You’re working another 72-hour shift. It’s okay, you’re young. You have a girlfriend/boyfriend, but it is just the beginning of the relationship. You recently bought your first condo, but the payment is low, and your health is good. A little time passes. You are still doing those 72-hour shifts, with an occasional 96-hour now thrown in. Your significant other is now wearing a wedding ring, and your first born is asking you if he or she is going to have a brother or sister soon. The condo was traded for a three-bedroom home in suburbia USA along with the cheaper mortgage. Overtime is now more of a necessity than a luxury.
Overtime can be beneficial for both the City, the member, and their family. It allows the City to cover unexpected absences and changes in demand in staffing without having to hire more firefighters and pay additional pensions and medical benefits, while at the same time giving the member extra income at a premium rate.
However, overtime has its downsides, too. While most firefighters will happily take on as much overtime as is available (to a realistic point), there is growing scientific evidence that relying too much on overtime can lead to numerous problems not only for the members and their family but for the City as well.
It is well documented that the job of a firefighter is a very physical one. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to determine that excessive amounts of hours worked can cause a considerable amount of stress not only on one’s body but to the mind as well. Some health problems that have been linked to long working hours include:
• Duty related injuries such as lower back strains, shoulder injuries, and even hernias.
• Higher blood pressure caused by poor diet and lack of sleep.
• Increased mental health issues
• Increase in sick days
• Heavy alcohol consumption
• Higher suicide rates
Another issue of working long hours is a condition called, “Burnout.” Webster dictionary defines burnout as a state of exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration. According to a FEMA study conducted in 2017, “results clearly showed that burnout leads to diminished safety behaviors in firefighters. When firefighters are burned out, they are less likely to voice their safety concerns, use their PPE properly, and to perform their work in a routinely safe manner.”
Another area of concern that indirectly affects the fire service is divorce rates of first responders. In September of 2017, a quiz was conducted by QZ.com showing the highest and lowest divorce rates in the United States. First responders such as dispatcher, E.M.T personnel, and ambulance drivers were in the top 20 spots, with an average of 46.3 to 46.6 percent of all marriages ending in divorce. Some say that distance makes the heart grow fonder but more and more statistics are pointing to the fact that it makes it wander instead. Other studies showed that the divorce rate also increases as weekly work hours increase. If you think you have to work a lot of overtime now, just wait until your ex-spouse’s lawyer gets done with you.
Study after study has shown that firefighters that work excessive amounts of hours experience an increase in tobacco and alcohol consumption, an unhealthy weight increase among men, and an increase in depression among women. In one study conducted by an Alcohol Rehab Guide, 35 percent of firefighters reported they had missed their shift or a call due to excessive alcohol use. These issues will now directly negate the benefit of the overtime for all parties. The increase in absenteeism, increase in medical cost, and the possibility of increase in turn-over rate (not to mention the decrease in productivity of the members) all makes the notion of excessive overtime a poor business practice for the City and its members.
The fire service is a dangerous profession, and the long hours only add to the danger. It is well documented that excessive work hours increase safety risk by impairing performance, lowering attention to details, and increasing mental errors, and accident rates. These additional safety problems are likely due to worker fatigue, which could be from a single long day or from the cumulative effect of multiple days of long hours. Not only do long hours increase our chances of being hurt on duty, but a German study showed that long hours contribute to driver fatigue, and escalate the chance for an accident not only on-duty, but on the way home from work.
Customer service and patient care also suffers. We have all seen the member who has been at the station for a few days and the effects the lack of sleep can have on his/her bedside manner. Nothing is more embarrassing and inexcusable than being put in the position of having to apologize to a patient or their family for your partner’s poor behavior.
Due to the abundance of overtime, the days of having a “C” shift job have all but disappeared for LAFD members. Not only has this hurt the department by limiting the talents learned by the experience gained by working other types of job, such as construction, electrical, and plumbing related careers, it means that overtime seems to be the sole means for most to earn a little extra money. Lack of hiring, Covid related issues, and excessive promotions are diminishing the lower ranks. The practice of assign hires is the norm now, leading to disgruntled members and causing some ranks to be highly suspectable to excessive hours of work. Something has to change.
Used responsibly, overtime can be a positive for all entities concerned; however, both the member and the City must be on guard against its use to ensure it remains a viable and beneficial option for years to come. So, the next time you are on the computer preparing to sign up for an overtime day, think long and hard about whether or not that extra money is worth the potential risk to your health and family life. As American author and columnist Dave Barry once said, “You should not confuse your career with your life,” just as you shouldn’t confuse money with happiness.
SOURCE: FEMA, QZ.Com, Alcohol Rehab Guide.
By John Hicks