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24-hour work schedule to remain in place for Amherst firefighters

Town Manager John Musante said this week the firefighters union and Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson have agreed that the trial phase, in place since last January, has shown good results and should not be changed.

“The recommendation is to continue,” Musante said.

“From my vantage point, it seems to have worked out fine,” Nelson said.

Under this schedule, each firefighter/EMT works a 24-hour shift, then gets one day off, before working a second 24-hour shift, then has five days off. This replaced a schedule in which firefighters worked 10- and 14-hour blocks. Firefighters are still averaging 42 hours per week during the course of the year.

The new work schedule was prompted by the firefighters union, which identified it as a national trend, Nelson said. It also had the potential of meaning a small reduction in overtime.

During the first year, the work schedule was reviewed quarterly and both the town and union had an opt-out clause that could have been used at the end of December.

Nelson said evaluations of response times for ambulances, patient care and injuries offered no compelling reason to return to the old schedule.

“Using those parameters, we didn’t see any negative effect,” Nelson said.

Nelson said response times for both ambulances and fire engines remain better than state standards, even though Amherst also serves residents in Hadley, Leverett, Pelham and Shutesbury, care remained top notch and there was no impact on use of sick leave or increase in injuries to firefighters.

One other adjustment to the work schedule was starting shifts at 7 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. This was based on study that showed the volume of medical calls increases sharply at 8 a.m., Nelson said. This has allowed fresher paramedics and EMTs to respond to those calls, he said.

But Nelson said even those who received medical attention at around 6 a.m., in the last hour of a shift, saw effective firefighters.

“We make sure the care someone gets in that 23rd hour of a shift is just as good as the care someone gets in the first hour of a shift,” Nelson said.

Nelson acknowledges that not all firefighters supported the schedule change and those likely remain concerned about it, while those who supported the change continue to like it. Nelson said his staff are professionals who understand many departments have moved in this direction.

The three-year firefighter contract, meanwhile, expires June 30. Musante has begun the process of negotiations.

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