When it comes to 24/7/365 coverage management for public safety agencies, the 12-hour shift is a popular tool, but it’s often also a controversial one. On the one hand, it allows for many efficiencies, and simplified scheduling processes. On the other hand, it is often viewed as dangerous, and certainly requires more active management of fatigue-based liabilities for the benefit of your employees and your community.
The 12-hour shift can be a powerful method to achieve staffing minimums, but it will also come with its own set of considerations and challenges – as all shift types do in the public safety space. When considering the best solution for your unique operations, here are some of the most important pros and cons to the 12-hour shift for deciding if or where it fits into your coverage plan.
Advantages to 12-hour shifts
First and foremost, 12-hour shifts are divisible by the 24-hour period requiring coverage, which simplifies the overtime process considerably. Overtime being the challenge that it is for so many agencies, this benefit can offer room for significant impact. 12-hour shifts require more staffing to hit minimums, but in return offer you more coverage options across the day because you are only managing two primary shifts rather than three.
Another advantage is three- or four-day weekends. While this isn’t necessarily a guarantee, it is a common result for most individual’s schedules after scheduling to meet staffing minimums. This tends to improve employee morale because they receive more days off than they otherwise would with 8- or 10-hour shifts.
Perhaps most importantly, 12-hour shifts are likely the easiest to manage, and very efficient. While it does require more people to operate in a perfect world with ample time off and minimal overtime, when staffing is lean (as it too often is), it’s significantly easier to manage staff when under the gun. In this scenario, you don’t get to take advantage of those extra days off, which is one of the biggest disadvantages to employees and can likely cause an unsustainable working environment – but it will get you through a tight spot with greater ease than the alternative shift lengths. 12-hour shifts are very straightforward and simple, which means less work to manage them compared to 10- and 8-hour shifts. In terms of simplicity, 12-hour shifts are marginally easier than 8s because there are only two shifts rather than three, and significantly better than 10s because they don’t divide cleanly into the 24-hour day.
Disadvantages to 12-hour shifts
Working overtime is something that will always be a part of the job in this industry, and while there is nothing inherently dangerous about the 12-hour shift, it can quickly cross the threshold of safety when shifts are extended due to overtime. Working several 16-hour shifts consecutively can lead to burnout and fatigue, which is dangerous in any situation, but most especially for our nation's first responders. 911 professionals need to be well rested and alert so they can effectively and accurately send help to those who need it. Law enforcement and corrections officers should be sharp and present, as a direct threat to their well being could happen at any time.
Much like in other industries, first responders can often be overwhelmed with balancing a more-than-full-time job, family, and other personal needs and obligations. With 12-hour shifts, it’s easy to fall behind on household chores and personal responsibilities, and it's not unusual for days off to be reserved for family events – leaving many employees feeling like they need to spend their free time catching up on tasks they missed, instead of relaxing and recharging. Furthermore, if an employee works overtime, whether mandated or volunteered, they are required to give up one of their days off – which could lead to negatively affecting fatigue and employee morale.
Another factor to consider is the payroll system, as the 12-hour shift could cause difficulties when reconciling. If the payroll states that a week is 40-hours, then your agency must figure out what to do with the excess or deficit of four hours without creating greater overtime costs. Unless a 4-hour shift is added in the week, ultimately you are not breaking even on the time and a half versus straight pay from the long weeks to the short weeks.
Considerations before implementing 12-hour shifts
Generally, 12-hour shifts can be a bit of a give-and-take in terms of what problems you may create while trying to resolve another. For example, employees with a farther commute to work might find 12s favorable, as they would be taking less trips into work. While on the other hand, those with a longer commute may not enjoy making that drive for a 4-hour shift. With that, an on-call policy will need to be established in order to fill coverage gaps, as it will be more of a challenge to extend an employee's shift. In an effort to mitigate that, staggered start times could be introduced, but that may result in a more complicated schedule to manage, and odd or unpleasant work hours.
Considerations before transitioning out of 12-hour shifts
First responders dedicate their career to the complex, emotional, and often traumatic side of the human experience – and sometimes a mental break is imperative. By moving away from 12s, employees would be forced to give up some of their days off, which could have a negative impact on morale and fatigue. With that, employees will have less recovery time between their shifts, or between the end of one week and the start of another.
Ultimately, the scheduling style that is the most functional and effective for a public safety workforce will certainly be different for every agency. Our articles on the 8-hour and 10-hour shifts provide greater insight to help you find the best solution for your unique operations.