The scheduling of firefighters to staff Baltimore County's fire stations 24 hours a day, seven days a week has to be carefully choreographed, commanders say.
To make it easier to juggle vacation and sick leave for 1,000 firefighters - some of whom have specialized jobs such as paramedics and engine drivers - the Fire Department has turned to a computerized system to ensure all vacancies are filled.
Called TeleStaff, the software arranges firefighters' schedules and uses an automated telephone system, said Lt. Vernon Adamson. It can even call firefighters' pagers to alert them when they're needed to work overtime.
The $150,000 system went into operation Jan. 1 and is being used by all 22 fire stations in the county. More than 200 fire departments from Montgomery County to Houston also use the program, developed by a California software company called PDSI. Baltimore City's Fire Department is considering introducing the automated system this year.
If the system works in the county Fire Department - considered the most difficult agency to manage in terms of leave - other departments may start using it, Adamson said.
Information about the agency's daily staffing requirements and about each firefighter, including seniority and training level, is entered into the system. When one firefighter calls a central number to request a day off, the computer analyzes which firefighters can fill the vacancy, Adamson said.
The process eliminates the need for division chiefs to try to keep track of who is working and where they are.
"We used to carry around a paper roster. It was the bible. You didn't dare set it down," said Division Chief Jon Kuruc. "We used to joke we did all the scheduling with a No. 3 pencil because it could change a few minutes later."
Under the new system, all Fire Department staff members have access to the schedule - either by computer or phone - allowing firefighters to keep tabs on annual leave and sign up for extra shifts.
The system also helps supervisors track the use of overtime and peak vacation times, said Captain Ross W. Mickle. "For example, it's really helpful when you're trying to figure out the best week to schedule training," he said.
Because firefighters work two 10-hour day shifts and two 14-hour night shifts, with four days off in between, scheduling is far more complex than it is for employees who work typical 9-to-5 jobs. And because of the emergency nature of firefighters' jobs, all shifts must be covered every day, holidays and weekends included.
Early reviews of the automated system are mostly positive.
"I think the major glitch is getting people used to it," said Michael K. Day Sr., president of the Baltimore County Professional Firefighters Association, the union that represents firefighters and paramedics.