Right on schedule

     It may have been well and good for J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books, to have scribbled her way to fame on the back of a napkin while squirreled away in a coffee shop (the purported birthplace of one of the world's most famous protagonists) but imagine managing something as complicated as law enforcement shift scheduling in such a rudimentary way. Yet all across the country, law enforcement agencies of all sizes are doing the equivalent of just that.

     "There are tens of thousands of agencies that are still scheduling by hand," says Dan Ryan, president of Jivasoft Corp., a Laredo, Texas-based company that develops and markets administrative software for public safety agencies. "At least three quarters of them are [scheduling] on nothing more than an Excel spreadsheet, which offers no integration of functions. Consequently, most agencies are still doing separate things. For example, the time cards are different from the schedule and the post assignments are handled by another process. It's time-consuming and inefficient."

     It is challenging, as well, especially considering the problems that scheduling presents for law enforcement, says Chief Brian Jarvis, who is with the Town of Chester (New York) Police Department. "There are special details, contractual obligations you have to go by, the [need for] 24-hour coverage," says Jarvis, ticking off just a few of the things he has to keep in mind when scheduling. Jarvis is grateful that the scheduling software his agency has been using for the last several years does a lot of this kind of thinking for him.

     In fact, today's scheduling software offers an array of functions designed to not only streamline the process of making shift assignments but to manage related tasks, such as tracking time off, sick time, vacation time and vacation requests, assigning and managing overtime, ensuring adequate coverage, making special duty assignments and more. (Editor's note: See product information beginning on Page 67 for more details).

     While it may not be possible to manage all the functions that scheduling software programs can perform with just one click of a mouse — although it's close — the time savings offered by these new products are significant. Jarvis's experience bears this out. Prior to switching to his department's current system, Jarvis had been using an Excel spreadsheet format to schedule the department's 23 officers and three civilians.

     "We have three shifts, and I did the scheduling on a monthly basis," he says. "It probably took about four hours, and there wasn't a lot of flexibility. I had to do each assignment manually. Plus, there was no good way to document changes."

     Now, Jarvis reports, he spends about two hours scheduling a year's worth of shifts and then simply updates each month as necessary. "I get it out of the way at the start of the year and the officers prefer it," he says. "It helps them out because they know what to expect."

     Capt. Tom Larson, with the Peoria (Illinois) Police Department, is another believer in the benefits of modern scheduling software. His agency employs 250 sworn officers and 41 civilian workers and runs five patrol shifts, two of which overlap during the busiest times of the day.

     "Many challenges and problems were previously experienced by the Peoria Police Department in relation to scheduling," says Larson, explaining that his department had used an Excel spreadsheet for this activity before switching to scheduling software. "Scheduling was time-consuming and mistake-prone. Supervisors were required to spend too much time behind a desk writing schedules instead of being on the streets where they belong. Mistakes were routinely made and not caught until short-staffing or other problems were noticed at the last minute, leading to unplanned adjustments and forced overtime, which is a real morale killer."

     The new software has enabled the Peoria PD to automate and standardize scheduling practices throughout the agency, Larson says. He ticks off just a few of the benefits the transition has brought, in addition to the ability to create schedules in a matter of seconds:

  • Each shift can tailor its schedule to the personnel's specific needs, but the format is constant across the organization.
  • The ability exists to query the data and produce a variety of reports previously unavailable. For example, Larson's department can track any change made to a schedule and identify who made the change and when, and thus be able to hold accountable anyone who alters a schedule. In addition, managers can "red flag" potential abuses of leave time or sick time and produce corroborating documentation.
  • Adjustments made to predetermined shift strengths are signaled by a screen color change, providing a visual cue to indicate adequate or inadequate staffing.
  • Last-minute changes are made in seconds and are noted in real time.
  • Officers and employees can log onto the system to check schedules, request leave time or overtime, and verify if such requests have been approved or denied. Essentially, scheduling software enables law enforcement agencies to eliminate some pressing concerns, explains Bob Schoenkopf, a former California police department administrator and now senior project manager for InTime Solutions Inc., a developer of software and service solutions with headquarters in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

     "In my years of experience working within police departments, there are three main questions that law enforcement senior administrators ask all the time," says Schoenkopf. "Where are my people? Why am I spending so much on overtime? And, do I have the right people in the right place at the right time? All of these relate to budgeting, the allocation of people and, overall, delivering a well-managed, quality public service through the proper assignment of scarce budgetary and people resources. The challenge comes down to improving protective service levels to the public."

     These tools help agencies deal effectively with increasing pressure to be accountable for expenditures and employee levels, say software manufacturers. Larson cites that as one reason he believes every agency, regardless of size, should explore the possibility of purchasing scheduling software, despite any financial constraints.

     "Scheduling software for law enforcement comes in a variety of costs and complexities," he says. "Agencies with limited resources can obtain scheduling software for a fraction of the cost of the high-end programs with all the bells and whistles. The benefits of improved productivity and efficiency make purchasing software a cost-savings in the long run."

     Still, Dick Chapman, owner of Shift Schedules, which markets, develops and sells Excel spreadsheets designed for law enforcement scheduling, points out that not every agency needs nor can some afford elaborate software programs. Further, agencies that may be unable to afford the software, Chapman explains, may lack the technological infrastructure or information technology (IT) staff required to support it. For such agencies, some of which may be taking an old-fashioned, write-it-on-a-calendar approach to scheduling, Excel spreadsheets offer a time-saving, organized solution, particularly because of the spreadsheets' expanded flexibilities. The beauty of the marketplace, says Chapman, is that there's no one-size-fits-all solution.

     As far as training goes, spreadsheets lean toward being simple to learn and use — some would say incredibly simple — on any ease-of-use spectrum. Scheduling software programs, of course, will vary in their training requirements depending on design, but most reports indicate that the learning curve required hasn't proved to be unduly onerous. What can be challenging is getting people on board, says Jivasoft's Ryan.

     "It does require quite a bit of effort, not to get started but to take advantage of the economies offered," he explains. "It involves changing the way people work. Every time you automate something that had previously been done with paper, it's work. There will always be people fighting it."

     Ryan adds that his company finds resistance is decreasing. "I'm seeing a generational sea change," he says. "People in decision-making capacities are taking over now and are computer savvy; they expect these kinds of functions will be done on the computer. We feel that every year, more people who are open to technology are moving into position to do business with us. This is a trend we've been seeing for the last five years and we expect this to continue for the next five years — at least until everyone has scheduling software in place."

     Schoenkopf agrees. "What's interesting to note is that the market for technology improvements in law enforcement staff scheduling is still in its infancy, but what is occurring is a significant movement in terms of awareness and interest," he says. "Administrators are talking to colleagues who have gained benefits in terms of budget savings and improved efficiencies, and this is delivering increased knowledge about, and comfort using, these kinds of tools. With the Internet being a central part of most peoples' personal lives, it is much easier to persuade staff to access their scheduling via the Internet. The market will continue to grow, and quite rapidly."

     Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Long Beach, California. Senn may be contacted at tsenn3232@aol.com.