Better Schedule Management for EMS and Firefighter Teams

ems and fire fighter scheduling

It’s no secret that scheduling effectively is a crucial aspect of running a tight ship in the emergency response world.  Firefighters and EMS responders put their lives on the line every day for the public they serve and such a commitment comes with long hours, long shifts, and high-stress situations.  Keeping on top of time management can be difficult even for part time or volunteer services such as rural VFDs and first responders.  But when the safety of entire communities rest in the hands of a few dedicated individuals, proper scheduling becomes a major priority.

As far back as 1969, local and national studies have sought to find the perfect balance between work and personal life (as well as downtime) for firefighters and emergency service workers.  While results have varied and different services in different regions have adopted alternative scheduling methods (24/48, 24/96, and so on), one thing remains the same: every service in every region must schedule according to its needs and resources.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

While ideally, the perfect solution would be to hire enough individuals to cover every hour of every day, an applied research project submitted to the National Fire Academy (as part of the Executive Fire Officer Program) discovered that increasing total department strength to maintain the same level of on-duty coverage increased manpower costs above what most municipalities had budgeted for, making it not fiscally possible in most cases.  That means that, unless your organization is operating with an unlimited budget, you often have to make do as best you can with the human resources you have.

It may sound like an impossible task, but there are a number of things you can do to keep your local hometown heroes functioning as smoothly as possible.

Improve Communication about Scheduling

One of the biggest difficulties concerning the scheduling of EMS workers is keeping everyone up-to-date on scheduling changes and shift swaps.  Whether your operation has two dozen full-time employees or just a handful of volunteers, reaching out individually to every single person when something changes takes a tremendous amount of time.  You have to make phone calls, take phone calls, and sometimes even visit in person—that’s a ton of wasted hours that could be put toward something productive.  Not only that, every break in the chain you have is an opportunity for misunderstanding.

Instead, find a solution that allows you to communicate to everyone across the board without relying on face-to-face discussion.  Doing so will maximize your effectiveness and prevent gaps in your communication network.

Better Time Tracking

Another issue that many emergency services face is the inability to accurately track time.  This is doubly important in the EMS arena because not only do managers have to balance hours and overtime pay against budgetary concerns, but they often have to answer to government oversight in order to assure supervisors and inspectors that everything is running as it should as well.  For instance, many departments across the country are subject to spot inspections that require them to submit documentation proving that there is at least one responder on call 24/7.

If you’re still making your schedule the old fashioned way—either with a pen and paper or a spreadsheet—these spot checks add another layer of administration to time tracking, requiring you to either create another spreadsheet or do the math by hand.  Neither is as efficient as using software that will make those calculations for you.

Easier Absence Coverage 24/7

Just like everyone else, emergency workers have lives outside their job and sometimes those lives interfere with their ability to work.  They get sick, have personal crises that need to be dealt with, or need to take time off for family events.  Unfortunately, as the work schedule maker, it is your responsibility to ensure that these absences don’t interfere with the 24/7 coverage required to safeguard public well-being.

Juggling a schedule is hard enough without any hiccups, but when emergencies arise, filling gaps in coverage can be a nightmare.  You have to work your way down a call list until you find someone willing and able to cover the shift—but then you may also need to juggle this person’s schedule in turn to ensure that the employee doesn’t go over the maximum hours allotted by law or agency guidelines.

Letting your employees take a proactive approach to filling coverage gaps is better for everyone, but necessitates a little upfront preparedness.  Coverage incentives, such as overtime pay and the ability to swap for a more desirable schedule later in the month, can be used to entice employees to volunteer when needed.

Use Web, Mobile Apps, Texts, and Social Media to Your Advantage

Firefighters and EMS workers have trained to use the most modern tools and solutions available to them in order to do their job—protecting everybody else—to the best of their abilities.  Relying on outdated technology (spreadsheets and phone trees) in order to create and maintain accurate scheduling is a step backward in time.

Instead, a full-featured solution like When I Work can keep things running smoothly by utilizing the best in new communications technology—including web browser-based interfaces, mobile applications, text message services, and social media—to help you make and maintain your schedules.  This interconnectivity brings an unprecedented level of communication to your emergency unit and allows for you host schedules virtually.

As a result, your employees can check in from home or on-the-go and see when they’re working, whether or not there’s an opportunity to pick up more hours, and if you’ve sent out coverage requests (which go out to everyone simultaneously).  As an added bonus, much of this schedule-change communication can be carried out without your direct involvement—allowing you to focus your time on more pressing managerial duties.

Scheduling Efficiency Translates into Cost Savings

Whatever improvements you make to your scheduling process, you’ll see the benefits in dollars and cents within the first week.  By cutting the number of hours involved in creating and maintaining the schedule, your department will save money off the bat.  Not only that, those previously “lost” hours can be applied to other essential activities such as training, equipment maintenance, and community outreach.  And by streamlining your employee communication network, you’ll decrease coverage disruption, resulting in better performance across the board.

Small changes really can make a big difference.


Better Schedule Management for EMS and Firefighter Teams