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The costs and liabilities behind ineffective public safety scheduling

On November 4, 2021

The costs and liabilities of ineffective scheduling in the context of public safety agencies are challenging to calculate nearly as challenging as scheduling itself. The development and maintenance of a schedule that is capable of meeting the needs of first responders is neither a simple nor straight word task, and for this reason is too often an ongoing difficulty.


While many agencies are aware their current methods are tedious, time consuming, and inaccurate, it can still feel overwhelming to make improvements because they are familiar. However, failing to optimize means an ongoing and indefinite loss of resources time, money, energy.


The costs of ineffective scheduling

A public safety agency schedule serves three primary groups the agency itself, the employees of that agency, and the communities those employees serve. An effective schedule supports all three of these groups, and an ineffective schedule does the opposite. The key difference between an effective schedule versus an ineffective one is your organization’s ability to manage it on an ongoing basis. The more difficult your current system is to make changes, the more the schedule controls you rather than the other way around.


The agency

Many agencies rely on legacy scheduling management systems based on manual tools or processes, such as ill-purposed software (e.g. Excel, Outlook) or even a pen and paper (e.g. clipboard, whiteboard). Although these methods may seem simple or cost effective, they more often devour the valuable time of key personnel and yield an unreliable schedule. 


The subsequent obstacles then become:

  • Human error compromising operational accuracy
    • Unidentified coverage shortages forcing unplanned overtime
    • Overexertion of personnel due to poor fatigue management, compromising ability to respond and increasing potential for liability
  • Increased sick time usage
  • Unexpected absences and missed shifts
  • Lower employee productivity
  • Higher employee turnover due increased frustrations and decreased morale
  • Budgetary waste
    • Time spent managing the schedule
    • Increased overtime expenses
    • Losing seasoned employees and cost of training new ones


The employees

First responders work in the face of so many challenges that, realistically, just come with the territory. The difficulties of the industry which cannot be resolved make it all the more important to be mindful of difficulties that can be resolved within the organization to reduce unnecessary stressors and improve employee performance. 


Failing to do so often results in:


The community

Ultimately, the purpose of a public safety agency and the first responders who work there is to serve their communities. However if the agency and the employees are trying to perform under suboptimal conditions that could be resolved, it’s impossible to avoid adversely impacting service to the citizens. 


This usually looks like:

  • Increased wait times for emergency response
  • Liabilities in service caused by understaffing or fatigue
  • Criticism from the public and the press
  • Increased pressure on decision-makers to intervene
  • Ill-fitted solutions developed by those outside the system


Before committing to a complete overhaul and transition which can certainly be daunting begin by investing in a self-evaluation to identify the true costs of ineffective scheduling in your specific work environment. This assessment can help you easily account for the inefficiencies of your schedule, which can guide the rest of your efforts and serve as a foundation for the process.

Invest in a self-evaluation

This is an investment because it does take time and energy but it will save you both almost immediately upon improving your scheduling system. Taking the time to perform a self-evaluation is a short-term use of resources that enables you to maximize those same resources in the long term.


  1. Accurately measure workload for each task or position
    1. Document every task and average the time to complete
    2. Calculate the total time spent performing all tasks at each position
    3. Don’t forget to include tasks that happen on a less regular basis
    Use this information to create a baseline for the resources your agency needs to function optimally hours, personnel, call volume, etc.

  2. Review schedule design for efficiency and effectiveness
    1. Can you fill gaps with people already on-duty?
    2. Can you fill shortages with people off-duty?
    3. Are planned schedule gaps on days and times where overtime is easy to fill?
    4. Can training times be improved to avoid disruptions?
    Look for areas to optimize and improve, and use your most common and frequent challenges as the most important items to resolve when evaluating potential new scheduling systems.

  3. Assess processes for filling schedule to minimize time spent scheduling
    1. How many steps are necessary to fill one piece of overtime?
    2. Do you have complex paper trails for requests?
    3. Can you easily make minor adjustments to a person’s hours to fill shortages without overtime?
    Identify procedural inefficiencies, such as things that take a lot of work or time, as the quickest places you can optimize to gain back your resources time, energy, and money.


Additionally, review current training practices for room to optimize. This is an often overlooked area that can offer a lot of room for improved efficiencies without compromising on standards. 

  1. Review training level requirements
    1. Cross-training select personnel can give more scheduling flexibility and reduce overtime burdens
    2. What could it look like if everyone was cross-trained?
  2. Improve consistency across work positions
    1. Identify similarities between different positions and train these only once
    2. Consider consolidation of training phases
  3. Break down new-hire training
    1. How long is new employee training? Can it be shortened by teaching how to use resources instead of focusing on every minor detail?
    2. Identify when a new hire can begin working autonomously to begin reducing the burden on existing personnel sooner


Build an improved schedule

Armed with the knowledge above, consider what changes would make the greatest impact and begin there. The best solution is a system for scheduling actually designed for your agency’s unique needs and accounts for changes quickly and accurately. To do so:

  1. Evaluate the true criteria for fully staffed
    1. Remember to account for absences when defining the schedule coverage you gain from one full-time employee
    2. Consider anticipated fluctuations for call volume and how this impacts your minimums
    Remember that one full-time employee works a certain number of hours per week in theory, but in practice there are absences for sick time, vacation time, training, and more. This will prevent situations where you struggle to fill certain hours despite being fully staffed. 

  2. Identify minimum staffing with a buffer
    1. Use prior calculations to determine hourly and daily needs
    2. Determine an acceptable percentage of workload for each position
    3. Establish buffer based on potential for larger work volumes
    Consider what resources are necessary in order to create necessary breathing room on all sides of the equation. 

  3. Build a schedule
    1. Identify the schedule which always achieves minimum staffing
    2. Optimize training to be effective at the lowest possible cost
    3. Keep planned gaps from staffing shortages during days and hours where overtime is easiest to fill
    4. Ensure ability to efficiently adjust for unplanned absences


Most likely, the ideal solution will offer intelligent automation in order to enable much of the work to be performed by the software program rather than manual labor hours. That said, there is always room to improve current practices within your existing system in order to reduce cost and liability.



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