Our emergency services are ready to respond in times of crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When we dial 999, we often take for granted in the UK that, within a few minutes, someone will be coming to our aid. But the current political climate of austerity, coupled with a political agenda for change within the emergency services, has left UK Fire and Rescue Services having to make tough decisions due to tightening budgets. These constraints could see major changes to the Service that we, the public, rely upon when in need. Alternative crewing patterns for fire stations and fire appliances have been considered as a viable opportunity to reduce operational costs without impacting upon service delivery. Doctoral researcher Karen Maher, together with supervisors Dr Nicola Bateman and Dr Ray Randall, have been conducting research into the UK Fire and Rescue Service, with a focus on shift work and firefighters’ wellbeing. In a move away from the traditional crewing pattern (eg two day shifts then two night shifts followed by four days off, also known as 2:2:4), Day Crewing Plus (DCP) has been offered as one such alternative. Requiring firefighters to offer cover over periods of 24 hours rather than 12, DCP uses half the number of personnel to crew a station with no reduction in full-time fire appliance cover. To the general public, this appears to be “business as usual.” But inside the fire station, it can feel like a very different way of working. For firefighters on this crewing pattern, shifts are broken into 12 hours of ‘positive’ work and 12 hours of ‘negative’ stand-down time (remaining within the fire station and on-call for emergency incidents). However, despite this being an attractive alternative way of working from a budgetary perspective, our research has found that
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there is a possible impact on individual firefighters’ wellbeing due to extended shift working and increase in work demands. A 50 per cent reduction in staff would increase the number of tasks needed to be performed by the remaining station crew, ultimately making a more demanding work environment. With personnel being able to self-roster for up to five consecutive 24hour shifts at a time, there is a risk of worklife conflicts as firefighters spend increased periods away from their families.
about both their work and personal circumstances. Typical measures used to test the effectiveness of an intervention, such as the introduction of a new work pattern, include the use of standardised surveys to assess general trends across the workforce. When these were applied in this population, the statistical testing suggested there was no significant change in most of the measures before and after the change to DCP. However, the spread and variance within the survey scores suggested not everyone had the same experience.
— “The current political climate of austerity, coupled with a political agenda for change within the emergency services, has left UK Fire and Rescue having to make tough decisions.” —
Following in-depth interviews, and in line with key theories of work wellbeing, firefighters indicated that aspects of the new work environment created demands as well as resources. Some of these were universal to all participants. For example, the split of positive and negative work hours was seen as creating extra time pressures (demand) and the reduction of four watches down to one crew was seen as creating a greater pool of peers for social support (resource).
These extended shifts also have the potential to increase levels of fatigue, particularly if crews are regularly disturbed during the night and are not able to effectively recover when on stand-down. This, in turn, could potentially increase levels of stress and mental distress, creating a possible knock-on effect on the station’s operational performance.
Overall, firefighters indicated DCP offered opportunities to have more control on when, and how, they worked, as well as exposure to a greater variety of tasks and wider variety of colleagues. However, individual perceptions of what aspects of the work environment were demanding and which were resourceful varied between firefighters and were seemingly influenced by their personal circumstances.
Certain policies and procedures put in place by the Service are designed to mitigate the extra demand, such as private ensuite bedrooms to allow for adequate rest, and the ability for families to visit during standdown time; but due to the newness of DCP it is unclear whether these will have the intended effect. Through research commissioned by one UK Fire and Rescue Service, the impact of working extended shifts was more nuanced than first expected. This was due, in part, to the attributions made by firefighters
As an example, the extended shifts were seen negatively by those with young families or caring responsibilities and created extra demands on their close relationships. Firefighters without those responsibilities, however, saw working longer shifts as a resourceful way to condense work hours and extend their time off. The ability for families to visit the station overnight had been designed to reduce the impact of extended time away from 37
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