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The importance of balancing overtime and managing fatigue for first responders

On September 2, 2021

Most employees that work in public safety are well aware of the labor shortages sweeping the nation following the COVID-19 pandemic. The result can mean heavy overtime for first responders who are still on the job and adversely impact the communities they serve. For the safety of everyone, evaluating how to support first responders in their mission is essential to providing timely and uninterrupted services while also accounting for their well-being, particularly in the case of fatigue.


Although it would be ideal, the recommendation in APCO RETAINS “if your employees average more than eight hours of overtime every month you need to analyze your staffing numbers” is frankly uncommon and difficult to achieve. Understaffing is one of the largest challenges in all agencies not just communications and, unfortunately, not something that can simply be fixed. Consequently, more overtime often strains the ability to perform essential job functions due to exhaustion in workers and limited resource availability.


Each agency has unique factors which can lead to understaffing - and overtime fatigue - that need to be addressed before solutions can be offered in their particular environment. That said, it is possible to plan for certain contingencies, and the failure to do so can adversely impact agency operations, their employees, and leave communities vulnerable by overextending those first responders who do continue to work.




Poor work culture and a lack of flexibility in schedules are common culprits in environments which find themselves chronically understaffed, though fortunately are one of the few areas that both employers and employees have the ability to influence and improve. If ignored, these agencies continue to suffer high turnover, leading to a skeleton crew staff that may be under-trained and perpetuate the cycle of churn.


Although there is no silver bullet solution, the first step is asking questions and opening dialogues in order to design the right schedule for your organization.

  • Evaluate the agency’s workload to determine minimum staffing levels needed for optimal operations, which result in minimal overtime and improve employee quality of life. 

  • Review the schedule to determine coverage gaps, and hire accordingly to ensure proper staffing levels for day-to-day operations.

  • Assess onboarding procedures for new hires and identify which areas are the most impactful for a new responder to learn, and train in those areas first to expedite field readiness so they can begin working autonomously.

  • Review the current schedule to find where seasoned first responders are working, then pair them with a new hire. This method can support learning on the job and improve training efficiency.

It’s not a simple task. However, it can support both the employees as well as the operations of the organization and, as a result, your service to your community.

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