Ellerbe’s Elegy: Saga of the 12-hour Shift

District of Columbia Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe is set to forge ahead with his recently announced plan to convert the department from the current 24/72 work schedule to a 12-hour shift format.  According to Ellerbe, the change saves money ($36M?) and results in decreased staff of up to 400.

There are arguments for either side and we will have a chance to become thoroughly familiar with them but what is most striking is the Chief’s decision to make this his “leadership centerpiece.”   Can there be any doubt that this amounts to sending a dead letter to Local 36?

One would assume that a chief fire officer would automatically engage in both a strategic and a risk assessment before embarking on any plan that would have such a wide ranging effect on the department. His move will surely result in the DCFD being in complete disarray in every sense imaginable- political, managerial, operational.  His quest will become a litmus test on his leadership.

It’s hard to imagine that changing the work shift is the best available idea to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the DCFD. Because this issue will never be settled between labor and management, Ellerbe is forfeiting control of one of his most cherished initiatives to an unknown third party, be it the council, the congress or the courts.  If this qualifies as strategy, it is of a reckless sort.  Aside from the efficacy of the proposal, its wild card nature should give the Chief’s bosses both pause and concern.

Whatever anyone may say, he can’t even count on support from his own management team as many of them are assigned to, and presumably are great fans of, the very shift schedule he proposes to destroy.  It’s plausible that management’s disaffection with his proposal will bleed over into other areas as his leadership team losses confidence in his ability to point the department in the right direction.

A fundamental requirement of effective leadership is the ability to accurately forecast the outcome of strategic initiatives and to then assess their suitability for implementation.  That seems to be missing here.


Photo credit:  peeepl.com


  • Larry Osborne says:

    The twenty-four hour shift was hardly an invention of fire fighter unions. As the continuous duty schedule was eliminated, it was cities, union and non-union, who instituted that shift, and who long resisted any change. As with defined-benefit pensions, the 24 hour shift is another issue which has somehow over the years been made to appear to be an “invention” of the union.

    Any officer or chief who has had daily staffing duties is aware that speaking generally, the 24 hour shift lessens exposure to unanticipated overtime from such things as members calling in sick, or other unexpected absences or situations. Coordination and stability within shifts, and among crews is also an issue. And having had such staffing and budget responsibilities, including at division chief level, I seriously question the anticipated savings, if any.

    It is difficult to reconcile the fact that while Chief Ellerbe is proposing a 12 hour shift, other chiefs are advocating a 48/96 hour shift configuration, also citing economics. Too often it appears that what they really want to propose is whatever the union does not agree with. And of course, there is the oft-cited need for “change”, as if change itself is progress, or is always effective.

  • Bill Hand says:

    Sounds like maybe an “ego centerpiece” rather than a “leadership centerpiece”…..It has always amazed be how many managers managed by ego rather than leadership. In the fire service, they usually start by changing the uniform because that is one the few things they actually have “control” over. Next comes changing the shift and then reducing staffing on fire trucks…sound familiar?

  • Jhoman says:

    Save a dime, at what cost? Lives, this will bite him in the butt over time!

  • rick says:

    His big savings plan is by reducing the work force by 25%. Train wreck waiting to happen.

  • Elvis Picasso says:

    Essentially, what Eric has forecasted, is already happening. His announcement has been viewed as capricious by the union, vindictive by the members, reckless by his managers. That being said, it will surely end up a court battle. In the end, it will cost the city more than it ever would have, if he’d focused his ‘initiatives’ on things better spent – infrastructure, apparatus, and continued response improvement.

  • Mike says:

    The shift change, IMHO, is nothing more than another friction tactic. For many years, through thick and thin, most members stomach out hardships do to esprit de corps, pride in a name, happiness with a ‘second” family, good schedules ,etc. He is systematically removing each one of these support mechanisms that allow for an overall smooth operation. He is installing agitators wherever possible. THe more friction, the work it takes just to do your job, and ergo eventually you either submit or quit. The only antidote is to outlast him. Remove pride filled name…check, cause confusion with random, unpredictable actions (details, transfers, errant mistake filled promotions, uniform changes…)check, cause unrest and personal grief with schedule change…….

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