By TAYLOR MURCHISON-GALLAGHER
Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu, via a Memorandum of Understanding, announced that the Bristol Fire Department would be adjusting their schedules.
The news was delivered in the March 14, Council meeting.
“Currently, they work three days on, they have three days off, they work three nights on, and then they have three days off,” explained Zoppo-Sassu. “It has been increasingly popular over the last, probably, 10 or 15 years that departments are migrating to what’s called a ‘24/72,’ where they work the same amount of hours per week, but they stack those shifts for a 24-hour period, and then they are off for three, or 72 hours, and then they come back to work another full 24-hour period.”
Since the meeting, some citizens have voiced their concerns about the change, whether they feel the schedule will have negative impacts on the health and wellbeing of the firefighters, or they felt the change should have been made public, before the council met.
One such concern came during the March 14 meeting from Councilor Dave Mills.
“I have nothing to say about the contract, and I realize that it’s your [the mayor’s] responsibility to negotiate the contract, I am just a little concerned as a council person, that the information we got was tonight,” said Mills. “This is my fourth term as a council person, and every time that a contract issue of this importance came up, we had the courtesy to go into executive session to discuss the contract, to give our input, to give our points of information to you and to each other, just to discuss it. And, it bothers me a little bit that this is the only time that we’re getting this tonight… I’m a little bit dismayed and I wish we had the opportunity to discuss this because it is a hot topic…”
The mayor said this wasn’t a contract change, but a Memorandum of Understanding, “an agreement between two or more parties”, which “expresses a convergence of will between parties, indicating an intended common line of action. Often used in cases where parties either do not imply a legal commitment or in situations where parties cannot create a legally enforceable agreement.”
Andrew Howe of Bristol citizen and E-Board member of the Planning Commission also voiced concerns regarding the use of an MoU.
“I come from a family of cops, a few EMTs – a 24 hour schedule did not sound particularly safe to me,” said Howe. “So, we asked for research. The only research that they could give us was that local surrounding [fire] chiefs said “No way, it’s not a great idea, there’s no health benefits, there’s no cost benefits, it’s purely just an administrational.”
Howe found only “about three or four studies,” and to him, it didn’t “seem like anybody” had done research “from the health end.”
“One of them, the most major one that they were pushing on me was in Canada, claiming that they were the only house that had an issue with the schedule,” said Howe. “So, the more we dove in, we saw that it was limited, but it went to a sleep study, which is where we come up with – I mean, after 24 hours, you’re beyond drunk, you’re double the legal limit to drive, never mind to save a life.”
Howe said he found information from Colorado that implied there was a death caused by the 24 hour schedule.
“In Colorado, there was actually a death because of this schedule, because he made a wrong choice, he was foggy, admittedly from the fire department that he was exhausted, and we started digging into sleep studies, putting it together with the departments.”
Bristol Fire Chief, Jay Kolakoski, and President of the Fire Union Local 773, Sean Lennon, to were contacted for perspectives regarding the change, and reactions the change garnered.
Kolakoski said this 24-hour base schedule is common in the fire service, “especially in the United States.”
“Previously, we were on the 10 and 14 hour schedule, so we work three day shifts on, which were 10-hour day shifts, followed by three full days off, followed by three 14-hour night shifts, followed by three full days off, and then it would start all over again with the three 10-hour day shifts,” said Kolakoski.
Kolakoski said the change from the 10s and 14s schedule was mostly driven by the union.
“I personally didn’t decide to change, it was something that the union head had wanted to do for some time now, and they approached the mayor once she was elected, brought their ideas and thoughts to her, and she thought they were reasonable, and they entered into discussions or negotiations, in order to change the schedule,” he said. “The actual number of shifts that they work is identical, the number of hours is identical, the number of day shifts that they work is identical, the number of night shifts that they work is identical.”
There are some changes that the schedule will bring, such as relief, “you’ll have half as many reliefs during the course of a year, exactly half as many reliefs, just because you’re working back-to-back day night, so you don’t run into situations for relieving on scene and stuff like that,” said the chief.
“The biggest benefit, that I saw in my research – and to tell you the truth, there’s not a ton of research out there on 24-hour schedules for the fire service, there’s some, most of it is Canadian – but the biggest benefit of a 24-hour schedule is trying to limit the interruption to the circadian rhythm, you know, the sleep-cycle rhythm,” said Kolakoski. “In other words, if you’re doing three night shifts in a row and then you’re off for three and then you do three day shifts, then off for three and then you do three night shifts, that is more disruptive than doing the single night shift, getting three off, doing the single night shift, its almost like, I don’t want to say the lesser of two evils, but it’s less potential to disrupt that sleep cycle. And, interruption of a normal sleep cycle, as I said, has many physical and psychological repercussions as well.”
Lennon said the change effects how the shifts are put together, and that it will benefit the health and safety of the firefighters.
“I actually don’t think a lot of people have had a negative reaction,” said Lennon. “Most are thrilled that members will realize a better quality of life, and recognize a better working environment. Only a small amount of people have felt the need to reach out to the press, those folks felt the need for whatever reason, and I respect their opinion.”
Lennon said this change is an example of an “open door” and a “transparent mayor, willing to listen to ideas.”
“When workers and the city can come together, it can be a win for both,” said Lennon. “It’s the direct result of an open door policy, with the Mayor willing to collaborate and create a safe and healthy environment.”
The change in the schedule officially began on Sunday, April 29, chosen because it was the date with a seamless transition without any additional cost to the city.