Published on January 12, 2011
Firefighter Scott McLachlan of the Charlemagne fire station in Orléans is one of 900 firefighters in Ottawa who have started working 24-hour shifts. (Photo by Tricia Van der Grient)
Published on January 12, 2011
Firefighters from the Charlemagne fire station in Orléans. Top left: Guy Beaudoin, Steven Werhar, Chuck Giroux, Scott Boyce and Capt. Glen McNeil. Bottom left: Stéphane Laroque and Scott McLachlan. (Photo by Tricia Van der Grient)
Ottawa's 900 firefighters began working 24-shifts this week, following a union vote and city approval last year.
Firefighters used to work 14-hour days. Under the new three-year pilot project, they will be working fewer days each month, with longer shifts.
Peter Kennedy, president of the Ottawa Professional Firefighter's Association, says the change should improve quality of life, but for some may require a period of adjustment and lifestyle changes.
"We are still working about 42 hours a week on average, but now we will never work two days in a row. The days off in between allow for rest and recovery time."
Kennedy says from a health and safety perspective it's "a healthier option, as far as shift work goes."
He says the reduced number of shift changes will allow for better training and less interruptions.
On the downside, Kennedy says there will be "a definite period of adjustment" for firefighters who aren't used to the long shifts.
"More from a lifestyle point of view, change is difficult. This affects not only our working life but daily life as well. (…) For families and single parents it will require some changes."
Another challenge presented with a 24-hour work shift can be the threat of disengagement – coming into work less often can mean detachment from the job.
"But that can actually be a good thing in this profession," explains Kennedy. "We are exposed to a lot of mental trauma. If you have something affecting you, you get a bit of downtime to get your head back in the game."
The schedule has been implemented in Toronto, one of many cities using the format because it's said to reduce fatigue. The 24-hour shifts, seven or eight times a month, are the most prevalent format in North America.
Kennedy says that while he sees some firefighters looking at their watches around the 4:30 a.m. mark, "time flies because they are keeping busy."
The trial schedule will last for three years, when the association will weigh the pros and cons and decide whether to keep the 24-shifts in place.
Marc Messier of the Ottawa Fires Services says it's too early to say whether firefighters are adjusting to the new schedule.
Rural areas less affected
Rural fire departments are not affected by the shift change since they are run by volunteers.
Kennedy explains that suburban stations provide support rurally, and firefighters move from station to station as needed. Having an interchangeable schedule allows for ease in covering off. "There's no doubt it can be a very strenuous and stressful job. The combination can be fatal."
He says the busiest station in Orléans is at Charlemagne Blvd. "Any time we get anything on (highways) 417 or 174 that station responds. We get a lot of vehicle accidents and such in that area."