Nunatsiaq News
NEWS: Iqaluit January 11, 2018 - 1:30 pm

Iqaluit firefighters may soon get healthier work hours

Proposed schedule aimed at creating more sleep time, reducing stress

Iqaluit firefighters could be working fewer nights in a row, once a proposed new work schedule is approved by the city, deputy fire chief Nelson Johnson tells Iqaluit city councillors Jan. 9. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)
Iqaluit firefighters could be working fewer nights in a row, once a proposed new work schedule is approved by the city, deputy fire chief Nelson Johnson tells Iqaluit city councillors Jan. 9. (PHOTO BY BETH BROWN)

(Updated 4:30 p.m., Jan. 11)

Iqaluit firefighters may soon see changes to their shift schedules aimed at reducing stress and allowing them to get more sleep.

Firefighters have complained their shift schedules haven’t worked well since 2015, when staff at the emergency services department saw their work schedules changed to reduce overtime costs.

But that could be about to change, Iqaluit’s deputy fire chief, Nelson Johnson, told a city council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 9

“We’ve done the financials, we’ve done the risk assessment. Now it’s time to sit down and look at implementing a schedule that will give a good working schedule, a balance of life,” he said. 

A committee made up of the fire department and the city’s occupational health and safety staff found that sleep debt, or sleep deficit, has been the biggest problem since the scheduling change

An internal risk assessment found that if personnel work less than three nights in a row, there should be no sleep deprivation experienced by firefighters.

Under the system that started in 2015, when Iqaluit firefighters work 40 hours a week on day shift, they work five days with two days off. On evening shift, they work five evenings with two days off.

And on weeks when they’re on night shift, they work five nights with three days off.

Under the previous schedule, emergency staff worked for four days and then had four days off. Of the four days worked, there were two 10-hour day shifts and two 14-hour night shifts.

Johnson said that schedule created 104 extra hours of overtime each year.

That’s why the city made a change to department schedules, to cut out the extra overtime hours built into the old schedule, to help reduce a city-wide financial deficit.

Yet the risk assessment report showed that, while new day and evening schedules were not a problem, the only way to deal with sleep debt among Iqaluit firefighters is to return to a schedule where fewer nights are worked in a row.

“The five nights did have a social impact on their family life, and provided a thing called ‘sleep debt,’ which meant that they needed a couple of days to recuperate back from the night shift.”

Mayor Madeleine Redfern noted that with 17 full-time positions, Iqaluit has more staff firefighters than any other Nunavut community and more than remote areas of the same size in the south.

And the city roster of volunteer firefighters has jumped from just a handful of volunteers to 25 people over the last few years.

As for the full-time staffers, Redfern also pointed out that sleeping on the job is all part of being a firefighter. 

“If they work at night and if there are no calls, it is one of the rare occupations in the city that you can sleep in that evening shift, because there are beds in the fire hall,” she said. 

“They are encouraged to rest,” Johnson said, adding that the department is working to educate employees on getting enough sleep and “how to be what we call ‘fit for duty’ when they come to work.”

But sleeping during a night shift is becoming more difficult for Iqaluit firefighters these days, because emergency calls have doubled over the last three years, and most of those calls come in the evening or at night.

“Back then, our average calls were four calls a day, now they are up to eight calls a day. Most of the calls are now happening in the evenings and in the nights.”

Half of those calls are for medical transfers to the hospital, since the fire department in Iqaluit also operates ambulance services.

Of the remaining calls, 90 per cent are medical-related and only 10 per cent are for fires, Johnson said.

The firefighter schedule was left out of recent negotiations between the city and its unionized workers on a new collective agreement.

But Redfern said this was all part of the plan.

“It’s important to note that the union chose not to have the schedules as part of the collective bargaining negotiations and that the city has actively been working with the fire department members on the schedules,” she said. 

The city and the union are reviewing three new schedule prototypes.

Of those, two were proposed by the city and one by the firefighters.

Each proposed schedule results in cost cutting, while the firefighter’s proposed schedule would require additional money spent, Johnson said, adding that firefighters were open to discussing one of the schedules proposed by the city but not the other.

Coun. Jason Rochon and Coun. Terry Dobbin requested a report to council from city staff on the savings that came from the changed work schedule.

“I have yet to see a cost-savings report from the CAO or the city. All I’ve heard is hearsay that there are substantial savings to the fire department,” Dobbin said. “It’s costing the firefighters extensive grief.”

Rochon, who was surprised by the increase in emergency calls, asked if the city had enough firefighters.

“We’re always left in the dark, it’s very frustrating as a councillor,” he said.

His statement comes after councillors couldn’t tell the public what was being done to fix firefighter schedules at a recent town hall meeting.

Johnson said a single vacancy in the department will soon be filled, and that there are just enough staff to do the work that needs to be done.

But the department must count on volunteers to help the staff, and there are no other departments that can provide assistance during an emergency.

He said wellness is a priority, and the ability to relieve staff during an emergency is needed to reduce their stress and fatigue.

Redfern said the immediate savings to the city after 2015 came from the reduction in overtime hours worked by each staff firefighter.

This version of the story contains information that clarifies the shift schedule that the Iqaluit fire department has used since 2015, clarifies the overtime issue created by the earlier pre-2015 system and the reasons why the newer system produced fatigue and stress among firefighters.

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