Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph E. Finn, in his first major initiative since taking the job in July, is moving to tighten the work schedules of the city’s 1,400 firefighters to eliminate rampant misuse of sick time and ripe-for-corruption swapping and selling of shifts.
Beginning Saturday, firefighters on the job will have a new work week that includes two full 24-hour shifts. They must submit requests for time off in the same way most other city workers are required. And they will be forbidden from banking swaps for the future, a standard practice that officials say has gone out of control.
The new plan could also be viewed as a boon for firefighters, who will have more days off in a row. But it also follows through on Finn’s pledge when he took on his new position to restructure management and bring greater accountability and cohesiveness to the department.
The commissioner said he expects it to drastically curb what he calls “out of control” practices that can be exploited and wreak havoc on scheduling. “I’m bringing consistency and continuity back to the fire corps, which will make us more efficient on the fire grounds,’’ Finn said.
The commissioner said he hopes to curb the excessive practice of firefighters trading shifts, calling in sick, or otherwise gaming the system to collect overtime. In some cases, firefighters have been absent from work for more than a month while someone else on the force covered their shifts, critics and reform advocates said.
Some firefighters have missed critical training days because they were not at work. In addition, the practice makes it difficult for lieutenants and captains, who run fire companies and fire houses, to know who will be in the work crew on any particular shift, some critics said.
“Our fundamentals were suffering because of the uncontrolled shift swapping,’’ Finn said in an interview at fire headquarters. “If a captain doesn’t know who was working on a particular day, it’s hard for him to regulate who got training and who didn’t. We had to fix that.”
Finn’s scheduling overhaul is a one-year test that will be revisited. The proposal sailed through the Boston Firefighters Local 718 last month when 902 of 1,100 members voted overwhelmingly to support it. But, while many of the younger firefighters backed the plan, some veterans wanted to stick to the status quo, said several firefighters.
Some critics had questioned whether Finn, as a former deputy chief and a 30-year veteran of the department, would be able to make sweeping changes in a department criticized for being resistant to change.
Shortly after talking the helm, Finn said he held several meetings with his district chiefs, deputy chiefs, captains, and lieutenants to get them to buy into fixing the schedule. Some of his deputies felt it would be a tough sell to the rank and file, but they were committed to the idea of improving the image of the Fire Department and returning it to a respected force, Finn said.
Finn also met with the union president, who held two informational meetings with his members on the topic. Union president Richard Paris said Finn was able to get wide support for the plan because he was willing to sit down with union leadership beforehand.
“It’s a one-year test, and the members are looking forward to it,” Paris said. “It will control the swaps.”
Prior to taking the commissioner’s job, Finn had been a long-time union member. He was also a key negotiator in the most recent contract talks between the union and the city.
One firefighter, who asked that his name be withheld because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said he preferred the flexibility firefighters enjoyed under the old system. But he voted to support the plan during the union vote.
“I decided that people have been trying to improve this department and change it all these years that I might as well go along with it because it was going to be voted on anyway,’’ he said.
Finn said firefighters operate in small, tightly woven units, in which each person knows each function of the group. It is difficult to operate effectively and provide training when firefighters are routinely swapping shifts and not showing up in the same fire house on a regular basis, the commissioner said.
In fact, firefighters were operating on six different schedules. Finn said his one-year pilot effort slashes that to one, which he said would reduce shift swapping and sick-time calls. Firefighters will be limited to five swaps, which they must take right away.
Finn said the 24-hour shifts will bring his department in line with scheduling practices seen at most fire departments in the country.
The nationally accepted practice, Finn said, is that firefighters operate on an eight-week scheduling cycle, logging a total of 42 hours weekly or eight days each month. That schedule has been in operation for more than 50 years.
Until Saturday, Boston firefighters’ weekly schedule included two 10-hour shifts and two 14-hour shifts, with four days off. Over the eight-week cycle, that averaged to 42 hours a week, said Finn.
According to Finn’s pilot initiative, firefighters will also get more days off.
In a given week, they will work one 24-hour shift, and get the following 48 hours off. They will also work another 24-hour shift, and then get 96 hours off, said Fire Department spokesman Steve MacDonald.
The former fire chief, Steve Abraira, had proposed a similar work schedule, but it was not implemented because of disagreements with the union.
From The Boston Globe