February 8, 2023

Creating a Pattern for Success: Comparing Public Safety Shift Schedules


Shift work is a given when working in the public safety sector due to the need for 24/7 coverage. However, the type of shift schedule will vary depending on whether someone is an EMT, a police officer, a firefighter or a dispatch worker. Collective bargaining agreements can also complicate things.

While there has been debate about the most efficient shift work schedules from an operations standpoint, one of the primary goals of public safety shift schedule planning is to ensure that personnel are adequately rested, alert and able to respond quickly when necessary.

Proper Shift Scheduling Begins with Employee Input

When implemented with employee input, shift scheduling can provide significant employee benefits, such as greater job satisfaction, improved morale and increased productivity. In addition, shift working offers flexibility with the chance to create a tailored schedule that fits into personal commitments outside work.

Because of the flexibility of different shift schedule designs, employers can easily and quickly adapt or implement changes according to an organization’s changing needs. Moreover, shift schedules save money by avoiding overtime wages and reducing labor costs while encouraging efficient use of resources.

Despite the benefits, scheduling shifts can be challenging because there are about as many different shift patterns as there are roles to fill them. Let’s consider some of the most common types of public safety shift schedules.

Panama or 2-2-3 Shift Schedule

The Panama shift schedule is popular in police departments. This is a slow-rotating shiftwork system in which teams rotate between 12-hour day and night shifts. For example, one team’s schedule might be 2 days on, 2 days off, 3 days on, 2 days off, 2 days on, 3 days off for 28 days. They then switch to a night shift on the same schedule for the next 28 days. After 56 days, the same sequence starts over. However, the Panama schedule can also lead to fatigue due to long hours of straight work without restful sleep between long work periods.

4 On/4 Off Shift Schedule

This repeating pattern shift is another often used police schedule because it’s simple to implement. It involves four 12-hour shifts followed by four days off. So, for example, the schedule could be four 12-hour day shifts, rest, four 12-hour nights, or two day shifts followed by two night shifts and then four days off.

5 On/2 Off Shift Schedule

Many organizations find the 5 on/2 off rotating schedule ideal for dispatch workers. For example, an employee may work 8-hour days Tuesday through Saturday, followed by two days off. Then the pattern repeats, working 8-hour days Monday through Friday and so on, alternating days off over seven days. Organizations could also add day, swing, and night shifts into the rotation.

24/48 Shift Schedule

The 24-48 shift pattern uses three teams and three shifts on a 3-day cycle. Each team works one 24-hour shift followed by two consecutive days (48 hours) off duty. Also known as an ABC shift pattern, it’s popular with fire departments and EMS.

Kelly Shift Schedule

Much like the 24/48 schedule, many EMS workers and firefighters often work under the Kelly Schedule, which consists of a 9-day cycle where each team works one 24-hour shift, followed by 24 hours off duty, works another 24-hour shift, followed by 24 hours off duty, then works a final 24-hour shift, followed by four consecutive days off duty. An alternative is the 48/96 Schedule, which means they work 48 hours and are off for the next 4 days.

The 24/48 and Kelly Schedule work for EMS and fire departments because their employees usually stay in a house-like setting where they can rest and do everyday tasks until they get a call.

Dealing with the Challenges of Crafting Rotating Employee Schedules

When dealing with complex scheduling, such as crafting rotating shifts, there are many factors to consider. From ensuring you have the necessary staff coverage to meeting shift qualification criteria, following collective bargaining agreement guidelines, and even allowing staff to swap shifts.

In addition, budgetary limitations, legal stipulations regarding working hours and pauses, performance metrics, and employee overtime choices must all be considered. The aim is to put together an optimal shift work timetable in accordance with the law and consider individual preferences.

Using advanced employee scheduling software can help organizations accurately forecast their staffing needs and make smarter decisions when creating shifts. This can lead to improved productivity, lower stress for the scheduler and employees, and even improved employee retention by helping to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

TCP Software’s Aladtec Scheduling offers top-rated employee scheduling solutions to help keep your labor costs down and scheduling under control. In addition, our Aladtec software, designed specifically for fire/rescue, law enforcement, EMS and dispatch agencies, includes outside applications such as reporting, dashboards, employee performance, etc. Aladtec provides an extensive selection of pre-programmed and customizable scheduling templates available, such as 24/48, 48/96, and Panama Rotation, with the flexibility to create custom rotations from basic to highly complex. If it repeats, Aladtec can create it.