PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – When Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza announced his plan to require firefighters to work an average of 56 hours per week, he said the routine was common in other parts of the country, most notably on the West Coast, but also in North Kingstown and Tiverton.
But the schedule that actually gets the city’s firefighters to 56 hours a week is so rare that neither the city nor the union can name a single fire department in the country that operates under a similar model.
Here’s how it works: Under the city’s old four-platoon structure, firefighters worked two 10-hour days followed by two 14-hour nights before having four days off, a schedule that worked out to an average of 42 hours a week over the course of a month. The new three-platoon structure is similar, except firefighters have two days off instead of four. That brings them to an average of 56 hours.
“The 10-10-14-14 schedule was maintained under the restructuring because it allowed for the transition to a three-platoon system with the least amount of adjustment to the current schedule,” Evan England, a spokesman for Elorza, told WPRI.com. “The city has offered to go to a 24-hour or other alternate schedule in negotiations and remains open to the possibility.”
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England acknowledged that city officials were not aware of any other fire departments that operate using the schedule Providence has implemented, but said the 56-hour work week is something many other cities already use.
In Grand Rapids, Michigan, for example, firefighters work 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 96 hours off. Los Angeles follows a similar schedule. Other cities follow a schedule that has firefighters work 24 hours on, 48 hours off or 48 hours on, 96 hours off.
Last year, Boston firefighters moved to working 24 hours on, 24 hours off, 24 hours on, 96 hours off. They previously used a schedule similar to Providence, except they had four days off. Both schedules work out to an average of 42 hours per week.
In North Kingstown, firefighters work a 24 hours on, 48 hours off schedule. Tiverton firefighters work 48 hours on, 96 hours off. Both departments require firefighters to work an average of 56 hours a week.
Providence’s schedule, implemented earlier this month as part of Elorza’s plan to reduce callback overtime in the city, has brought a wave of complaints from firefighters and their families, but now the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) is raising a red flag over Providence’s unique structure.
“We’ve seen a lot of these patterns, but we have not seen this before,” Dr. Lori Moore-Merrell, the assistant to the general president of the union, told WPRI.com.
Moore-Merrell said she is concerned about the recovery time of firefighters in Providence’s current schedule, particularly if they are required to pick up any additional shifts in a given week. She said the city should consider the long-term health of the firefighters.
“I certainly don’t want someone who is worse off than me [helping] me,” she said.
City officials have dismissed criticism over the 56-hour work week, noting that most firefighters were already working more than 42 hours a week and receiving time-and-a-half for callback pay. Providence has spent an average of $9 million annually on callback since 2009.
By moving from four platoons to three, Elorza has said the city will have more breathing room to ensure that it has the contractually-required 94 firefighters on duty at all times before it needs to callback members of other platoons and pay them overtime for the extra hours. The firefighters’ union has said Providence could accomplish the same goal by hiring more firefighters.
As for Providence’s work schedule, union president Paul Doughty said he believes the city purposely implemented the routine to “inflict the greatest inconvenience on us in an effort to make us capitulate.”
The city and the union are currently in mediation over how much to compensate firefighters for going from working 42 hours per week to 56 hours. As part of the changes, Elorza gave the workers an 8% pay increase for the 33% increase to the work week.