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Public Safety Scheduling: Rotating Shifts

On February 10, 2022

First responders handle emergencies around the clock 24/7/365. As a result, the conventional 9-5 five-day week with every Saturday and Sunday off is a luxury not afforded to most in the profession. Many agencies maintain static schedules, where everyone works consistent shifts and “weekends”, though they may be permanently assigned to night shift and/or their weekends may be every Monday and Tuesday. By contrast, other agencies employ a rotating schedule which means their employees take turns alternating the hours, the days, or both.


There are advantages to either scenario, as well as obstacles. Rotating days can feel more fair, so certain workers aren’t permanently off on less desirable days of the week, such as Tuesday or Wednesday, while others are able to consistently enjoy Fridays. In a rotation, everyone alternates their work days in an established pattern, which could be more equitable. Rotating shifts are similar in that they distribute blocks of time evenly rather than days, so no one feels stuck working overnight shifts or other hours they may not enjoy. 


Either of these rotating schedules can be an excellent method of encouraging equality and lead to higher levels of employee satisfaction, though it ultimately depends on how well they are implemented and the context of the unique agency. Generally speaking, some advantages that may come with a rotating schedule include:

  • Consistency. Hours can be consistent if shift hours aren't rotated as well. In this way, everyone receives some traditional weekend days off some of the time and shares in that amenity equally, but individuals can always rely on their shift hours to be consistent even as the days rotate.
  • Fairness. In either scenario of rotating days, hours, or both, nobody is stuck permanently working undesirable shifts and/or undesirable days. Everyone takes turns and is able to enjoy different advantages and share the different challenges together.
  • Convenience. Filling overtime can be easier on rotating days if the shift hours aren't rotated as well. Keeping this process simple can benefit both the agency and the employees. 


However, with public safety scheduling nothing is ever simple, and it’s unfortunately common to jump into a rotating schedule for the perceived benefits without taking full account of the potential obstacles. In these cases, a rotating schedule can become challenging and confusing to manage affecting managers and employees alike, ultimately having the opposite intended effect. 


A few common pitfalls associated with rotating schedules include:

    • Inconsistency. For rotating days, the weekends are always different which can make it difficult to plan. Often during the holidays this means some people get very lucky, and others very, very unlucky. It can also lead to unscheduled absences if someone confuses their rotation that week. For rotating hours, it can seem like an advantage so nobody feels stuck working night shifts all the time, but it can also make organizing life and sleep more complicated for everyone to constantly be alternating between nights and days.
    • Organization. The bidding and scheduling process for vacations becomes even more challenging. In addition, rotating schedules can lead to a high volume of requests for shift trades for schedulers to process. If you’re experiencing frequent requests for shift trades even without rotating schedules, there may be systematic ways to offer more scheduling flexibility to employees in a way that makes things easier for management - not harder.
    • Personal life. For both rotating days and shifts, it can become much more difficult for some to schedule recurring events in personal life, such as childcare, familial obligations, or outside hobbies. Plus when someone does get a traditional weekend day off, it can be difficult to enjoy that time to themselves because friends and family often plan functions around those limited days available. While seemingly small, it can quickly impact morale. 
  • Overworking. Without careful planning, either scenario can inadvertently lead to consecutive days or shifts that result in an individual working too many hours in the short-term because in the long-term it’s perceived to balance out. This can become a liability if too many hours or days without sufficient rest results in fatigue and impacts service to the community.  


Before employing a rotating schedule, it’s important to consider the obstacles and weigh them against the anticipated benefits. The rotating schedule is often more difficult to manage, and if that becomes the case it may also cause a higher level of employee turnover. In some cases, a rotating schedule may be the best solution. In others, it may seem like the best solution though in practice it causes unnecessary complications. 


An example of rotating days

This can be demonstrated in a hypothetical scenario which I encountered while working with a new client:

Screenshot 2021-10-26 120713


At a glance, there are some obvious advantages:

  • Payroll is able to process only 40 hours of work per week

  • Filling overtime is easier (if shift hours are not also rotated) because they’re eight-hour shifts

  • Everyone receives three-day weekends twice per rotation

  • Everyone gets two consecutive days off every week


However, there are some important disadvantages, too:

  • The weekends are always different, making planning in personal life difficult

  • There are five weeks where you get zero traditional weekend days off

  • The timing of the holidays will likely mean some people get very lucky and others get very, very unlucky

  • It puts employees in a position that virtually require shift trades in order to accommodate everyday life, which can lead to a high volume of requests for schedulers to track and process

  • More challenging to schedule and bid for vacations

  • It can be more difficult to schedule recurring things in personal life, such as childcare obligations or outside hobbies

  • Everyone now works six days in a row five out of seven weeks


This is just one example and in no way comprehensive, but it does aptly demonstrate the ability for any perceived advantages to quickly become overshadowed by disadvantages which may not be as obvious, but could adversely impact employee quality of life, agency operations, or both.


Ultimately, the right decision for your agency depends on your unique needs. Whether you are currently working with the SafeCities™ team or not, we’re happy to help you perform a self-evaluation to identify the optimal scheduling practices for your operations. 



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