CLEVELAND, OH – Over five years, two Cleveland firefighters worked thousands of extra hours — including stretches of up to 120 hours in a row — while filling in for colleagues who paid them to cover their shifts.
The firefighters who collected their salaries and rarely worked were the focus of recent City Hall investigations. But those who worked in their stead during demanding, back-to-back shifts put themselves at heightened risk of injury by operating on little sleep, experts say.
Soon after the investigations’ findings were made public, the firefighters union and city administrators have agreed to a new policy capping the number of hours a firefighter can trade to colleagues before they must reciprocate and prohibiting any trade that would keep a firefighter on the clock for longer than 48 consecutive hours.
Union President Frank Szabo said in an interview this week that union leaders acknowledged the problem and collaborated with city officials to craft a policy that aligns with industry accepted standards for firefighter and public safety.
But that policy does not apply to hours worked on overtime — leaving open the possibility that firefighters could spend three consecutive days or more battling fires and responding to all manner of emergencies without time off.
Prosecutors are still weighing whether to charge five Cleveland firefighters with illegally paying co-workers an average of $250 to cover most of their shifts — freeing them to work other full-time jobs or run their own companies while continuing to collect salaries and benefits from the city.
The city had a long-standing policy of allowing firefighters to trade their 24-hour shifts, or parts of their shifts, with colleagues as long as they repaid the time within a year. A series of city audits documented widespread abuse of the policy, with some firefighters owing months or even years worth of shifts.
One firefighter, Timothy Debarr, already pleaded guilty to paying colleagues to work his shifts and was sentenced to a short jail term and a fine.
Although the firefighters’ trade partners might still have to amend their tax returns to reflect their true earnings and avoid action from the Internal Revenue Service, they were granted immunity from prosecution in exchange for submitting to interviews with investigators.
Among the most prolific trade partners, commonly referred to as “caddies,” were firefighters Timothy Winans and Ryan Leighty.
Winans worked an average of 41 additional 24-hours shifts for each of five years — 5,012 more hours than he could normally be scheduled to work.
During the same period between 2006 and 2010, Leighty worked an average of 37 additional 24-hour shifts each year, for a total of 4,452 extra hours.
Both men also worked overtime shifts in addition to the shifts they worked for fellow firefighters.
Records of emergency runs during their longer stretches at work show that in addition to their routine equipment checks and drills, the two men responded to calls, ranging from reports of structure fires to medical emergencies, at all hours of the day or night. However, the number of calls fielded during each of their shifts varied considerably.
The special investigation also identified at least 20 other firefighters who worked between 1,000 and 3,000 additional hours in just a few years and firefighters, who worked weeks at a time without a day off to make up for days they had traded away. One firefighter, Andrew Kovacic, worked 19 days in a 21-day period.
Before the new trade policy took effect this year, there were no limits on the number of shifts that could be traded or the number of consecutive hours a firefighter could choose to work. Nor are there federal rules protecting firefighters from working themselves to a dangerous level of exhaustion, though such limits exist for pilots, truck drivers, boat captains and doctors.
Experts, however, agree that long and irregular work hours can be dangerous for firefighters, their colleagues and citizens they are trained to help.
Dr. Charles Bae at the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center, said that a number of variables, such as how busy a fire station is, whether firefighters are permitted to take naps and the shot of adrenaline they experience when running out on a call, make it difficult to determine how many hours in a row are excessive.
In Cleveland, firefighters are allowed to nap during their 24-hour shifts when not involved with assigned duties.
Bae, who treats firefighters among his patients, said studies demonstrate a cumulative effect of sleep deprivation on a person’s cognitive performance — meaning the longer a person is awake, the more likely he or she is to make mistakes. One study, he said, showed that staying awake for 24 hours has an effect comparable to alcohol impairment severe enough that it would be illegal to drive.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs arrived at similar conclusions in its 2007 study of the effect of sleep deprivation on firefighters and EMS employees.
The report concluded that firefighters who chronically work long hours during which sleep is interrupted are at higher risk for numerous health problems, including heart disease, obesity and depression. The studies consistently show that more injuries occur during longer shifts, and the number of injuries are highest during early morning hours.
Experts in other cities found similar results when studying the effects on firefighters of shifts longer than 24 hours.
In Minneapolis, the city did a pilot study a decade ago to compare firefighters within the department who worked 24-hour shifts and others who were assigned 48-hour shifts. They found discipline, sick leave and work-related injuries were all higher among those who worked longer shifts with more of the problems and injuries occurring during the second 24-hours firefighters were on duty.
Some Minneapolis firefighters, however, choose to continue working the longer shifts.
Studies in other cities, such as Rochester, N.Y. and Park City, Utah showed that working an extraordinary number of hours in a row can cause health problems for firefighters and increased fatigue that can lead to critical mistakes.
Officials in Rochester, who initiated the research because firefighters were working numerous shifts in a row due to overtime trading, recommended limiting the number of consecutive hours firefighters could work.
Cleveland Safety Director Martin Flask said in an interview this week that after analyzing the results of a series of City Hall audits, officials arrived at the same conclusion.
Flask said that neither Winans nor Leighty has worked more than 48 hours since the beginning of this year, and the number of overtime hours overall has decreased considerably as a result of a variety of new departmental policies. He also acknowledged that despite some firefighters’ dangerously long stretches of consecutive work days, he has seen no evidence that accidents or injuries on the job were attributable to fatigue.
“It’s a demanding job, and it’s a dangerous job,” Flask said. “I don’t have any anecdotal evidence to back up the new limitations other than the common sense that working, for example, nineteen 24-hour shifts in 21 days is unsafe for everyone involved.”
The city’s EMS workers, which city officials want to integrate with the fire department, are limited to a maximum of 24 hours in a row and they must have six consecutive hours off before beginning a new shift.
Szabo said that with the new policy in place, a firefighter will rarely work enough overtime shifts to recreate the problems that existed under the former shift-trade policy.
He said safety trumps all other concerns among his members, and the union is always open to considering new studies or information contemplating the safety of firefighters and the people they serve. The new policy is more stringent than other departments in the country, which schedule shifts of 48 hours or longer, he said.
And he believes the guidelines are more than adequate to serve the needs of firefighters while maintaining enough flexibility to respond to staffing demands.
But measuring the effect of long shifts on workers and identifying the breaking point is difficult in an industry subject to so many variables, Szabo said. Working three consecutive 24-hour shifts, which he referred to as working a “three-banger” is common across the industry, he said. And firefighters, he said, are public servants programmed to discount their own physical and emotional fatigue to provide an important public service.
Managing risk often means firefighters must rely on colleagues and supervisors to help set limits, he said.
“I’m not going to lie and say we don’t get tired,” Szabo said. “We’re not supermen. And firefighters as well as supervisors are ever-vigilant for someone who we feel went too far. But at the end of the day, we’re dealing with 785 folks who signed up to run into burning buildings. That’s the job. Where there can be safety improvements, we’ll make them.”