Guaranteeing optimal crewing levels at the time of an emergency has become an increasingly difficult challenge for managers at retained fire stations. To find out whether they have enough people, they have to look at their crew’s schedules, their specialisations, and the required crewing levels at different moments of the day.
One way of addressing this challenge is to require a minimum number of hours of service for on-call crew. This introduce a new problem though, because it increases pressure on the work/life balance of crew members, whose hours of service can change on a daily basis.
Perhaps more importantly, simply counting hours of service does not take into account that some hours are more valuable than others: being available on Saturday afternoon when there are more than enough people available is less valuable than on Monday morning at which staffing levels are often below minimum.
So, preventing appliances from going off the run presents several challenges:
- Availability can change frequently because firefighters have other commitments.
- High number of minimum hours of service puts pressure on firefighters’ personal lives.
- It’s difficult to account for valuable hours of service.
Punch Clock vs. Scheduling
Broadly speaking, there are two types of availability systems currently in use by UK Fire and Rescue Services:
- those that only keep track of crews’ current availability status (similar to a punch clock)
- those that allow crew to schedule their (future) availability.
With the former, firefighters are able to notify whether they are currently available. These systems are fragile, because they fail to plan ahead and predict the crewing status changes in the future. The result is that managers are not notified in advance of imminent understaffing.
With scheduling, firefighters can manage their own availability ahead of time. This gives their colleagues hours or even days of lead time to be informed of potential crewing problems and resolve them. Of course, scheduling systems can have their vulnerabilities as well, such as failing to warn crew members against taking a pump off the run unintentionally or lacking extra safeguards to ensure a full crew complement immediately after an alert.
The need for insight
FireServiceRota is an example of a system based on scheduling. It unites the seemingly conflicting needs of watch managers and firefighters: the former want predictability and control, while the latter want more flexibility.
Managers get insight into the current and future crewing levels and predict appliance availability. They also receive alerts in case of (imminent) understaffing caused by any modification of schedules and make decisions before the situation becomes critical.
Firefighters have the flexibility to plan their daily activities based on predicted appliance availability: they can go off duty if crewing levels are high, and remain available when they are not. In addition, FireServiceRota not only knows how many hours firefighters were available, but also when. This allows firefighters to provide their hours when they matter the most.
Implementing flexible scheduling software like FireServiceRota boosts work and life balance and gives back control and predictability. Everybody wins.