THE FATIGUE FACTOR

AND

48 HOUR SHIFTS

 

One of the greatest areas of concern when considering the 48/96 schedule is that of fatigue and sleep deprivation.  Many members fear that consistently working 48 hours will lead to an increase in fatigue and jeopardize firefighter safety, especially for those firefighters assigned to busy companies.  However, researching this topic has lead us to another important question.  Are 48 hour shifts safe at all?

In 2005, our Local 440 achieved a major milestone:  four man staffing across the department.  Companies became not only safer, but more efficient.  The citizens, the City of Fort Worth, and the firefighters all experienced great benefits from this accomplishment.  Prior to this time, Fort Worth Firefighters were lucky to get one or two overtime shifts per year.  Since the implementation of four man staffing, overtime has steadily increased over the years in order to meet the demands of constant staffing.

 

Are these 48 hour overtime shifts safe?

A highly debated topic in the fire service today is whether or not 48 hour shifts cause fatigue, sleep deprivation, and unsafe working conditions.  Many articles have been written and several educated and experienced members have spoken out.

Should the FWFD be allowed to work 48 hour shifts?  Is it safe?  Are we too sleep deprived and fatigued?  Should we disallow exchange-of-times and overtime shifts?  According to telestaff, we worked over 15,000 forty-eight hour shifts in 2017.  Firefighters routinely volunteer for these 48 hour shifts and even 72 hour shifts, which is allowed by SOP 1301, which states that firefighters are allowed to work a maximum of 72 hours without a break.

 

Throughout many years, we have proven to be a safe, productive, world class fire department.  While our experience reveals that we are well rested, safe, and efficient, researching the issue reveals many differing opinions on both sides. 

 

In Dr. Koen's analysis, "24/48 VS. 48/96 Work Schedules," she 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."  A recent study published by Eric Saylors, "Firefighters are not Machines; They Need Sleep," presents frightening evidence that points to sleep deprivation as the culprit for firefighters' increased susceptibility to cancer, cardiac disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  It is for these reasons that Saylors suggests that sleep deprivation could be the greatest cause of firefighter deaths.

Concerning sleep deprivation and 48 hour shifts specifically, Dr. Koen reports, that firefighters who are called out an average of one to two times a night should have no trouble working 48 shifts if allowed to nap on duty.  She states that if sufficient restorative sleep is obtained, a 48 hour shift can be worked without high risk."  Koen goes on to say that firefighters who receive three or more calls per night may be too sleep deprived to operate safely and should not consider 48 hour shifts, but she does report that "a 5-hour block of restful sleep and at least one 90-minute completion, sleep deprivation can be avoided."

 

While Koen advises busy departments to steer clear of 48 hour shifts, she offers no solutions other than 12 hour shift designs.  Other research has found that 48 hour shifts are exactly what busy fire departments need in order to battle the growing effects of sleep deprivation.  Robin Widmar, a driver/engineer with the Colorado Springs Fire Department,  published an in-depth study, "Sleep to survive:  How to Manage Sleep Deprivation," and she stresses the importance of firefighters taking advantage of opportunities to sleep both on and off duty.  She tells us that naps as short as 20 minutes are effective, and 2 hour naps are highly restorative.  She also suggests rotating busier crews with slower crews throughout the shift if needed, limiting the length of time that personnel can be assigned to busy companies, and allowing tired firefighters extra time to sleep even after shift change. 

 

Is the 48/96 schedule an alternative solution?

In "The 48/96 Work Schedule:  A Viable Alternative?" it's actually reported that firefighters are less fatigued on their 48/96 schedule.  Furthermore, an extensive sleep study performed by Dr. Allison Hawkes with the West Metro Fire Department during their 48/96 transition provides evidence which confirms this claim.  Her findings, which are published in, "The Impact of Changing Work Schedules on American Firefighters' Sleep Patterns and Well-Being," state that the switch to the 48/96 schedule led to favorable improvements in sleep, increased hours of sleep, reduction in daytime sleepiness, and an increase in feelings of refreshment. 

 

The doctors who have researched, written, and spoken out on this issue refer to two kinds of fatigue:  short-term and long-term.

Short-term fatigue

Short-term fatigue can be defined as consecutive hours without a significant amount of sleep.  Forty-eight hour shifts can undoubtedly cause short term fatigue due to the sleep deprivation caused from busy nights, but this type of fatigue is a concern with any schedule where employees are required to work extended hours.   As Saylors points out in "Firefighters are not Machines; They Need Sleep," the real danger to firefighters is the 56 hour work week, not any particular shift schedule.  He tells us that when firefighters agreed to work 56 hour work weeks, they intended to be able to receive adequate levels of sleep, but rising call volumes throughout the country continue to challenge firefighters and their health.  Saylors admits that placing firefighters on a 40 hour work week would be too expensive for cities to sustain. 

There will always be exceptionally busy shifts from time to time which will require adjustments to the daily routine.  That’s the nature of the fire service, especially in a busy metropolitan area.  Short-term fatigue becomes a serious issue when coupled with long-term fatigue.

 

Long-Term Fatigue

Long-term fatigue can be defined as the accumulation of fatigue without adequate rest periods that lasts over weeks, months, or longer.  This type of fatigue is more hazardous to employees in emergency services than short-term fatigue because the body is less able to compensate for the lack of rest than with short-term fatigue.  The danger associated with the 24/48 schedule is that it promotes long-term fatigue due to a lack of recovery time.  When we work 48 hours, we only have 24 hours to recover, and we never have a break longer than 48 hours unless we take a shift off.  

More than 200 fire departments have found the solution to long term fatigue to be the 48/96 schedule.  It's been reported by firefighters who work the 48/96, that the biggest advantage to the schedule is the reduction in long term fatigue.  In fact, according to Saylors, that's exactly why the 48 hour shift was invented.  He reports, "the 48 hour shift was an attempt to lessen the effects of long-term sleep deprivation by consistently providing a long enough break to support a reset of the sleep schedule.  This evidence supports the move from 24 hour to 48 hour shifts in busy departments." 

The 48/96 schedule decreases long-term fatigue in three ways:

​1.  Increases rest periods by 100%, from 2 days to 4 days.  Every time a firefighter leaves work, he/she has 4 days to recover.

​2.  Increases the number of “sleep-in days” (days waking up at home and not going to or from work) by 50%, increasing the number from 10 to 15 per month.

3.  Reduces the number of days/hours a firefighter spends getting ready for work and time spent commuting by 50%.  A reduction of time spent in the commute reduces both stress and fatigue.  Many firefighters are forced to wake up very early in order to get ready for work and arrive at the firehouse at the desired time.  The 48/96 reduces the number of times that the firefighter has to get up early and travel to work from 10 to 5 times per month.

Therefore, the increased recovery period provided by the 48/96 will allow firefighters more time to recover from sleep deprivation, thus eliminating long-term fatigue, which will ultimately produce safer fire ground decision making and improve our cardiovascular health, which is a major contributing factor to firefighter deaths.  According to our research, every department that has tried working 48 hour shifts has desired to stay on 48 hour shifts.