Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard Bowers warned against switching from 24-hour shifts at the county's emergency call center on the heels of an incident in which a 911 operator fell asleep on the job.
When 911 is called in the county, a police department worker answers the phone and, if needed, transfers the call to the fire department.
But when one woman called 911 because her husband was having trouble breathing in early April, the fire department operator was heard snoring.
Amid assurances at a council Public Safety Committee meeting Thursday that the incident would never happen again, Bowers defended the 24-hour shift, saying other changes to the way the call center operates will provide the needed safeguards.
Having operators work 24 hours and then take off 48 hours makes recruiting and retaining staff easier, he said. "You can really plan your life ... in terms of day care, if you have day care issues, [and] you don't have to travel as much whereas if you have a split shift you have to travel twice as much."
With a 24-hour shift, rather than the 12-hour shift that many local jurisdictions use, the same supervisors work with the same phone operators all the time, making management easier, he added. "Operationally, it provides a continuity that when you and I are working together, we know we're going to be working together the next shift we work together."
But Councilman Phil Andrews, D-Gaithersburg/Rockville and chairman of the committee, questioned whether the 24-hour shift poses a safety risk and whether it is cost-efficient.
"Putting aside whether there is a way to ensure there is no public safety difference at all ... you have a lot more work hours if you have the shorter shifts, and that's a significant issue in terms of cost for taxpayers and flexibility in terms of assignments," he said.
An emergency call center employee's 24-hour shift includes a six-hour rest period and a two-hour physical training period. With 24-hour shifts, employees have 32 productive hours a week, versus 48 in 12-hour shifts.
Among jurisdictions in the Washington area, Montgomery County is the only one with 24-hour shifts.