Scheduling EMS personnel: 5 best practices for paramedic chiefs and HR managers

Follow these scheduling practices to improve provider morale, patient care and operational efficiency

The shift schedule for EMS personnel is one of the most important, vital and often overlooked aspects of EMS operations. It determines an agency’s ability to effectively provide service, it sets call receiver and dispatcher expectations of resources available to respond and it has a direct impact on the morale of providers.

In order to make the most out of your agency’s schedule to benefit the organization, the patients it serves and the providers, here are five best practices for scheduling EMS personnel.

1. Clearly communicate the schedule
While communication plays a vital role in everything that we do, clearly communicating the schedule is essential. The schedule should be accessible to agency management, operation supervisors and especially the providers so that they actually know when they are expected to be on shift.

Photo courtesy of EMS eSchedule
Photo courtesy of EMS eSchedule

The easiest way to accomplish across the board accessibility to the schedule is to use an online scheduling application. There are many systems available, some geared specifically for the EMS industry and others that are more generic.

If your agency continues to do scheduling via spreadsheet programs or by hand, communicating that schedule is both harder and time-consuming but must still be done. Make sure to follow a consistent and predictable schedule to announce the schedule, accept change requests, grant schedule changes and to announce the final schedule.

Although tedious and time-consuming, this will ensure that your schedule has been communicated, that your providers know what is expected of them and most importantly that everything has been documented should an issue arise down the road.

2. Have the schedule ready in advance
Having a schedule available in advance has benefits for both the agency and the provider’s planning purposes. An agency can plan for resource management, such as the number of vehicles needed on any given day and time, which allows vehicles to be scheduled for preventive maintenance and downtime. A provider can plan for childcare, class schedules or some much-needed sleep.

How far in advance the schedule can be set and available to providers depends on agency operations. Agencies with hyperdynamic scheduling, where every week is different than the week before, will at best be able to schedule a week in advance. Agencies that divide their scheduled resources between core always available units and flex units to dynamically cover special events or peak demand times will be able to schedule their core units two weeks or more in advance and add the flex units as needed. Agencies that have a set schedule with few changes can schedule a full month or more in advance.

3. Consider provider preferences
Provider preferences play a large role in both the ability to provide service and the quality of that service. Managers should be looking to make things easier, not harder, for everyone involved.

Knowing your provider’s preferences will make scheduling easier for you, makes their ability to balance the things outside of work easier for them, and that makes coming in for their shift more enjoyable for everyone. Not taking their preferences into consideration can lead to poor morale, a negative disposition towards the agency, more work for the scheduler and directly result in a poor quality of service that they provide.

Shift trading is a common occurrence in EMS. If your agency allows shift trades, make sure to approve or deny the trade as soon as possible. The same applies to when someone requests time off. There is a reason they are requesting the time off or looking to trade the shift. Not knowing whether a request has been approved can result in both unnecessary anxiety for the provider and a harder time covering the shift from the operational end.

In a hyperdynamic scheduling model, it is important to set the deadline for the submission of provider availability. Make sure this deadline and what is expected of it is clearly communicated to everyone. Provide friendly weekly reminders of the deadline. Once that deadline is set, stick to it and make the schedule available on time.

4. Prioritize agency needs
The needs of your agency must be prioritized. Is it more important to cover a shift or manage overtime? Can two providers from last week’s orientation class work together or are experienced providers being paired with new providers for a certain length of time or hours?

Once you fully understand what your agency has as the main priority, you can better adjust the schedule to ensure those priorities are met. Create a scheduling priority matrix or flowchart and communicate it to operational staff and management. This will help provide consistency in scheduling during all hours by the operational team.

Deciding par levels of unit resources will also help to establish the base number of resources your agency needs. Define what the levels are and at what point going below those levels triggers an agency-wide alert. This internal state of emergency can result in a number of actions to help rectify the situation, including mandating employees to stay past their scheduled shift end time.

If you find that you are mandating your employees to stay past their scheduled end time greater than 10 percent of the time, this is perhaps an indicator that you need to revisit your base schedule and make adjustments. While mandating is an option, it should be used sparingly since doing so often results in lower morale, frustration, and general anger from the providers who it affects. Low morale can manifest as sub-standard customer service, higher absentee rates and a lack of efficiency.

5. On-call lists
Life happens, even to EMS providers. Sickness, doctor appointments, court dates, childcare issues and sudden situational emergencies will happen over the course of time. When they happen at an EMS agency the effect can be disastrous in terms of being able to meet response times and other metrics that measure the agency’s performance.

To fill vacancies quickly, maintain an on-call list of personnel who are not scheduled to work, but able to cover a shift if needed. The list should be accessible to anyone on the operational end to utilize.

What are your best practices for EMS provider scheduling? Share your ideas and questions in the comments. 

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