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Surge Capacity: Is It Possible during the Summer Months?

Surge Capacity: Is It Possible during the Summer Months?

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By Randall Hanifen
Contributor, EDM Digest

Many public safety and health care facilities need 24/7 shift coverage. In addition, these facilities must have the ability to recall personnel for surge capacity, whether for a mass casualty incident (MCI) or other disaster.

However, is surge capacity possible in the summer months? How can we know for certain?

24/7 Operations and the Need for Constant Staffing

Many public safety organizations and healthcare facilities that provide 24/7 service have a minimum number of personnel on shift to act as service providers. These organization are fire, emergency medical services (EMS) and hospital emergency departments.

Because of the need for round-the-clock service, organizations hire a specified number of people per shift. With the business acumen that drives many hiring and staffing decisions, the number of employees at a facility is often a bare minimum. With the high benefit costs in today’s work environment, hiring employees who can work overtime to fill a portion of the shifts is cheaper than hiring additional full-time workers.

Minimally-staffed departments are often strained during the high vacation season, which is in the summer months. Because of the "overtime in lieu of hiring more help" plan, many employees work a maximum number of hours when they are not on vacation, thus preventing those workers to be available for recall.

In the traditional 24/48 schedule system of the fire department, for instance, employees often work 48 and 60 hours straight in order to cover vacation vacancies. This means that for one to one and a half of their off-duty shifts, they are not available for recall if the need arises.

While it's possible to say that those employees are still available for the second off-day shift if they only work 48 hours, anyone who has worked at a moderately busy station for 48 hours knows that the human body needs around six to eight hours to recover from sleep deprivation. As a result, the employee has zero to half a shift to be available for recall.

This situation is no different for police organizations. For example, many law enforcement organizations have moved to 12-hour shifts in an effort to reduce their personnel and provide more work-life balance to current employees.

Healthcare workers are possibly the most strained employees of all service organizations. Many workers do not get much downtime during their shift, unlike police and fire departments sometimes do.

Availability of Personnel

It is also useful to look beyond just the vacation code in the staffing software to understand the actual availability of personnel. From the fire service perspective, due to longer shifts, federal work rules indicate that there must be extra shifts off provided during a monthly period (28 days to be exact) to reduce hours to the maximum allowable threshold.

Additionally, the collective bargaining agreement may lower the hours of a workweek even lower than the federal threshold. Many unions used the economic downturn of 2010 to bargain for more time off in lieu of a raise. More free time often looks good to everyone involved, but it does require additional staffing to offset the reduction in the hours that each employee works or the additional overtime paid to workers to fill in a shift's gaps.

One of the reasons for more time off is the desire for work/life balance, which allows mini vacations to occur on these Kelly or earned days off (EDO) periods. The EDO period results in a potential unavailability of an employee.

Modified rotating schedules are also a popular bargaining point for many public safety unions. In many places, the wages paid to public safety employees do not allow employees to live anywhere close to the area they serve. As a requirement to maintain a worker's quality of life, unions bargained for a work schedule that reduced long employee drives to a work area and employers agreed.

The most common rotating schedule is the 48/96 schedule. In addition to this schedule change, many states voted that residency requirements were unconstitutional, allowing employees to live virtually anywhere.

For example, I worked with a person who flew his plane to work from another state. Another employee traded shifts the entire year to create a work schedule that allowed him to live in another state. Both lived about five hours from our station.

Employees trading shifts allows flexibility and creates a good win-win situation that keeps the percentage of employees permitted downtime to a lower percentage. At the same time, it gives employees the ability to take time off when needed.

Also, most public safety and health care organizations have seniority-based systems for selecting off time. If you are a person with less seniority, for instance, you may only be allowed to vacation in January, due to senior personnel picking all of the premium summer months.

Without the ability to trade shifts, trying to recruit quality personnel would become harder. It is necessary for upper-level management to look at the trade-shift capacity of personnel when considering their availability. If those employees intentionally traded shifts, chances are they are not at home awaiting a department’s recall notice.

Mutual Aid as an Alternative to Recalling Personnel

Many organizations may argue that they have no plan of recalling their personnel during a disaster, but will use mutual aid organizations instead. This mindset seems logical and can work for a limited period of time, but ask yourself: Are you comfortable sending half or all of your resources out of town, when they may be needed to bolster a response force in a reasonable amount of time for a disaster?

Each community has the same idea: find the fine line of efficiency with only the necessary personnel on duty to answer the ordinally and probable call volume. But any adjustment of more than 20% has a detrimental effect on response times. A disaster in the area can have a 1,000% change to the call volume, depending on the call.

The Need to Test Surge Capacity in Summer

Many of our training exercises are conducted in the winter, spring and fall, as we know there may not be full employee participation in the summer months. However, summer is the perfect time to test surge capacity, as it will provide a worst-case scenario and results in valuable information for decision makers.

Even testing availability through an active 911 or IamResponding app may give the first clues beyond calculations and examination areas. We must know what the response will garner, so that we can write realistic plans and have data available for the possibility of justifying and increasing the number of full-time employees.

Randall Hanifen Dr. Hanifen serves as a shift commander at a medium-sized suburban fire department in the northern part of the Cincinnati area. Randall is the CEO/principal consultant of an emergency services consulting firm, providing analysis and solutions related to organizational structuring of fire and EMS organizations. He is the chairperson and operations manager for a county technical rescue team. from a state and national perspective, he serves as a taskforce leader for one of FEMA's urban search and rescue teams, which responds to presidential declared disasters. From an academic standpoint, Randall has a bachelor’s degree in fire administration, a master’s degree in executive fire service leadership, and a doctoral degree in business administration with a specialization in homeland security. He is the associate author of “Disaster Planning and Control” (Penwell, 2009), which provides first responders with guidance through all types of disasters.