OCEAN CITY — It’s clear the Ocean City Fire Department is facing scheduling challenges, but resort officials and the firefighter-paramedic union certainly differ on the reasons for the vast number of unfilled shifts.
A couple of internal emails circulated throughout the Ocean City Fire Department over the last several weeks illustrates numerous shifts listed as unfilled in the department’s schedule, first for May and June and then again for July and August. According to a Career Firefighter Paramedics Association of Ocean City, or IAFF Local 4269, statement issued this week, there were 960 unfilled hours during the months of May and June that were ultimately covered with overtime from career and volunteer firefighters. For July and August, the number of unstaffed hours that need to be filled swelled to nearly 3,900 hours.
By way of background, the Ocean City Fire Department is made up of paid career firefighters and paramedics and volunteers, which work in concert to ensure the safety of the town’s residents and visitors. The two partnering groups are managed under the umbrella of the singular Ocean City Fire Department, although the volunteer company has its own autonomous leadership and board.
Historically, both the career and volunteer firefighters worked in concentrated 24-hour shifts followed by 72 hours off. However, citing a variety of reasons, including potential missed calls, delayed responses and national trends, the town in the 2016 contract with the IAFF phased out the 24-72 shift rotation in favor of a hybrid rotation with 10-hour day shifts followed by two 14-hour night shifts.
The fire department’s new schedule essentially split the historic 24-hour shifts into separate 10- and 14-hour shifts. According to the IAFF 4269, the mandated schedule change has created severe vacancies in the department’s staffing schedule.
The union asserts the career firefighter-paramedics are working the same number of total hours under the new schedule, but breaking up the shifts and eliminating the 24-hour shifts has created scheduling challenges and has become difficult to manage. The result has been an abundance of unfilled shifts that must be filled voluntarily or through mandated overtime.
According to the IAFF, during the months of May and June there were 960 hours of potentially unstaffed shifts that were made available for filling through overtime.
“That was a remarkable amount of overtime and a level not experienced under the prior schedule,” the statement from the IAFF this week reads. “Ocean City firefighter-paramedics stepped up to fill the overtime shifts.”
According to the IAFF release, the problem is more acute heading into July and August, the peak time in the resort. According to an internal email sent out to fire department members, there was a total of 317 unfilled shifts in the peak months of July and August, totaling 3,874 hours.
The email called on fire department members to respond with the shifts they could fill and encourage all to take at least one shift, preferably on the weekend. The email was clear there would be no 24-hour shifts. IAFF 4269 President Ryan Whittington said the staff shortages and associated calls for overtime were a direct result of the new schedule change.
“I cannot recall a time in history when this many unfilled shifts have been paid for utilizing overtime,” he said. “This schedule is not sustainable for our department. It is not in the best interest of our firefighter-paramedics or the citizens we protect.”
However, resort officials, including the Ocean City Fire Department leadership, while acknowledging the scheduling challenges, this week did not put the blame for the vast number of unfilled shifts heading into the peak summer on the elimination of the old 24-72 rotation. Instead, Ocean City officials this week said the staffing challenges were related to a variety of other factors and were being covered through creative scheduling and firefighter-paramedics stepping up with overtime.
“Change is never easy and does not come without some challenges,” said Mayor Rick Meehan on Thursday. “We know many of our departments, specifically our public safety departments, experience scheduling changes during our peak season. However, the Mayor and City Council are committed to work with the Ocean City Fire Department to work through these challenges.”
Communications Director Jessica Waters said the absence of a handful of firefighter-paramedics for a variety of reasons, and not the elimination of the old 24-72 rotation was in part to blame for the abundance of unfilled shifts. Waters pointed out nine full-time paramedics are out of the staffing rotation. Five are on medical or family leave, two have retired and two more have resigned. Waters dismissed the IAFF’s assertion the new schedule rotation is to blame for the staff shortages.
“The largest challenge going into the 2018 season is the untimely absence of up to nine full-time paramedics,” she said. “Additionally, the availability of part-time staff has impacted scheduling. Any reference that the recent schedule challenges are based solely on the new schedule is simply not the full story.”
Waters said despite the apparent rift between the IAFF and the town’s fire department leadership, the shifts were being filled through voluntary overtime and other creative measures. She said at no time has or will public safety be compromised.
“Despite these challenges, the men and woman of the Ocean City Fire Department have remained committed to providing exemplary service to our residents and visitors,” she said. “Their commitment to providing exemplary service and willingness to assist during these challenges should be applauded.”