Charleston Firefighters worry 270 forced shifts are mentally, physically taxing

Published: Jul. 20, 2022 at 6:49 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 21, 2022 at 4:47 AM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Charleston Firefighters define a ‘force shift’ as an extra 24-hour shift they are required to work on top of a shift they did not sign up for. So far, they say, there have been 270 such shifts this year.

John Baker, secretary for the Local 61 Charleston Firefighters, says they know it’s a possibility.

“Forced overtime occurs when that list is exhausted, meaning that there are no other firefighters signed up voluntarily,” Baker explains. “This causes firefighters to work extra shifts to ensure trucks are staffed and ready to serve the public.”

But, even though they know it could happen, a force shift can cause stress on firefighters.

“In many different forms, whether that’s stress at home with your family, knowing that you’re not going home for 24 hours, maybe there’s a childcare issue, maybe there’s a birthday, a baseball game, a ballet it’s just a lot of added stress,” Baker says.

Baker says aside from personal things, they did not plan to miss, working can often have detrimental mental health implications.

“We know we lost one firefighter around three years ago to mental stress,” Baker says. “And it’s something that is seen throughout the nation as well that it really hits home to us.”

Baker says for some people, the extra money is definitely a bonus. Firefighters make time and a half for the 24 hours when they work a force shift. For those with a high school degree, working at the first pay level, that is about $450 for a 24-hour overtime shift.

The fire department is staffed at 92 percent right now and projected to be at 95% this fall with graduates from the academy, according to data from the city’s human resources department.

The data shows, when comparing the first 14 pay periods of the past few years, the number of force shifts fluctuates. The city cites 252 shifts during 14 pay periods in 2019, down to double digits less than 80 shifts in a two-year time span, before back up to more than 250 in the first 14 pay periods so far this year.

The City of Charleston’s HR data also compares average staffing leave taken forced OT hours and forced OT costs for the first 14 pay periods since 2018. The numbers show fairly consistent staffing, and growth in leave, but fluctuation in OT hours and force shifts.

YearAverage staffing - 1st 14 pay periodsLeave used (hours) - 1st 14 pay periodsForced ot (hours) - 1st 14 pay periodsForced ot cost - 1st 14 pay periodsApprox. forced shifts

Firefighters say they want to have a conversation about the force shift system and figure out the best way to keep them and the citizens safe going forward.

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