I remember how much simpler things seemed 27 years ago when I first started in EMS. State and regional training and compliance requirements weren't what they are today; personnel were abundant; and overall, we did a good job with what we had. The challenges we've overcome in the past three decades have positively impacted the patients we serve, although these changes have come with a new set of opportunities.
Let's focus on some of the staffing and scheduling challenges that many of our organizations are facing today and offer some solutions that have been effective.
Identify Your Needs
As the chief of a progressive EMS agency that employs career staff and volunteer members, my challenges are magnified. One solution isn't enough for this diversified workforce, but after further evaluation, they're all variations on one theme. We took a hard look at our organizational needs: response time reliability, call coverage percentages and types of calls received. Additionally, we looked at peak-time analysis and unit-hour utilization to determine when, and to what levels, we should staff. Looking at some of these measurable benchmarks will assist you in determining your scheduling needs.
Our staff had some simple needs with regard to scheduling, such as ease of access, the ability to make changes on their own and the ability to request changes. I remember the days when we used a paper schedule (an Excel document) that was posted in a glass bulletin board and only the scheduler could access it. It always looked so clean and fresh when it was first posted but, became rapidly filled with whiteout, scribbled pen markings and highlighting. Our staff was often inconvenienced, having to call a co-worker to look at the schedule or drive to the base to see if they were working. What a nightmare!
Finding a Solution
With electronic charting, diagnostic tools and the myriad other digital devices we have at our fingertips, it made sense that a better solution was out thereƒsomewhere.
Like many agencies, we considered having our own IT personnel develop something for us. We quickly dismissed the idea due to the long-term support concerns and hosting issues We started investigating the many scheduling and staffing software programs.
As an agency that includes multi-generational personnel, we were also driven to find a solution that applied to both our tech-savvy personnel and those who start to sweat when their fingers first touch a keyboard.
Other factors we considered were: cost, ability to customize, ease of use and the responsiveness of the selected vendor in meeting these needs. We spent many hours discussing our known issues and our vision of the ideal system.
We didn't have to look very hard to find the many products available, and you shouldn't either. But beware, a simple Google search can produce a confusing flood of results. We asked other EMS agencies for recommendations and attended trade shows and conferences, but we still didn't find anything that met our specific needs.
Unsatisfied with many of the existing products, we initiated discussions with a local IT software company about developing a Web-based product specifically for us. It took about five months to create a product that was tailored to our needs and also met our scheduling requirements. The program became so successful that a new company (EMS eSchedule) was formed to serve the EMS community exclusively. They now have clients across the U.S.
So Much More
Comparing the initial product created for us five years ago with what we're using today, I'm amazed at how reliant we've become on it for so many of our managerial tasks. Our scheduling program has evolved into a powerful workforce management application. We now use the program for time and labor management; classroom scheduling; training and tracking of our certification and volunteer incentive program; inventory management; and as an HR database.
The program also handles many other tasks for us. In terms of scheduling alone, our members and employees are now able to submit their availability, retrieve their schedule and request such changes as PTO and shift trades -- all online. A weekly automated e-mail reminds members and employees which shifts they're working and the other organizational scheduling opportunities we have.
One of our evaluation factors I mentioned earlier was cost. We looked at our potential return on investment with a product like this and quickly realized it wouldn't take long to recoup our investment. After we knew how many hours our scheduler spent creating and changing the schedule, and then adding the time and labor management segment, this investment was a no-brainer.
It's critical to the overall morale of your staff that their time is recorded properly. If you don't believe me, underpay someone a few times and see how happy they are about it. We've been able to eliminate time cards and minimize the incidence of human error in payroll administration.
I have more than 50 employees and 100 volunteer members who clock in and out from different bases and satellite locations, and we haven't had a payroll or time-recording error in more than four years. At the end of a pay period, it takes the program about three minutes to complete a payroll report that's then exported directly to our third-party payroll vendor.
We've always felt it was important to record the significant time our volunteers contribute to our organization as well. Therefore, our volunteer staff logs in and out for each shift, just like employees.
We've initiated a volunteer incentive program to recognize and reward our volunteer members for their contribution to our organization. This program has been very successful in motivating our members to work more hours, and in 2009, we realized an approximate 12% increase in volunteer hours worked.
We look at personnel scheduling as one of our primary responsibilities that management must get right. Everyone's time is valuable, and strict time requirements are placed on our members and employees. We owe our staff a tool that effectively helps them with their commitments.
All of our employees submit their availability by a deadline, and then the clock starts for us to complete the schedule by a deadline as well. It then becomes the member's or employee's responsibility to be on time for their scheduled shift. We hold all of our membership accountable for their attendance and tardiness history, and there are consequences for non-compliance. This consistent approach toward the scheduling and management of our staffing is integral to fostering an atmosphere of teamwork and responsible behavior.
No matter which resource you select to accomplish scheduling, you must have a supportive management structure in place that's willing and able to assist, as well as clear policies and procedures.
Being more flexible with your schedule and shifts can be difficult in the beginning, but in the long run may yield greater success. A full schedule that isn't prone to changes can reduce overtime, which in turn boosts morale and limits crew frustration.JEMS
This article originally appeared in March 2010 JEMS as "When's My Shift?: Technology has come a long way since printed schedules."