Public safety professionals handle emergencies around the clock – 24/7/365. As a result, a conventional work schedule with weekends and holidays off isn’t always available. For friends and family who might not be familiar with shift work, the schedule and hours could be a bit of a learning curve. There are policies and procedures unique to each agency – from shift length, overtime, and vacation bidding. Communication, setting boundaries, and thoughtful planning is essential to public safety employees so they can enjoy their time at home and be ready when duty calls.
Communicating what is expected from your schedule and how your agency operates can help your friends and family understand your unique needs. Take a moment to explain your agency’s policies about maintaining coverage minimums. With that, talk about how time off and vacation bidding works – a well-informed support system can help ensure both family obligations and first responder needs are met. Discuss the best way for your loved ones to keep track of your schedule. A few suggestions from our former first responders are printing out your weekly/monthly schedule, creating a shared calendar online, or utilizing a wall planner. In addition to sharing your schedule with your loved ones, or combining it with their schedule, break it down a bit further to highlight some details that may not be visible or could be somewhat implied that someone who isn’t as familiar may need help understanding. For example, “I need to be in bed by 8:00PM to get enough sleep so I can get ready and leave by 5:00AM and be on time for my shift at 6:00AM.”
To help manage fatigue, it may be helpful to set boundaries surrounding your sleep schedule – this is especially important for those who work overnight shifts. If you’ll be sleeping during the day, communicate what is needed to ensure you can sleep well: TV, chit chat, or house chores need to be at a low volume.
Be open and honest about how you operate in certain situations. For example, “I’ll be coming off of three 12-hour overnight shifts, I’ll need a day (or two) to decompress and catch up on sleep. As much as I want to go to the event, I’m sorry but I’ll have to skip it.” That said, sometimes it will prove beneficial to explain it in a way that’s more personal to them. For example, “calling me at 2:00PM after I worked a night shift is equivalent to me calling you at 2:00AM”.
Public safety schedules typically require a bit more planning because of their unique shift patterns. Vacation bidding and overtime work can be done differently in this industry, so setting expectations to your family will be important. With vacation and shift bidding, typically what you get is what you get. From there, requesting trades and time off is possible, but never guaranteed. Holidays can be especially difficult to get time off. Therefore, it’s important to talk about this in advance. When you find yourself scheduled for a holiday, consider celebrating on a day that works with your schedule.
How your agency can help
Sometimes going the extra mile can make all the difference. Hosting open houses for the family and friends of your first responders can help get a clear understanding of what the job looks like and what’s expected.
Communication between agency and employee is imperative to a healthy work-life balance. Open and honest communication, especially to new hires, can establish trust and possibly reduce turnover. Go over topics like agency policies, the schedule, vacation and shift bidding, location specific factors, and what to prepare for mentally. Something else that can help is showing new employees example schedules – we recommended using a junior employee to showcase a typical schedule, as a senior employee may have more vacation time. With that, the agency can implement rules and policies that benefit employees’ schedules.
Understanding how agency schedules and policies affect employees will create a balance and culture that gives employees room for flexibility and a positive experience for their family.