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Staffing shortages challenging San Diego Fire-Rescue

It’s a beautiful day in San Diego, and the fire crew at Station One are starting their day. While everything looks normal at the station, back at San Diego Fire-Rescue headquarters Chief Colin Stowell said it's been a struggle to keep the department’s 50 stations fully staffed.

"We’ve got an exhausted workforce and so yes we’re seeing less and less people sign up and voluntarily want to take overtime shifts and so sometimes those sit empty," said Stowell.

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He said in his 30-year career in the fire service he's never seen some of the challenges they're facing now.

Staffing shortages challenging San Diego Fire-Rescue
Listen to this story by Kitty Alvarado.

"We’ve had staffing challenges before, but typically it’s been during very busy fire seasons when we’ve deployed 40, 50, 60 folks out on apparatus during those fires. We don’t have anybody out on those fires right now," said Stowell.

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He said the staffing shortage has already resulted in a brown-out of a station unit this year, on a day when 95 firefighters — one third of the day's workforce — called out for a variety of reasons including injuries, illness and vacation time.

"It’s the absolute last resort for us is to have to shut down a first responder unit. We take that very seriously," Stowell said. "There were a lot of conversations and decisions that were made that morning. We had a lot of compounding factors and it really came down to we just did not have enough bodies that we could even hold and require that they stay at work."

Stowell said while COVID-19 has exacerbated the shortages, it's not the cause, especially now since only five are out due to the virus, "We’re also seeing a combination of retirements and some folks leaving the departments or a change of career."

But COVID-19 hasn’t helped, and the city’s vaccine mandate deadline is looming. About 12% of his department is unvaccinated.

"We are supporting that of course and encouraging our folks to get vaccinated, also allowing for the accommodations that are allowed. But as we go through that process, inevitably we will have some personnel that don’t meet those requirements, and they’ll be some tough decisions to be made," said Stowell, adding that every effort has been made and continues to be made to make getting the vaccine as easy as possible. He said he hopes more will opt for the vaccine as the mandate nears.

Stowell said another reason for the staffing shortages is a decrease in applicants, a problem he said they never used to have. San Diego Fire-Rescue used to get about 4,000 applicants a year. Now, he said, they get about 1,300.

"We’re just seeing a change in the workforce and whether this is a generational change, or whether just a move away from the desire to work in public safety and some other sectors, we don’t really know right now. We’re just really trying to make sure that we stay ahead of it and keep our folks," he said.

He said the department is active and aggressive in recruitment, working with high schools, community colleges, and athletic programs. San Diego Fire-Rescue offers academies just for women in order to diversify the department. And for the first time this year, they will have three fire academies instead of two. Stowell said that will continue through next year.

"We’re running back to back to back academies trying to keep up with attrition," he said.

Stowell said the department has to hire 50 to 60 candidates just to keep up retirements and people leaving for different departments or different jobs altogether. That's in addition to the 50 people he said the department is short right now.

The state's firefighters' union said the staffing shortages are a crisis that has been years in the making.

"We've been seeing staffing shortages for years. is COVID to blame? No. Is the wildfire season to blame? No. Do they play a role, in it yes," said Brian Brian K. Rice, the president of California Professional Firefighters (CPF). "But to me the blame falls squarely on cities, counties and municipalities as employers for failing to hire the adequate number of firefighters."

Rice said the problem is not a shortage of candidates. "At CPF, we maintain an eligibility hiring list that has over 3,000 candidates today," he said.

Rice said the problem started with the recession, when departments used overtime to get through instead of hiring and carried that on during fatter years to save money. "We saw a lot of departments go for several years without hiring. We’re still paying the price for that," he said.

Rice said cities and the state need to change hiring policies. "Fire departments right now need to begin aggressively hiring," he said. "This is a choice that municipalities have made and they’re betting that the disaster is not going to come to their community. And so far I think it’s proven wrong."

Stowell said there's no doubt that San Diego Fire-Rescue must become more competitive with pay and benefits to attract more candidates because many departments are competing for the same pool of potential hires. And despite the challenges, he's optimistic that with their proactive recruitment they will meet their staffing goals by 2023.

Stowell hopes more young people consider a career in the fire service because there is a lot of opportunity and the work is fulfilling.

"Although I have some difficult days I love my job, everyday that I drove into work I feel blessed and fortunate that I had this career," he said. "You leave the next day when you’re heading home and you know you made a difference in somebody’s life and you were able to help someone in their time of need. You don’t get that kind of satisfaction from a lot of careers."

Staffing shortages are challenging San Diego Fire-Rescue Department