By George H. Potter
How many fire departments do you know that schedule one 24-hour duty tour followed by five days off, then another duty tour and 120 hours off again? The Madrid, Spain, municipal fire brigade has exactly that schedule, and the troops are in an uproar. They are demanding more personnel, new equipment, and better working conditions, including reduced working hours. So, they have painted slogans (some derogatory) on the sides of the vehicles, where bystanders can see them during emergency responses; have participated in public demonstrations; and have made declarations to the press not too subtly insinuating that city hall is a “slave driver” and similar remarks.
If the Madrid fire service switched to 24/-6 scheduling, the on-duty force would rise to 320, and if they went to a 24/72 schedule, the number of on-duty personnel would be 400. These solutions are far and away out of the question as they collide with the union philosophy that considers the 24-hour-duty shift the total work time. The unions, by the way, have been able to create the figure of “liberated” workers (in all labor areas), which means that these persons have nearly unlimited free time during their scheduled work periods, officially to devote to union matters. It is well known throughout the sector that many of these union agents work in other activities during their supposedly union time.
Meanwhile, the Barcelona municipal fire service had 1,010 firefighters and officers on the roster up until about 15 years ago. A “whiz-kid” consultant convinced the city’s management that the city could save a great deal of money by altering shift schedules, not replacing retirees, and closing several stations and relocating others. The “cost-efective” plan has indeed saved the city several millions of Euros over these years, but the staffing is now less 600 including officers, drivers, firefighters and EMS, all while protecting a municipal population of over 1.6 million inhabitants and one of the most important sea ports of Europe, working a 24-hour duty shift with four and sometimes three days off. They complain, too, but their truck sides and station walls are clean.