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Comm Center Shifts & Scheduling

There is no more common question among comm center administrators—and even dispatchers—than those about staffing. How many dispatchers should we have, how many people should be taking phone calls? How can I spread out 12 dispatchers on a 10-hour schedule? On and on….

There is no standard formula, mathematical or otherwise, to that question. It can only be determined with a time and task study of your center, and an evaluation of your agency’s performance goals. We’ve tried to answer some of the questions in this section. However, do not look for the answer to the one burning question that everyone wants to know: How many dispatchers should my comm center have? You have to perform some survey work before that question can be answered.

We’ve attacked the most important areas: shift staffing (How many people do I need to staff X number of dispatchers on each shift?), shift configurations (What days and hours should the staff work?), and calltaker staffing (How many calltakers do I need to answer X number of calls?). These three questions can be answered with formulas. Besides lots of our own resources, further down the page we list Web sites that offer assistance, along with a list of companies that market software for shift scheduling.

By the way, the nation’s public safety comm centers continue to suffer through a staffing shortage. There have been fewer and fewer applicants, and many veteran dispatchers are retiring–or just leaving. Check these resources first for perspectives on the staffing crisis:

  • We’ve posted our recommendations for solving the on-going staffing crisis faced by America’s public safety comm centers.
  • We’ve collected experiences and feedback from dispatchers their schedules and staffing.
  • In 2003 NENA hired a consultant to create models for funding and staffing comm centers. Check the final report Web page for full information.
  • In August 2005 APCO created “Project RETAINS” to research comm center staffing issues, and to create a “tool kit” for determining proper staffing levels. Check the project’s Web page for full information.
  • In 2009 APCO created a Professional Communications Human Resources Task Force to study HR issues within comm centers. In Aug. 2010 they issued their first report (pdf) that gave a failing national grade for training standards, EMD, retirement benefits and in-service opportunities.

Shift Staffing

The most common question among comm center administrators is, “How many dispatchers do I need?” This question focuses on the tasks, number of consoles and other issues, and cannot be condensed to a single math formula. One would have to perform a time study of the work now being performed at your center, determine the workload for each hour of the day, and consider the agency’s performance goals (answer all calls within 10 seconds, etc.) in order to determined how many dispatchers to staff on each shift.

However, in many cases, the number of required personnel can be figured pretty simply from the required tasks of an ordinary time period, for an ordinary day:

  • you have two radio channels that need constant and individual attention (2 persons)
  • you have a warrant/teletype position that handles field requests via radio, enters stolen vehicles, etc. (1 person)
  • you have six in-coming 911 lines and 8 administrative lines, have an automated attendent that filters out most administrative calls, and you want to be able to handle 3 simultaneously 911 calls (3 persons)
  • you have an alternate radio channel that needs constant monitoring for officers requesting tows, callbacks, etc. (1 person)

This means you’ll need seven persons on-duty to physically handle tasks. With this figure, you can then factor in several variables:

  • some periods of an ordinary day are busier than others, and you may need additional telephone support
  • some days of the week are busier than others, and you may need additional telephone support
  • during busy periods, you may need additional radio support.
  • to account for breaks, you may need an additional full-time or part-time person during each 24-hour period.
  • to account for a 24-hour operation, you’ll need more staff
  • to account for sick leave, vacation and other leave, you’ll need more staff

All of this will lead you to learn that it takes 25 (or more) persons to fill seven seats every hour of every day.

You can use much more complicated time-study techniques to determine how many different and simultaneous tasks a dispatcher can perform, and how busy they typically are. However, for most comm centers, the basic tasks are pretty obvious. It’s the variable workload and leave factors that are often tough to determine.

Relief Factor

Once you determine how many dispatchers should be on each shift, one can determine how many staff is required to fill those necessary positions. The formula is based on the simple fact that you need one full-time person to fill each position, plus some fill-in position (another shift, part-time worker, etc.) to staff that full-time person’s days-off, vacation and other leave. This Relief Factor has been standardized in the private sector as 0.7, thereby making the number of persons to fill one full-time position as 1.7. [how to figure Relief Factor]

Here is the formula for determining total staffing:

P= Positions you have determined need to filled on all shifts (4 on days, 5 on evenings, 3 on nights)

V= Vacancy Factor (takes into account the weekly days-off, vacation, sick leave, etc.)

P x V = total number of staff

In the above example, you have a total required staff of 12, so…

(4+5+3) x 1.7 = 20.4

In this case, you would hire 21 persons, and then move on to the next question, “How do I assign these 21 persons to fill the required staffing?” This can be the most complex problem to solve.

By the way, I’ve also seen the factor 5.1 used to represent the number of persons it takes to staff one position 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (spread out over 3 shifts). If your staffing is identical on each shift, this figure would result in the same total as using the 1.7 vacancy factor used above. For example:

3 persons required at all times of the day

3 x 5.1 = 15.3 total staff

You would then hire 15 (or 16) persons and assign them to cover the three shifts. This 5.1 factor would not be useful when variable shift staffing is needed (such as covering busy periods).

Shift Configurations

There are many ways to configure shifts at a comm center. However, all the possibilities revolve around several standard issues:

  • each dispatcher must work only 40 hours in any given calendar week to avoid paying overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)
  • each dispatcher must have days-off according to any applicable laws and union agreements
  • there must be sufficient staffing on each day to perform essential tasks, taking into account variations in activity by hour of day and day of the week
  • the staffing must take into account the usual absence rate, including sick leave, vacation and other leave
  • to some extent, you must take into account the desires and wishes of the employees on the way shifts and days-off are configured

From these considerations, there are two primary configurations issues for an administrator:

  • the overall policy on days-off and shifts (8-10-12 hours per shift, and 2-3-4 or varying days-off)
  • within each shift how is he 24-hour day is staffed (three non-overlapping, 5 overlapping, etc.).

Both of these issues are affected by the number of hours that a dispatcher works per shift: 8, 10 , 12 or 24 hours.

Right now, the 10-hour shift is very popular among dispatchers, because it allows them three days-off. The 12-hour shift is uncommon but growing in popularity because it also allows more consecutive days off for employees. The 24-hour shift is more common among fire dispatching comm centers, but requires some type of sleep-rotation schedule and facilities. That leaves the 8-hour shift as the most common shift length.We have graphed several of the more common shift configuration possibilities below. We know that there are many more.The examples we use below are are only representative. That is, they show only enough dispatchers to graphically display how the days-off and shifts are assigned. It does not take into consideration your authorized positions, required dispatchers per shift, etc. You would have to apply the days-off and staffing principle to your particular operation.

Shift Length Variations

For those considering 10, 12 or longer shifts (and which may require work beyond 40 hours in a workweek), federal law requires that the agency must pay overtime for all hours worked in excess of 40 in a workweek. In 2006 the U.S. Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division considered the specific issue of civilian public safety dispatchers for a city working under a union contract. The Division issued an official Opinon Letter (pdf) that dispatchers are entitled to overtime, and that the city would violate the Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) if they did not pay the overtime. [In this case, the dispatchers’ contract with the city agreed not to accept overtime until beyond 48 hours in a workweek. The DOL essentially said this was not a legal arrangement.] Check the appropriate sections in the Opinion Letter for more information.

More recently, in March 2011 the U.S. Dept. of Labor ruled that Erie County (Penn.) must pay back overtime to employees who worked a 3×12 shift and received no overtime because their union agreed to the schedule and no overtime. the DOL said employees cannot opt out of their legal right to overtime through a union agreement. Read a news account of the decision.

Days Off, Shift Assignments

Shift Configurations

Call-Taker Staffing

One of the most common questions among public safety comm center administrators is, “How do I calculate how many dispatchers I should have?” As we mentioned, this is difficult for several reasons, not the least of which that there is no standard staffing level for comm centers, and no mathematical method of taking into account all the variables involved and coming up with a reasonable figure. However, we have assembled the following resources to give you a start on your calculations.

  • Download the article, written by Bill Weaver, 911 product manager for Nortel Networks, and published in the Winter 1999 issue of NENA News, that gives modern formulas and methods for calculating the optimum staffing for comm centers. It’s one of the few methods we’ve seen that takes into account both call-taking and radio dispatching, and uses common sense and logic to come up with a result that you can use to justify your current staffing, or propose an increase. [posted in Acrobat .pdf format, 25k download]
  • There are Web sites that allow you to make on-line calculations on the necessary number of dispatchers, phone lines, etc. The computations are based on the Erlang queuing theory used by telephone companies, but applies to many types of telecommunication operations. Check the Westbay Engineers and Cyntergy Corp. and Call Centre Helper Web sites for on-line calculators.Also, the Lokad.com Web site offers a free Excel spreadsheet for calculating Erlang figures.
  • The September 2000 issue of Public Safety Communications has an article by Editor Jennifer Hagstrom that provides a formula for determining the number of positions necessary to provide 24x7x365 staffing. It does not calculate the number of persons needed to perform a certain number of tasks, but rather provides staffing requirements to cover vacations, breaks, sick leave, etc. The original formula printed in the magazine contained 16 variables and several separate operations. We’ve boiled all of it down to a more manageable calculation.
  • The January 2012 issue of Public Safety Communications also has an article (pdf) by Michael Lafond on using Erlang-C for determining workload and personnel staffing.
  • NENA has convened a Human Resources Committee to examine the issue of staffing, and has received a grant to develop a “formula” for determining optimum staffing for public safety comm centers (although it may not be a traditional mathematical forumula). The work could be completed by late 2004.
  • In 1976 the Department of Justice commissioned the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) to study the operation of 911 comm centers, and as part of that study SRI developed a table of optimum staffing for the call-taking operation.We have been able to locate only one paper copy of the original study–see our Q&A page for contact information.
  • In 1985 authors David J. Brenner and Marilyn A. Cadoff wrote a paper for the U.S. Department of Commerce titled “Guide to Computer-Aided Dispatch Systems.” It described the then-new method of programming a computer to track units and incidents. In Appendix B of that document, they set out, “Determination of the Number of Complaint Operator and Dispatch Terminals Required for a CAD System.” The document was converted to Acrobat format and originally posted on the APCO Web site.We have re-posted the entire doscument (1.8 Mb!) here, along with just Appendix B, both in Acrobat (pdf) format.
  • The Westbay Engineers site also has a White Paper on the design and staffing of a call center (public safety or not) and offers fee-based resources (software for Windows 98/NT) for determining the optimum staffing.
  • In 1997 Frederick Stanley prepared a staffing presentation for APCO–it’s posted on their Web site in Acrobat (pdf) format. [Acrobat/pdf ndex of ther APCO documents]
  • The Ansapoint Web site has a White Paper that discusses a method of calculating the number of call agents in a private call operation.
  • The British-based Mitan Corp. markets a Windows-based software product that provides all sorts of call center calculations, including staffing.
  • Corona Solutions offers a demo download of their sophisticated shift calculation software, Staff Wizard, Using a mathematical model, Staff Wizard analyzes your workload data from CAD or manual entry, and displays graphs and statistics to effectively staff your resources.
  • The state of California’s 911 Program reimburses agencies for the cost of equipment to receive and process 911 calls. They’ve established a method and formula to figure out how many consoles they’ll pay for. It’s not quite like figuring out how many dispatchers you need, but it’s excellent guidance.
  • You should obtain a copy of Standard 1221 from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), which sets out minimum staffing and telephone answer times for those comm centers performing fire dispatch services. The standard is available for a fee on-line both in a printed and Acrobat (pdf) version for $24.95 (slightly less for members of the NFPA, 2007 edition in draft form [pdf]now).
  • Scholarly paper on 911 call prediction based on past calls at San Francisco comm center (pdf).
  • The company KoolToolz offers a $89 computer program cc-Modeler that calculates Erlang calculations.
  • Business Management Systems offers scheduling software, but has also posted explanations of several standard shift configurations. new
  • An explanation (pdf) of optimum shift calculations by William (Bill) Duggan / 2bduggan@gmail.comnew

The Chart

We’ve downloaded a chart created from Erlang theory calculations, reassembled it into an Acrobat (pdf) document, and posted it here to help you determine how many dispatchers you’ll need to answer telephone calls–it doesn’t take into account any other activities, such as radio dispatching, outbound calls, paperwork, CAD typing, etc.–only answering telephones. Nevertheless, it’s useful to obtain a ballpark staffing figure, especially if you have a dedicated call-taking operation.

The recommendations assume several things:

  • The handling of incoming 911 calls can be appropriately predicted by using the Poisson queuing theory.
  • The table recommends optimum staffing for the busiest hour that you experience in a day, or a given period. If your call-taking operations experiences up and down call volume, the recommendation applies only to the busiest period. If you staff according to the table, you might actually be over staffed during low volume periods (0100-0600, for example).
  • The standard of performance is that 90 percent of calls are answered within 10 seconds. If your performance standard is different, then the recommendations would not apply exactly.
  • The “length of call” figure used in the table must take into account any associated work that the call-taker must perform to complete the task. For example, it might take just 10-15 seconds to handle the telephone portion of the incident, but another 35-40 seconds to complete the CAD entry.
  • You would typically take the figure for the required number of dispatchers and multiply it by 5.1 to determine the total number of personnel to provide the required staff for 24×7 (see our first section above). This assumes that your staffing is the same on all shifts–you can add or subtract positions after you multiply, in order to arrive at a more accurate figure.

How to Use This Table

Download the chart, print it out and follow the instructions printed on it. Here they are:

  • Determine the average number of telephone calls you handle in one hour, typically your busiest hour.
  • Determine the average duration of an in-coming telephone call in seconds.
  • Find the call duration figure, or the next highest figure, in the top row of the table–call durations run from 30 seconds to 120 seconds, left to right.
  • Go down the call duration column and locate the figure for the average number of telephone calls you receive in a peak hour, or the next highest figure.
  • Go left across that row to the “Call-Taker Needed” column to determine the number of call-takers you should have on-duty for your peak volume hour.

The Chart 

Alan Burton adds:

All (I think “all”) of the formulas for staffing predictions are predicated on establishing the existing average length of call and using that as the basis for further calculations. I believe this assumption is incorrect, since there is a failure to determine if the average length of call is appropriate or justified.

An agency for which I am working now has an average length of calls of 4-1/2 minutes and has elaborately built staffing around that statistic. There is no justification for that length of call, other than that is what it takes. Since the length of call averages can be translated into budget costs, every second trimmed off the average can save the agency money.

My view would be to take the busy hour, transcribe all of the calls, and determine from those transcriptions if the average handling time was appropriate. Generally, the calls can be objectively evaluated and average handling times can be adjusted accordingly.

Some agencies have concluded that the average handling time is less important than the agency’s ability to provide the highest level of customer service. If the call can be concluded in 60 seconds or 60 minutes is less important than the impression left with the caller that the agency performed an exemplary service. Of course, such service comes at a cost.

Some agencies have found that a two-tier answering service can work well to properly manage calls, maintaining a good customer service while controlling costs. Such an arrangement specifies that the call taker must complete the call within (for example) two minutes, and if it cannot be, must be transferred to the second tier. The second tier may consist of a small unit of personnel more skilled at call handling, but at a classification level below that of supervisor. Call handling averages can then be categorized and evaluated, with accurate statistical data separating easy to handle calls from those few that require additional time.

Shift/Staffing Resources

We’ve collected various Web pages over the years that provide some assistance in shiftwork, staffing and scheduling. Your first stop for resources should be:

  • An APCO an article by Jennifer Hagstrom that boils down staffing calculations to 16 variables.
  • A NENA-commissioned survey and spreadsheet developed by consultants L. Robert Kimball Inc.

The following Web sites have general shift and staffing information:

  • The Circadian Technologies, Inc. Web site [News Briefs] [1999 shiftwork survey, Acrobat .pdf format, 342k] [seminars] [publications]
  • This Web site allows you to create and print a shift calendar (although it’s specifically intended for fire and EMS workers)
  • Manager’s Guide to Alternative Work Schedules by Weldon L. Booth , from IPTM Bookstore
  • Results of a 1999 survey of shiftworkers by Circadian Information
  • PBS television show on “Night Shift,” resources on night shift work [order the video, $99]
  • National Sleep Foundation, strategies for shift workers
  • Incoming.com Web site for commercial call centers — publications, seminars on staffing levels, compensation and more
  • Dispatch supervisor Linda Olmstead describes one agencies plan to handle holiday schedules.
  • Industrial Call Center Weekly published an on-line series of four articles on how to determine staffing for non-public safety centers (telemarketing, etc.), but many of the same principles apply. Surf the final article, and note the links to the previous three articles.
  • The province of Ontario (Canada) commissioned the IBI Group to study the EMS comm centre in Hamilton. Their 120-page report contains useful information on staffing and shiftwork. [Acrobat, pdf format, 565k]
  • The Ontario (Canada) government commissioned a consultant to study Hamilton’s EMS comm center, and came back with recommendations on staffing, etc.
  • The Sleepnet.com Web site is devoted to sleep health, including how to accomodate shiftwork.
  • The Work Options Web site has information on the pros and cons of compressed work schedules, and how to justify the change, along with the Avoid The Rush Web site.
  • The University of South Australia’s Sleep Research Centre offers some thoughts on shiftwork and configurations.
  • Hatrak Associates has several software resources for scheduling and staffing, plus some on-line information.
  • The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) commissioned a Task Force on staffing, and they gave their preliminary report at the association’s 2000 annual conference in Boston.
  • The Work in America Institute produced a report on “New Scheduling Options for Unionized Employees,” which explores the pros and cons of various options, and has lots of good backround on the issues. [Acrobat, pdf, 2.9 Mb]
  • Glen McBride publishes a blog titled “24/7 Life,” with lots of links and information on the issues of working shifts.
  • Bruce Oliver has a Web site that covers shift scheduling, with lots of information for getting you started, but also provides a fee-based service for creating customized schedules for your comm center.
  • 12-hour shifts are very popular, and here’s a medical-type analysis (pdf) of 12 vs. 8 made in 1998, an analysis (pdf) of rest days when using12-hour shifts, and an analysis (pdf) of how 12-hour shifts affect performance in younger/older persons.
  • Kittcom (Wash.) uses 12-our shifts and has posted a spreadsheet of their schedule.
  • Example of a no-overtime 12-hour shift configuration from CAL State University–Fullerton (pdf)
  • Example shift and shift scheduling memorandum from Verdugo (Calif.) Fire Communications Center (pdf) new
  • A example shift schedule for a small center using the Excel spreadsheet [pdf version, .xls version]

Shift & Scheduling Software

There are many software programs that provide various shift tracking and scheduling functions. Some are applications that your purchase and download to your computer, others are services to which you subscribe, and which are entirely Web-based. Each has its pros and cons.

Some software simply allows you to more easily track people, the shifts required to be worked, and the final schedule (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.). More intelligent software will take a list of required hours to work (for comm centers, it’s always 24-hours), the names of available people (and possibly their limitations on days or hours), and other conditions (days-off, no overtime, etc.), and will actually calculate a final schedule for a certain period of time. However, even this smarter software needs some manual tweaking for operations as complex as a 24-hour comm center.

The following list of software and on-line scheduling services has been compiled from comm center sources, and are actually being used to schedule dispatchers. The “new” graphic indicates a new listing, not that the software is new.

  • 911 Schedule Wiz is marketed by Professional Pride, the former Jivasoft shift scheduling software aswhich is based on Microsoft’s Access database software.
  • Aladtec Inc. – offers EMS and fire department scheduling solutions, including smartphone support, messaging, calendars and employee database.
  • Atlas Business Solutions – employee scheduling software: Visual Staff Scheduler PRO (VSS PRO). With VSS PRO you can ensure shift coverage, reduce overtime, track time-off and print, e-mail or publish custom schedules and reports. Company offers 90-day unconditional money-back guarantee.
  • Asgard Systems offers a software program to automate the employee scheduling process.
  • Auto Schedule 5.0 – affordable employee scheduling software that schedules employees automatically on a shift by shift basis. It also tracks requests-off and payroll.
  • cc-Modeler Professional by KoolToolz, a Windows-based program for performing call center staffing calculation.
  • Cenadex offers scheduling software for both law enforcement and firefighting agencies, with the capability to page personnel for shift sign-ups.
  • Codescheduling — An on-line scheduling service primarily for fire and EMS services, but applicable to comm center.
  • Corona Solutions – markets a sophisticated program for determining patrol shift scheduling based on a wide variety of factors.
  • EDP Software offers an automated employee scheduling software, Schedule Pro that is very comprehensive and easy-to-use. This powerful system saves time, money and frustration.
  • dProScheduler – A Web-based scheduling system with specific public safety tools.New
  • espSoftware markets a Windows-based personnel scheduling program, and a free demo download for you to try out before you buy.
  • EZShift software offers automatic shift scheduling, rules, real-time conflict solving, employee request framework, error prevention, automatic swap system and more. Pricing based on flat rate plus number of employees, 30-day free trial.
  • frLab offers software for scheduling and staffing; Italy-based.
  • Hakuna Software offers a web-based automated employee scheduling program designed to take the labor out of writing a schedule. With Hakuna’s built in features, both managers and employees are confident the each schedule is exactly what they need.
  • Hello Scheduling is a Web-based service
  • The Incoming Calls Management Institute markets an Excel-based, spreadsheet scheduling solution.
  • Informer Express – by Informer Systems Inc.; Web-based, and programmed specifically for public safety agencies, including law enforcement, fire, EMS, communications.
  • Intellicate Ltd. – Staff scheduling and workforce management software for creating and planning automated staff schedules. Maintains records of staff working hours and costs, automate staff schedules, built-in shift pattern wizard, allocate staff breaks, assignments and tasks, publish dynamic web schedules, monitor and analyze staff and prepare comprehensive management reports. Free fully functional 30-day trial available. They also offer free shift pattern templates on their web site, including some specifically for 911 dispatch teams.
  • IntelliTime Corp. – Dynamic scheduling and payroll systsem.
  • InTime Solutions offers software specifically tailored for comm center (as well as law enforcement agencies and fire departments) that helps schedule 24-hour operations. They offer a free download of the software for evaluation.
  • Jivasoft markets shift scheduling software for law enforcement agencies and comm centers.
  • Kappix Employee Scheduling Software – rule-based scheduling, unlimited shifts and personnel, templates, reports.
  • Madrigal Software offers software to manage projects and people.
  • Nematek has posted software that was originally written for the Fort St. John detachment of the Canadian RCMP.
  • Otipo.com – Provides Web-based scheduling for free (10 or fewer employees) and a monthly fee (over 11 or more employees). Includes employee access to post availability, e-mail and SMS shift publishing, SMS shift reminders, full reporting to assist payroll.
  • PlanIt Software – A on-line scheduling program for police, fire and EMS.
  • QueueView – A Windows-based program for calculating telephone call center operations, based on Erlang B queue theory.
  • Schedule Me! has two on-line scheduling programs–one is great for calculating days-off based on the number of persons required to be on-duty during each shift of a day. There are downloadable Windows and Mac versions of the program that are free. They also consult and offer computer scheduling software.
  • Schedule Express by Informer Systems
  • Schedule Soft Corp. markets software that helps take the complexity out of arranging shifts and days off for any configuration. In particular, check their pre-entered templates for use with their software, that also includes loads of informative text you can use even without the ScheduleSoft program.The company has also created a Web site for on-line scheduling activities, including schedule creation, shift selection, etc.
  • ScheduleSource – Offers Teamwork 3.0 that handles complex scheduling, including bidding, automatic population, seniority and tie-breaker rankings, shift-bid decoupling.
  • Shiftwork Solutions LLC, offices in the U.S. and Australia, consulting services for private sector as well as law enforcement agencies and public safety comm centers.
  • Shift Schedules offers Excel spreadsheets (Mac and PC) that assist in scheduling personnel, and offers free trial downloads. Cost varies by size of the spreadsheet necessary to handle the agency, and ranges from $49 to $699 for site licenses.
  • SpeedShift Watch Commander by InTime Solutions Inc.
  • Visual Staff Scheduler – a complete package for handling shifts, time-off requests, annotations and much more
  • WhenToWork – a Web-based staffing a scheduling program; includes e-mail notifications, employee “trade board,” 12 different schedule views.
  • WorkSchedule.net – An on-line scheduling service that has been active for 10 years.New

Shift Configuration Samples

From the material we’ve collected over the past couple of years, we came across an incredibly complicated schedule that’s actually worked by dispatchers. We’ve mapped it out with color coding and present it in Acrobat (.pdf) format. We also have posted a collection of circa 1976 schedules that were compiled by APCO.

Also check the example of a 10-hour shift schedule that features rotating days-off, from the Cincinnati Police Department comm center.

Shift Selection

Most agencies have a method or scheme for allowing dispatchers to select the shifts they want: the time of day to work, and the days-off to have. In most cases, these schemes were originally devised by the dispatchers, and then formalized by a union agreement. The agency almost always agrees to these schemes with the condition that the police or fire chief, or manager of the center can re-assign personnel based upon the needs of the agency (such as going to 12-hour shifts for a large emergency or staffing shortage, shifting trainers to another shift, not allowing an all-rookie night shift, etc.).

In all cases, the procedures should be typed up, written out, posted, signed, acknowledged, filed, etc., with all personnel. Everyone must know how the procedure works, and the implications of their selections, decisions and choices. There will always be disputes, either through misunderstandings or interpretation of the procedures. Just like contract law, anticipate problems and cover them in the procedures.

In most cases, shift selection is done in seniority order. That is, the person with the most seniority is allowed to select their choice of shift first, followed by the next person. Persons at the end of the list have very little choice of shifts, and the last person–well, they’re stuck. Shift selection can occur annually, or at some more-frequent interval.

Other agencies rotate dispatchers among the 3-5 available shift hours, and allow the dispatchers to select their days-off by seniority. Typically, mandatory rotations more frequently than voluntary ones, on the theory that the agency is “spreading out the misery” of working evenings, nights, etc. Under this situation, a dispatcher can anticipate what hours they’ll be working, although they still can count on certain days-off until the selection process is over (or they have very high seniority).

By the way, vacation selections are frequently performed the same way: by seniority, at least one year in advance. That is, dispatchers would select one year’s worth of vacation in 2002 during November 2001. Vacation can either be selected all at once (whatever vacation time the dispatcher has accrued), or in “rounds,” during which they can pick some maximum amount (80 hours each round, for example). The rounds continue until no dispatcher has any more vacation to select. The “all at once” approach favors the most senior personnel (they get best pick), while the “rounds” approach gives the lower seniority personnel at least some chance of obtaining a decent summer week off.

The agency may also apply other limitations to the vacation selection, including that you can only pick contiguous weeks (no one-week-here, 3-weeks-there), no more than three (or whatever) dispatchers off at once, no changes after selecting, a canceled week is offered to dispatchers with less seniority (on down the list), etc. Again, much of this procedure could be regulated by union contract.