Could a fire service shift schedule work for police?
A chief in Washington State thinks so and is encouraging his cops to sleep on the job
Law enforcement officers kid their fellow first responders in the fire service over the firefighters’ ability to sleep at the firehouse while they’re on the clock. A small police agency in Washington state is scheduling its officers on a similar model and getting great results.
The City of Kittitas (KITT-i-tass) lies in central Washington. The city is surrounded by farmland, has about 1,500 people, and is seven miles east of Ellensburg, home to Central Washington University. The police department has four sworn officers, including the chief, Aaron Nelson.
Nelson came onto the chief’s job suddenly, about a year ago. “My chief retired unexpectedly, and I was left trying to figure out how I can possibly provide 24-hour coverage with four cops, myself included, and still somehow train and account for vacations, with an overtime budget of $3,000 for the whole year. It just didn't seem possible.”
Fire service-type schedule
When the town’s fire department merged with a regional fire authority, it left vacant a newly remodeled firehouse, attached to city hall and across the hallway from the police station. Chief Nelson got the idea to put the city’s police officers on a fire service-type schedule. “Initially, we tried a 24/48, 24 hours on duty, 48 hours off duty. That worked really well but just didn't give the officers enough time to reset. A two-day weekend was just really not conducive to good mental health and wellness for our officers.”
The chief then tried a 48/96 schedule, two 24-hour days on duty, followed by four days off.
“The intention of this was just to somehow manage to fill our coverage,“ said Nelson. “What it ended up being was a huge boost to officer wellness and a huge boost to how the officers interact with people. I've lost count of how many compliments we've gotten from citizens on how well they're treated and how happy the officers seem to be. And just in my daily interactions with the officers who are working the schedule, their morale is through the roof.”
Extra facilities, control over schedule
The repurposed fire station offered facilities the officers didn’t have before.
“We have a full bunk room, a full kitchen, a living room and a laundry center,” said Nelson. ”Officers are able to park the cars inside a heated garage and have them plugged in. We retrofitted the cars so they’re plugged into a 110-volt outlet, so the computer and hotspot stay powered up. You're ready to work on a moment’s notice.”
Initially, officers were required to spend a minimum number of hours patrolling, splitting the time between day and night. That gave way to a more flexible arrangement, where each officer decided when they were going to patrol and for how long.
“The less we manage them, the more proactive they are, the better they do about managing their own time and making sure they're present,” said Nelson. ”I came from the private sector. I had my own company for 10 years before I became a cop. One of the things I learned as a leader is if you give somebody something good, they will go out of their way not to ruin it. By allowing the officers to budget their time as they saw fit, they made more traffic stops, more social contacts and patrolled more in the hours after midnight. They saw to it that the school zone was monitored every day when students were going to and from class.”
Sergeant Alan Parker echoed how the flexible schedule made him more productive: “When we had a set schedule of when you should be sleeping, it kind of restricted what we could do. If I have to be up at a certain time, then that means I'm going to go to bed at a certain time. Now that we've transitioned, we just basically take naps throughout that 48 hours. We're getting consistently more proactive police work out of each officer for each 24-hour cycle.”
Schedule Logistics, compensation
Compensation hasn’t been as much of an issue as one might expect. Officers are paid for 18 out of every 24 hours on duty. The remaining six hours are considered to be “on call.” If they are called out during that time, they are paid overtime, with a two-hour minimum. Officers wind up working nine to ten 24-hour shifts over a calendar month.
With regard to ensuring adequate coverage for high-risk calls, Kittitas PD has the same issues any small agency experiences. Chief Nelson works a more conventional schedule, so there is usually only one officer on duty at any one time. The chief makes himself available to cover when needed during his duty hours and when off duty. The county sheriff’s office can also respond to back up city officers. The chief is trying to get another two officers hired so that there would be two cops on duty most hours.
Although Kittitas PD is clearly a small agency, Chief Nelson believes that the 48/96 schedule would work even better in a larger department. “A city with a 30,000 to 40,000 population has, probably, 30 cops. They're used to having two to four cops per shift. With the 48/96 plan, you have 10. So if somebody goes to training, no big deal. If somebody goes on sick leave, no big deal. You have plenty of people.” If an officer takes a week off for vacation or training, the PD doesn’t have to backfill four or five duty shifts. They need to cover only one 48-hour tour if they even need to cover the shifts at all.
Word is spreading fast on the effectiveness of the 48/96 schedule. Nelson is meeting with a nearby agency that is considering the adoption of this schedule and is flying out soon to meet with management at another 50-officer department that is interested.
This innovative schedule clearly offers a benefit to the citizens of Kittitas, but Chief Nelson feels just as strongly about its benefit for the cops who work it. “It solves health and wellness issue problems. It creates longevity in the career. I mean, at eight years, I was ready to go, burnt out. I spent my whole career on the night shift, mostly working weekends, never saw my family, missed my kids growing up. Does that sound familiar? Like every other cop in the world. And that's why you get people who punch out of this career after seven or eight years because it dominates your life. With this schedule, it no longer dominates your life. You can have a life outside of law enforcement.”
Police1 readers respond
- I agree something definitely needs to be done concerning officer deployment. However, and this will give fuel to the fire of the argument of parity in pay for firefighters and police officers, the two jobs are VASTLY different. Firefighters do not patrol their coverage area to deter fire, detect fire, or prevent fire. Police have to patrol to be a visible deterrent for crimes of opportunity (DUI enforcement and a lot of vandalism and related crimes diminish with active patrolling, an experiment I tried back in 1994) and, to detect unreported crime. That can't be done when the shift is in their sleep period. When a crime-in-progress occurs, isn't it better to have a chance that a responding unit is close vs. in a building, sound asleep and partly out of uniform?
- I will have been a police officer for 21 years come this September. I have worked for a municipality that had about 80 officers and now work for a university that has about 45 officers. I see where that would be useful in both environments. I would really like to see this tried in university environments. I could really see it being very beneficial for both the university and the officers.
- This schedule reminds me of when I had to pull "reserve guard force" protection for a NATO site while stationed in Germany as an artilleryman. We had to remain on duty for five days and during that time we would be called out for a simulated threat. I can say that we hated that duty and were more tired and worn-out than if we worked our normal working schedule but were on-call for only 24 hours. I equate this type of schedule as needing a vacation to recover from your vacation. Also, if you have a workout regimen this type of schedule makes it almost impossible to improve your body's strength, stamina and endurance. Having advanced training and education in continuous operations (CONOPS) and having knowledge of other health issues that could result from this type of schedule I would never recommend or support this schedule. Remember, the duties and requirements of law enforcement are a different animal than the fire department.
- I have a four officer 24-hour agency in Illinois, so this is interesting. I currently use 12-hour shifts: 2 on/2 off, 3 on/2 off, 2 on/3 off. Every other weekend is a 3-day weekend. My officers love it. The 48/96 is something to consider. I am also a town of about 1,500 and I am the chief so sometimes I have to cover whatever shift is open. I also have some part-time officers but officer recruiting is very tough. If I get an opening it is almost impossible to get people. I don't pay much and every other agency pays a lot more. My budget is very small as well so anywhere I can save I will try.
I suggested this about 30 years ago for our department of 80 sworn with 9 civilian employees. At that time, I must have looked like I had five eyeballs and horns on my head because those were the looks I received. I still believe this would be conducive for small and middle-sized departments. With our staffing levels, at the line, we could have provided at least two officers working the road constantly with variable hours assigned for waking and sleeping, and with overlaps. At the time we had numerous officers who requested to work all three of our current shifts on a permanent basis. This meant that due to variable wants, needs, etc., we could maintain hours that would allow for a positive work environment based on the officers' natural sleep/wake cycles, etc. I still believe this type of shift will work, from both the enhancement of the officers/personnel well-being and from a budgetary perspective. Hopefully, more departments will take a better look at this type of work environment.
I think most officers would feel guilty sleeping on the job, knowing in-progress crimes were occurring as they slept. Secondly, being dispatched to a priority call from sleeping would likely cause one to be more mentally dull and situational awareness may suffer. We had to do something like this when literally half of the department was out on admin leave due to an OIS; I hated it and felt more fatigued than pulling a long 12-hour shift.
- This may work for this tiny sleepy town, not exactly a hotbed of crime, but not in a large city. Response time from the station anywhere in town is probably three minutes or less. Citizens want to see cops where the crime is.
- I think it would be a great schedule for my agency. Even with dispatchers. We have a perfect building that we patrol that would work perfectly for this kind of schedule. It’s all about how you present it to the board and showing them the statistics in numbers of the benefits that this schedule would provide.
- It sounds great, but for larger departments, where would officers park and snooze? No empty buildings or garages and for the city to put up buildings, would not fly with taxpayers. I’m retired and we worked 16 hours on/8 hours off, then 16 hours on/4 days off. It’s worth a try for larger departments.
It's about time police departments try something new. I worked 34 years in law enforcement and too often we were told "this is the way we always do it." It may not work for all departments, however, it might be the best choice for some. Recruitment for police is at an all-time low. Managing the resources you have may take innovation.