the actual amount of support reported by the spouse. This finding suggests that perhaps further studies should be conducted in this area, given that spousal support contributes to overall employee satisfaction.
A further review of the literature was conducted in an effort to identify the underlying basis for increased employee satisfaction when working a 48/96 rotation. Several studies show a correlation between extended consecutive days off and employee satisfaction.4-6 (2)
One researcher claims that “off-time work patterns of the shift employees’ work schedule is the most significant determinant of family well-being.” (4, 2) This theory is confirmed by the positive reports across all departments that indicate an increased quality of time at home when the employee was off for 96 hours in a row.7 A noteworthy fact is that employees working a 48/96 schedule wake up at home three out of every six days. (1)
In contrast, firefighters working a 24/48 schedule, or Kelly rotation, wake up only one out of every three and three out of every nine mornings at home, respectively. (1) Surveys show that the increase in mornings when the firefighter wakes up at home has many benefits such as enabling them to see their children off to school more often and providing opportunities for them to reduce accumulated sleep debt by waking up later in the morning. (1)
In addition, firefighters working a 48/96 schedule have more complete weekends off to enjoy with their families, since children are often out of school during the weekends and the majority of working spouses have weekends off. (1, 2) In fact, a 48/96 schedule affords a firefighter 26 entire weekends off, where the Kelly and 24/48 rotations provide only 17. (1)
Although the firefighter is working an equal number of hours in any of the aforementioned schedule patterns, it is likely that families perceive the firefighter to be present more often because of this increase in weekends at home. However, every six weeks, the firefighter works both Saturday and Sunday consecutively, which may be perceived as an excessive amount of time away from home. (3) Overall, it is likely that the increased opportunity for firefighters and their families to enjoy more weekend trips outweighs the challenge of being unavailable because of this Saturday/Sunday phenomenon.
Along with improved quality family time, firefighters working 48/96 rotations find themselves significantly more productive at home and work. A survey of Roseville (CA) Firefighters Local 1592 suggests that firefighters are able to complete more substantive household projects when they have more consecutive days at home. (1) Similarly, employees indicated they were able to better tend to special projects at work when given 48 hours to complete tasks. (1) Some surveys indicate that firefighters are more organized to perform tasks when there is a reduction in transition between work and home routines. (1, 6)
Although employees perceived the 48/96 schedule to be negative prior to implementation, actually working a 48/96 schedule ultimately resulted in higher employee satisfaction when compared with other schedule variations. (1, 2) Being able to live farther away, a 50-percent reduction in the overall number of commutes to work, and reduced auto insurance rates also add to employee satisfaction. (1)
West Metro Fire Rescue observed an overall reduction in injuries from 2004 to 2006. (2) Also, the number of sick days dropped from 13,277 hours in 2004 to 8,246 hours in 2006, after the implementation of the new schedule. (2) However, a procedural change to allow the use of sick leave to care for an ill family member coincided with the study. A further reduction of sick time use would likely be realized if the policy had not changed. Notwithstanding, additional studies would be needed to accurately determine the cause of this reduction in using sick days. Some theorize that there is less abuse of sick time given that employees are less likely to call off duty for nonqualified reasons if they are already on duty during the first 24 hours. (2) If this is true, then a potential 50-percent reduction in sick leave use may result.
One feasibility study indicated a correlation between the 48/96 schedule and a reduction in sick time use.8 In the Pacifica (CA) Fire Department, there was a 20-percent reduction in the use of sick days, and the Manhattan Beach (CA) Fire Department reported a reduction of 80 percent. (8) No resource reported an increase of sick time after switching to the 48/96 schedule. With the literature indicating employees’ morale improves with a 48/96 rotation, it is entirely feasible to correlate higher morale with less use of sick leave benefits. (8)
THE “TRADE-OFF”: SLEEP PROBLEMS
Departments contemplating a change in work schedule patterns must consider the potential for dangerous fatigue and sleep deprivation among shift personnel.
Dr. Susan L. Koen, Ph.D, of Round-The-Clock Systems published a comparative analysis of the 48/96 schedule to determine whether dangerous sleep deprivation and fatigue exist among firefighters. (4) Her key question was, “Does the benefit of more consecutive days off provided by the 48/96 schedule create any negative costs in safety, health, on-duty performance, family distress, or individual morale and job satisfaction?” (4, p. 1) Her greatest concern was sleep deprivation among firefighters. The question remains: How much sleep is needed for firefighters to be fit for duty?
Koen defines sleep deprivation as “insufficient deep sleep or restorative sleep for the brain, [which] causes cognitive or brain fatigue that can result in slowed reaction time, decreased vigilance and impairment in complex reasoning skills.” (4, p. 1) She argues that the quantity of sleep is not as vital as the quality of uninterrupted, deep restorative sleep. As such, departments with one or two sleep interruptions each night may not experience the negative effects of sleep deprivation, but employees experiencing three or more interruptions nightly will be too sleep deprived to work safely and effectively during the second 24-hour shift. (4) Although Koen claims the higher safety and performance risks for busy departments outweigh the benefits of 48/96, she does not offer any solutions for overcoming or preventing the negative effects of sleep deprivation. Other studies claim firefighter sleep deprivation can be successfully managed.
Robin Widmar, a driver/engineer and EMT with the Colorado Springs (CO) Fire Department, published an in-depth study on the management of firefighter sleep deprivation.9 She asserts that firefighters are not immune to the mental and physical consequences of sleep deprivation. Extended periods without sleep can significantly contribute to workplace accidents. In the firefighting and emergency medical services industries, the consequences of workplace accidents could result in death or permanent disability in many cases. In fact, case law has been established that can hold a sleep-deprived firefighter, along with the employer, legally responsible for the neglect of his or her duties. (9) This has been exemplified by studies that show 18 hours without sleep is equivalent to a .05 blood alcohol content, and 24 hours without sleep is similar to the effects of having a .10 blood alcohol content. (9) Thus, a sleep-deprived firefighter can be equally as dangerous as a person who is chemically intoxicated. Not only does sleep deprivation affect performance, but health concerns also exist for employees deprived of deep restorative sleep.
In a 1983 study by the University of Chicago, rats became sick and died after only 2.5 weeks of being denied sleep. (9) However, the same study showed that rats that were allowed to sleep after becoming ill recovered fully. (9) The fact remains that sleep deprivation is cumulative and can lead to “sleep debt.” (9, p. 46). Larger sleep debts can be managed by introducing proportional amounts of restorative sleep. (9)
Widmar argues that habitual sleep deprivation over time can lead to chronic sleep deprivation, causing hallucinations and paranoia. Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that negative health effects can result from chronic sleep deprivation. This introduces an additional problem: How do employers know when employees are sleep-deprived? Widmar reports the following:
- Self-awareness of sleep deprivation can be especially difficult to evaluate. Employees are often completely unaware of their own impairment.
- Several studies showed that employees fail to recognize they are making mistakes. This ultimately leads to “micro sleeping” or “dozing off,” which can result in death or permanent disability. (p. 46)
- Automatic Behavior Syndrome, or sleeping with one’s eyes open, is an additional negative effect of sleep deprivation. This syndrome is especially dangerous because employees will continue to perform their duties even though they are completely incapable of cognition. This was likely the cause of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident in which a tanker carrying 55 million gallons of oil struck a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska. The pilot at the controls was found to be “severely sleep-deprived and apparently asleep on his feet.” (p. 48) It was later determined that Exxon’s failure to provide a rested and sufficient crew contributed significantly to what was, at the time, the largest oil spill ever experienced in the United States.
- Human error causes 90 percent of all workplace accidents: “Inadequate sleep is a major factor in human error, at least as important as drugs, alcohol, and equipment failure.” (p.48)
- In addition, shift workers are 40 times more likely than day workers to be involved in accidents at work, on the road, and at home. Thus, employers should implement controls to evaluate and manage fatigue for employees working all shift schedule patterns.
Managing Sleep Deprivation
Widmar maintains that implementing key policies and procedures can manage the negative effects of sleep deprivation. He suggests rotating busier crews to slower units throughout the work shift. This intervention would help to balance the workload among all crew members in an effort to avoid burnout. Second, employers should limit the time an employee can be assigned to an excessively busy station to counteract the effects of long-term fatigue.
Finally, Widmar recommends that napping be encouraged for all employees with the potential to work more than 18 hours consecutively. Naps as short as 20 minutes can be effective, but two-hour naps have been found to be highly restorative for firefighting employees. (9)
Other research has found that it is entirely possible that firefighters working 48/96 schedules are, in fact, less fatigued. (2) Employees slept more on average after the implementation of a 48/96 schedule. This increase in overall sleep was found to be distributed throughout workdays and off days. However, no departmental policies were offered to recommend how much sleep is required or allowable for on-duty employees. Neither was the quality of the sleep experienced identified. (2).
Another finding in the research is that employees often will sleep less the night before their scheduled workday. The amount of sleep lost by the employee depends on the time required to travel from home to work. An employee living one hour away may have to awake at 5 a.m. to be ready for a 7 a.m. shift start time. Because there are fewer frequent transitions from workdays and off days with the 48/96 schedule, there is less opportunity for lost sleep. (2)
There also may be additional opportunities for sleep if employees are permitted to remain at rest for a specified number of hours during the morning of the following 24-hour shift.
Based on the literature reviewed, it is reasonable to conclude that it is feasible for employees to work 48 hours if fatigue is closely monitored and efforts are implemented to counteract dangerous sleep deprivation. Although Widmar claims sleep deprivation can be managed through departmental policies, it is possible that departments would make sleep available as an option instead of implementing a compulsory sleep policy. This may prove to be dangerous considering that firefighters are generally not aware of their own fatigue until it is too late. Similarly, firefighters wishing to perform above and beyond employer expectations may be less likely to take advantage of extra rest on duty. Thus, department leaders should strongly consider a compulsory sleep policy and closely monitor sleep patterns in an effort to counteract the high potential for dangerous sleep deprivation.
The literature reviewed revealed benefits and challenges of the 48/96 schedule. It is clear that firefighters were initially skeptical about working 48/96 rotations but indicated significant support for the schedule pattern after trial periods. Fire department managers can benefit from organizational cost savings in terms of reduced sick time, improved morale, and improved employee productivity while on duty.
However, the potential for sleep deprivation and fatigue over a 48-hour work period introduces additional risk to departments failing to implement preventative measures. In the absence of empirical studies to quantify the effects of sleep deprivation and fatigue among firefighters, it remains difficult to confidently determine the extent of risk assumed by firefighters working 48-hour shifts. Public safety agencies would benefit from an experimental study of fatigue and sleep deprivation among firefighters specifically. Such a study, combined with a larger independent study of 48/96 schedule implementations, would be beneficial for departments considering an organizational change of this magnitude.
1. Bryla, J., Roten, J., Edgar, R., Dominguez, B., & Schwalbe, B. (2002). 48/96 Work Schedule – Special Report to Roseville Firefighters Local 1592 (Rep.).
2. Hawkes, A. (2006). Evaluation of the 48-96 Schedule for West Metro Fire Rescue (Rep.).
3. JVA Consulting Group. (2006). West Metro Fire Rescue Focus Group Report (Rep.).
4. Koen, S. (2005). 24/48 vs. 48/96 Work Schedules: A Comparative Analysis (Rep.).
5. Travis, M. (2010). What a Difference a Day Makes, or Does It? Work/Family Balance and the Four-Day Work Week. Connecticut Law Review, 42(4), 1223-1266. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
6. Jansen, N., Kant, I., van Amelsvoort, L., Nijhuis, F., & van den Brandt, P. (2003). Need for recovery from work: Evaluating short-term effects of working hours, patterns and schedules. Ergonomics, 46(7), 664. Retrieved from Business Source Complete database.
7. Hall, R. D. (2007). The Feasibility of 48/96 Hour Shifts for the Westminster Fire Department (Rep.).
8. Johnson, M., Repetto, M., Law, B., & Valentine, T. (2006). The Forty Eight-Ninety Six Work Schedule (Rep.).
9. Widmar, R. (2003). Sleep to Survive: How to Manage Sleep Deprivation. Fire Engineering, 156(6), 45. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.). Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) Overtime – The Online Wages, Hours and Overtime Pay Resource. FLSA Homepage – The Online Wages & Hours, Overtime Pay and Unpaid Overtime Resource. Retrieved December 07, 2010, from http://www.flsa.com/overtime.html.
TODD L. POOLE, a member of the fire service since 2001, is a firefighter/paramedic with the Truro Township Fire Department in Reynoldsburg, Ohio. He has a B.S. in public safety management from Franklin University, Columbus, Ohio, and is a graduate student at Ohio University in the Executive Master of Public Administration program in the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.