- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

WASHBURN, N.D. (AP) - To combat burnout in his department, newly elected McLean County Sheriff J.R. Kerzmann has worked to make the job more family friendly.

With unemployment still low in North Dakota, attracting and retaining employees in any industry, law enforcement included, is difficult. So Kerzmann decided to offer compensation where he could - in scheduling.

Being a former patrol officer, Kerzmann knew how grueling the schedule could be. He said many days you didn’t know if you were coming or going and officers were often short on sleep.

“When we started doing this, my thoughts were … take care of your troops, not only when they’re on duty but off duty as well,” Kerzmann said.

On the old schedule, officers were working seven days straight of eight-hour shifts. They were swinging from days to nights and only had one weekend off a month.

“Talk about a burnout factor,” Kerzmann said.

Cpl. Curt Olson said the switching between shifts was hard on the body, and, when he and his ex-wife, who also worked shift work, had kids it was a balancing act - even coming in uniform in order to be there for his daughter’s prom.

Chief Deputy Richard Johnson, who has been with the McLean County Sheriff’s Department for 30 years, doesn’t work the patrol shifts anymore but said it was tough with four kids when he was on that schedule. His wife worked nights, too, and many times he had to ask the neighbors or even other deputies to watch the kids. The neighbors often would be in bed when they would go in and pick the kids up off the couch.

Johnson said he also attended school functions in uniform and often took his kids to and from school in his squad car.

The Bismarck Tribune (https://bit.ly/1ND4IMC ) reports the officers now work 12-hour shifts and don’t work more than three consecutive days. Kerzmann also added an on-call feature, giving officers two hours of downtime with each shift.

“They don’t have to be dedicated to the car,” Kerzmann said.

If it’s Christmas or family is in town or their kid is playing sports or maybe they have a lot of paperwork to do, they can go home or take that down time, with their supervisor’s approval, when call volume isn’t heavy. But officers know, if they get a call, they’re going.

Johnson’s son-in-law is a patrol officer and Johnson said it seems like he is able to be with his young daughter and son more and go hunting and fishing when he wants.

Johnson also hears fewer complaints from other officers.

Olson said the 12-hour shifts took a while to acclimate to but now they are just a normal day and he says the positives of the schedule far outweigh the negatives. He now has every other weekend to spend with his new wife.

“It basically doubled our days off together,” he said, and Olson, who enjoys nature photography, gets to go on more photo trips with her by his side.

“The weekends were one of the biggest stumbling blocks; now, we get to do the things people in normal jobs do,” Olson said, and the schedule has become an asset to keeping employees on the force and boosting morale.

Kerzmann said they’ve been short staffed lately, so the downtime has not been as much, but he has gotten positive feedback on the schedule change.

“After two or three months, they loved it; everyone was on board,” Kerzmann said. “They would probably kill us if we tried to change it back.”

The McLean County Sheriff’s Department has 25 deputies. It is short six patrol officers - waiting for two to graduate from the academy and performing background checks on four possible hires. Those positions could be filled as early as the first week of January.

Three officers work the day shift 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Between noon and 6 a.m., six other officers come on at staggered times, so there could be as many as nine officers working at a time.

Kerzmann said the schedule allows officers and the department to get the “most bang for their buck” without officers having to take vacation just to do something with their family.

“The concept is mainly family - a family-oriented department,” he said.

About 30 percent of the officers in the department are age 45 to 50. There are a few in their 20s on patrol, but it’s mostly a family-aged department, Kerzmann said.

The schedule is printed for the full year, so officers know what to expect.

Before the new schedule, there were more complaints, according to Kerzmann, describing scenarios in which an officer whose kids were always asleep when he or she got home would begin looking to another department or another industry, such as the John Deere dealership or the grain elevator, for a job.

Pay wasn’t the issue. Starting, deputies make $44,000, similar to starting salaries in other area departments, and the county pays for health care. They’re eligible for overtime pay starting next year.

Of the two officers who resigned under the new schedule, one moved to Lincoln to be close to his fiance. The other was from Minnesota and found a job opening closer to home.

Other area departments had taken a similar approach several years ago. In Burleigh County, there’s is a 12-hour shift, seven shifts every 14 days, with four flex hours to use in that time period.

Burleigh County Sheriff Pat Heinert said the eight-hour schedule used to be a huge negative before the switch was made.

“It’s the little things that mean something,” he said.

As far as attracting new staff, a new partnership with Lake Region State College to bring officer training to Bismarck has helped some departments. Burleigh County hired two from the last class.

“We have interviewed quite a few of the graduates, some even before the end of the session,” said Bismarck Police Lt. Dwight Offerman. “While I can’t say this has been a definitive asset to our efforts, the fact that successful graduates are licensable is a definite plus …. I think it is too early to assess its value to our hiring efforts. However, its potential for good is quite promising.”

In Mandan, a lesser retirement package remains the department’s biggest recruiting issue. However, there are only four open patrol positions at the department, the least number of openings Mandan Police have had in a couple years, said Deputy Chief Paul Leingang.

Leingang said the city also has made efforts to better its offerings, upping its retirement contributions slightly, as well as upping new officer pay to match entry level pay in Bismarck, almost $43,700 annually.


Information from: Bismarck Tribune, https://www.bismarcktribune.com

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