Right on schedule

Time-saving software makes scheduling and managing time off no sweat

     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."

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