Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Shifting arguments

Laura King   

Features Hot Topics Labour Relations

The 24-hour shift. Just four words, but an issue that has created a firestorm in some of Canada’s largest fire departments, as firefighters look for better work-life balance and managers weigh operational realities and public safety.

The 24-hour shift. Just four words, but an issue that has created a firestorm in some of Canada’s largest fire departments, as firefighters look for better work-life balance and managers weigh operational realities and public safety.

The issue is expected to come to a head in Kingston, Ont., in the next few months. If veteran arbitrator Kevin Burkett opts to set a precedent and entrench the 24-hour shift in a collective agreement with Local 498 of the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association (OPFFA), the shift is likely to gain even more momentum among Canadian firefighters.

Many fire chiefs in Ontario and across Canada are trying to get their heads around the implications of such a ruling. The 24-hour shift is hardly new. It has existed for decades in the United States and departments in Woodstock and Windsor, Ont., have used the shift for years, as has St. John’s, N.L. Ottawa Fire Services adopted the 24-hour shift on Jan. 1. The union in Waterloo, Ont., has proposed a 24-hour shift and firefighters in Winnipeg, Calgary and elsewhere are talking about it.

In 2010, the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario started a three-year trial of the 24-hour shift; trials or pilots are the norm and are the preferred structure among human resources managers for the introduction of the 24-hour shift so the department has an out if things go awry and can return firefighters to 10-14s.


So far, the 24-hour shift is most prevalent in Ontario. Toronto, London, Richmond Hill, Peterborough, Belleville, Barrie, Oakville and Mississauga have adopted the shift in the last several years. Many departments work the so-called Toronto model of Monday/Thursday, Friday/Sunday, Wednesday/Saturday, Tuesday; others work a modified shift that does not include the onerous Friday/Sunday combination.

As firefighters in other regions hear from their colleagues in Ontario about the benefits of the 24-hour shift – fewer nights away from home, a reduction in child-care costs, availability for sports, hobbies or second jobs, and, overall, better rest than on the 10-14s – and ask their unions to pitch the shift to management, fire chiefs across the country are looking for guidance from Ontario about how to negotiate issues such as training days, overtime and shift schedules. And firefighter associations are watching the OPFFA and learning from its experience negotiating the 24-hour shift.

For the record, the OPFFA says it does not endorse a particular shift pattern – 10-14s or 24s, for example – and simply wants it members to enjoy a work week that’s similar in length to other municipal employees.

“I think what’s important to note is that the Ontario Professional Fire Fighters Association’s policy on hours of work is simply that firefighters should not work more than 42 hours a week on average and the OPFFA has not taken an official position on the 24-hour shift cycle or any of the other shift cycles that our members are engaged in across the province,” OPFFA president Fred LeBlanc said in an interview.
“But . . . memberships have mandated their leaderships to either look at the benefits of a 24-hour shift or try to secure one through local negotiations. The desire from the membership has been pretty consistent. They’re looking for a healthier work cycle and looking for better balance between their personal and professional lives.”

In late February, the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) ran a day-long seminar on the 24-hour shift for mid-sized departments that included presentations from chiefs of several departments that use the 24-hour shift. Chiefs spoke bluntly about challenges with training and schedules. Some chiefs said they have difficulty bringing firefighters in on overtime because members live so far away from their departments – they can because they commute only seven times a month – that they can’t get to work quickly enough to do emergency overtime. Some departments find the 24-hour shift onerous and frustrating to manage; others – primarily those that negotiated the shift with their unions rather than having had it pushed on them by municipal councils – said the shift has boosted morale among firefighters and allows members to more quickly and thoroughly complete training modules. Human resources managers and lawyers with experience negotiating letters of understanding for the 24-hour shift shared some insight about how best to prepare for negotiations on the 24-hour shift (see sidebar) and urged chiefs to do their homework on potential health and safety implications of the 24-hour shift before heading to the bargaining table.

The OAFC produced a draft document for the seminar called The Health and Safety Impacts of 24-Hour Shifts in Fire Departments. The final version of the report is available on the OAFC website at and outlines the risk associated with any kind of extended shift work, including 10-14s, such as increased susceptibility to heart disease, cancers, sleep disorders, diabetes and gastrointestinal disorders.

The OAFC says it reviewed more than 60 published research studies that focused on the health and safety impacts of extended shifts on employees. The studies found that the rate of accidents and injuries increase with hours on the job.

“After 16 hours on the job, fatigue has a major impact,” the report says. “If work tasks require alertness, sleeping on the job may present a safety risk due to sleep inertia or ‘grogginess’ upon waking.”

In other words, going from a sound sleep to the driver’s seat of a $500,000 apparatus may not be wise because the human brain takes about 20 minutes to come on line after being woken from a deep sleep.

The counter argument to that science, says LeBlanc, might be the adrenalin rush that inevitably follows an alarm and, seemingly, eliminates that grogginess.

“I know that when [scientists] have measured heart rates they talk about how we go from zero to a very high heart rate just with the ringing of the bells and then getting down to the vehicles, and it certainly depends on the type of call – if it talks about smoke showing, flames showing, people reported trapped – that just takes it to another level. So snapping out of a sleep or dealing with sleep depravation when an adrenalin kick happens – I don’t know if that’s been studied anywhere but I’m sure that has some mitigating effect.”

Indeed, researchers have tried to measure the impact of the adrenalin rush but according to Ian Crosby, health and wellness co-ordinator for the Calgary Fire Department, scientists have been unable to determine the impact of such a reaction because it’s impossible to replicate in a controlled setting the sustained rush of 25 minutes or longer that first responders often experience.

“I guess the safest thing is to put us on eight-hour shifts and nobody goes to sleep ever,” LeBlanc says, “but that’s just so cost prohibitive and not viable and it’s obviously something that our members wouldn’t want and I don’t think fire chiefs would want either.”

Chiefs at the OAFC seminar agreed that eight-hour shifts would be ideal but are not feasible. “They’re the safest but it’s going to cost money,” noted one chief of a department that runs a 24-hour shift that management supports.

Sleep expert Dr. Stephen Lockley, who spoke at the OAFC seminar, said it’s strange that firefighters choose to work 24-hour shifts when there may be alternatives with fewer health and safety risks. Lockley and his colleagues at Harvard Medical School are beginning research on the impact of the 24-hour shift on firefighters in the United States.

 The OAFC report says that extended work hours that include night shifts are particularly risky.

“There may be problems with the 10-14 shift pattern but 24 hour shifts may not be the solution,” the report says.

The research studies cited by the OAFC show that lack of sleep results in lower levels of performance and noted that sleep deprivation can be a result of lack of hours of sleep or a lack of quality, uninterrupted sleep.

The OAFC notes that the issue of sleep deprivation goes beyond the fire hall and into the personal lives of firefighters and how well rested they are when they show up for work at 7 a.m. for a 10-hour day shift or a 24-hour shift, or at 5 p.m. for a 14-hour night shift.

“It needs to be restated,” the report says, “that sleep deprivation can just as easily be the result of off-duty activities as it can be from on-duty activities. Focusing solely on shift schedules and work hours ignores the fact that lifestyle changes, both off the job and on the job, may be required to manage health and safety.”

One deputy chief at the OAFC seminar put it more bluntly.

“On the 10-14 shift, we had little control over what an employee did before he came to work – he could sleep or not – but we all know many firefighters were working two jobs then too. So nothing really has changed.

“The difference that I see with the 24-hour shift is that we the employer are now in control of their lifestyles for 24 hours, so if we as the employer now know that there are things we could do so make things better for them, we need to take notice.”

The OAFC also points out that in the United States, which has a long tradition of working 24-hour shifts, there are calls to change to shorter shifts for health and safety reasons.

The report says that fire departments working 24 hour shifts have found it challenging to manage fatigue when:

  • Call volumes are high, so that the firefighters are not able to get uninterrupted sleep;
  • The fire department does not have a sufficient number of firefighters on duty to manage short-term fatigue by rotating crews off during a long fire incident;
  • The fire department does not have a sufficient number of firefighters on duty to manage short-term fatigue by providing a guaranteed sleep time while on duty.

So, with little scientific evidence to help managers and firefighter associations determine the health pros and cons of the 24-hour shift as opposed to abstract factors, such as quality of life and morale, the OAFC report recommends that fire departments should not commit to 24-hour shifts until more research has been done.

LeBlanc says his members simply want a work week that suits their professional and personal lives.

LeBlanc, a Kingston, Ont., firefighter who worked a 10-14 shift for 20 years before switching to the 24-hour shift six years ago (Kingston is in its second 24-hour shift trial), says implementation of new equipment and practices is more efficient on a 24-hour shift. He says he believes the 24-hour shift in his department has resulted in better crew cohesion and better teamwork.

In its report, the OAFC notes that under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, fire chiefs must take every precaution to protect their employees. It argues that knowing the risks associated with long shifts and, in particular, night shifts, may provide validation for re-evaluating traditional fire-department shifts. Lockley, the sleep expert, told the OAFC’s labour relations seminar in January that switching to 14-hour day shifts and 10 hour night shifts might make sense for firefighters because the body is programmed to be awake during the day and starts to shut down at night.

The OAFC also notes that night-time call volume is likely to continue to grow as society evolves to meet demands 24/7. Call volume in Ontario has increased by 38 per cent in the last 10 years while the population of Ontario has grown by 13 per cent.

“Increasing the total number of calls in a 24 hour period and increasing the volume of calls at night, means that firefighter fatigue will become a greater concern and extended shifts will pose a greater health and safety risk,” the report says.

LeBlanc notes that much of the research on sleep patterns involves consecutive night shifts, which is a concern for firefighters who work four, 14-hour night shifts in a row, whereas 24-hour shifts are separated by a minimum of one day off.

“I think what the goal should be is to find a shift system that helps mitigate the effects of shift work, period, because we’re here all day every day and we need to find a shift that works,” LeBlanc said.

LeBlanc said he was disappointed that the OAFC’s report did not reference a report by U.S. sleep researcher Dr. Linda Glazner, who surveyed Toronto firefighters about the 24-hour shift.

“The results from her study were that there were benefits from moving to a 24-hour shift cycle in comparison to the 10 and 14 that they were working previously,” LeBlanc said, “and that it was allowing firefighters to recover quicker and get back to their proper circadian rhythm, which does help mitigate these effects from the shift work itself.”

The OAFC report did reference Glazner’s work, and the OAFC found research studies that agreed that the 10-14 hour shift pattern results in fatigue on the night shift, eating disorders and increased injuries. The OAFC says other reviewers of Glazner’s Toronto report said they found that the study on 24-hour shifts was inconclusive. The OAFC says it could find no other research study that supported Glazner’s conclusion that the 24-hour shift is better than other shift patterns.

The OAFC and the OPFFA agree that there’s not enough research on the 24-hour shift to make sound decisions. Indeed, both say that finding a shift that promotes better firefighter health and safety is paramount.

“I think there needs to be a wholesale approach to the health and safety of firefighters,” LeBlanc says. “We believe finding the right shift cycle to mitigate some of these effects, along with a wellness/fitness initiative, will go a long way and we ask the Ontario fire chiefs to join us in that advocacy.”

Tips for departments negotiating a 24-hour shift

  1. Mandatory wellness and physical exams – In some departments with 24-hour shifts firefighters are required to bring in notes from their doctors verifying that they have completed physical exams. Chiefs say this is crucial to the collective agreement to ensure firefighters remain up to the 24-hour shift.
  2. Sit down with the local firefighters association and talk honestly about the shift and any operational concerns to see what can be negotiated. Ask the association to be honest about why it wants management to consider a 24-hour shift.
  3. Choose a model that works for your department. Many departments are trying to get away from the Friday-Sunday shift model and ensure that firefighters have three days off between shifts.
  4. Do not include provisions to make the 24-hour shift permanent; include a proviso to return to the 10-14 shift or to extend the 24-hour trial and make any necessary modifications that are agreed to by both parties
  5. Specify the length of sick or lieu days. In many departments with 24-hour shifts sick time is recorded by the hour but there is a caveat that if a firefighter can’t come to work at 7 a.m. to start a 24-hour shift then he must take the entire 24-hour shift as a sick day. In most collective agreements, a bereavement day is 12 hours.
  6. Negotiate a station schedule that must be completed. Include the length of lunch and dinner breaks.
  7. Negotiate a move to day shifts for training time.
  8. Include very specific metrics for measuring the effectiveness of the 24-hour shift. Many proponents of the 24-hour shift say it saves money on overtime and sick time so be sure that those issues are part of the metrics. Set actual targets – for example, a 25 per cent reduction in Absenteeism rather than a generic reduction.
  9. Test or use management rights – if you have the ability to move people around to days for training, do so.
  10. Think about the operational needs for coverage and after-hours meetings. Don’t put yourself into a situation in which you can’t do things because of the wording in the collective agreement or letter of understanding. Some agreements stipulated the number of hours a member could work after a 24-hour shift; this created issues with early-morning meetings as platoon chiefs were unable to stay after a 24-hour shift for 8 a.m. or 9 a.m. meetings with superiors. Be specific- specify that members can work only a certain number of hours on suppression activities but can stay longer for training and operations issues.
  11. Manage the 24-hour shift like any other shifts.

Print this page


Stories continue below


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.