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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Overdoing the Overtime

By Ernie Stephens

About 10 years ago, I ended up as the acting lieutenant in charge of the helicopter unit where I worked. It really wasn’t that big a deal. With the guys and the lady I had surrounding me, things were actually pretty sweet.

Our biggest problem at the time was not having enough pilots to cover all our shifts. They were all hard-charging helicopter drivers and tactical flight officers, but they had lives outside of the department. Most had young children involved in school activities, sports and all kinds of things. So, from time to time, they wanted to take off from work to see their daughter play a frog in the school play, see their son pitch an “almost no-hitter,” and clean up after the pony that was rented for a birthday party. I, having no kids (and no life), happily covered pretty much all of those shifts, usually without putting in for overtime pay. (The latter was to keep them off my back about how much money we went through.)

One day, I was on the phone with Betty, my captain. As the assistant commander of the Special Operations division, she was in charge of aviation, canine, and a few other units. That meant she was often too busy to make the 15-mile trip to the hangar very often, but she still managed to check on us by phone regularly. The day of that call, I mentioned working a couple of extra shifts during the previous week to ensure an aircraft was available while someone else was off for a family event. She commended me for working the extra days, and that was about it – until a couple of days later.

Apparently after giving what I said about the hours I was working some thought, Betty phoned me back and said, “From now on, I don’t want you working any overtime without asking me first.” I have to tell you, I was pretty offended. Generally speaking, senior sergeants don’t have to get permission to work overtime when there won’t be any money involved. Heck, I wasn’t even looking for “comp time,” which is additional time off later on down the road. And I was just about to tell her how offended I was, albeit respectfully, when she explained the reason for her order.

“Ernie, I know you,” she said. (And she was right, considering we had known each since we were slick-sleeves.) “You’ll work until you fall flat on your face unless someone stops you. I need to make sure that you aren’t flying when you’re tired.”

Yeah, that was pretty thoughtful.

It isn’t that I didn’t appreciate the oversight coming from my combination commander and friend, but I was still a bit insulted, until it occurred to me that—in all honesty—I’m probably not as good a judge as I’d like to think I am when I’m tired.

My captain had a point. I can get so gung-ho about working the overtime shift at hand, that I’ll inadvertently set myself up to get burned out days later when my normal shift comes up. I immediately switched from being defensive, to being thankful for the insight.

This story came back to me while attending the ALEA conference in New Orleans in July. A few of my pals from agencies around the country said that with all of the budget problems their departments are experiencing, one of them is a manpower shortage. Yes, there has always been a problem finding pilots, paramedics and even tactical flight officers, but now it isn’t just a matter of not being able to find qualified personnel. It’s also about not being able to hire them because of thin budgets.

Many aviation units are losing personnel due to the usual stuff, like retirements, resignations, promotions, etc., but spending restraints are preventing them from filling those vacancies. The next step is either to cut back on the unit’s availability, or have crews work overtime to cover the gaps. Add that to the number of people who need to generate some extra income, the folks who feel an obligation to keep an aircraft available, and an increasing number of administrators who believe in “mandatory overtime,” and you now have a witch’s brew for inadvertently working too long and too hard.

If you’re in your hangar right now, take a look in the trashcans. How many empty cans of power drinks and drained bottles of energy shots do you see in there? Are people stashing sleeping bags in their lockers these days? I’m not calling it a scientific calculation, but I am wondering if these lean times are pushing crews beyond a nice, safe workload. And let’s face it, people with badges are not always willing to say they’re reaching a breaking point, let alone gone beyond it. We may even miss it in ourselves entirely.

This business of doing more with less more is a necessity in today’s economic environment. And people who have spent their lives in public service won’t let that keep them from doing their jobs. But, watching ourselves and watching each other to make sure we don’t overdo it with the overtime is an idea that has found its time moreso than ever. Thanks, Betty!


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