Staffing shortages challenging San Diego Fire-Rescue
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The San Diego fire rescue department has been struggling with staffing shortages, but it's not only because of COVID-19 or vaccine mandates, KPBS reporter kitty Alvarado tells us the issue is more complicated than that. And it's a problem. Almost every department is facing across California.
Speaker 2: (00:21)
It's a beautiful day in San Diego and the fire crew at station one is starting their day. While everything looks normal, we've got
Speaker 3: (00:29)
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Workforce back at San Diego fire and rescue headquarters. Chief Colin Stonewell says it's been a struggle to keep the departments 50 stations fully staffed. Yes,
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We're seeing less and less people sign up and voluntarily want to take overtime shifts. And so sometimes those sit empty.
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He says the staffing shortage has already resulted in a brown out of a station this year. On that day, 95 people called out that's one third of the day's workforce.
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The absolute last resort for us is to have to shut down a first responder unit. And it really came down to, we just did not have enough bodies.
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Stairwell says COVID, isn't the only reason this is happening.
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We're also sharing a combination of retirement and some folks leaving the department for either other departments or a change of career.
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Sure. Hasn't helped. And the city's vaccine mandate deadline is looming. About 12% of his department is unvaccinated,
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Definitely a concern of mine, and it could be very
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Impactful, but he's also seeing a sharp decrease in applicants. They used to get about 4,000 a year. Now they get about 1300,
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Got a shortage of candidates. As a CPF, we maintain an eligibility hiring list that has over 3000 candidates on it.
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Brian Rice is the president of the California professional firefighters or the state's firefighters union. He says this crisis has been years in the making
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COVID to blame. No. Is the wildfire season to blame? No. Do they play a role in it? Yes, but to me, the blame falls squarely on cities, counties, and municipalities as employers for failing to hire the adequate number of fighters.
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He says it started during the recession when overtime became the norm, instead of hiring
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That municipalities have made, and they're betting that the disaster is not going to come to their community. And so far, I think
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Rice says departments have to stop relying on overtime because it takes its toll.
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The health of firefighters, men, and women, a good part of that depends on them. Being able to go home and decompress and rebuild their
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Rice also says the state's fire department, Cal fire must do better. So they don't burn out their staff or have to rely so heavily on city departments during disasters,
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They use seasonal employees, part-time employees for years, they have relied on the prison system to try to augment that staffing. And I think it's shameful and the state of California should be blamed in no uncertain terms for trying to get away
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The cheap. Brian Marshall is the state's office of emergency services, fire chief. There, they coordinate resources from all over the state during major wildfires and disasters. He says, he's seen a difference in the requests they've made for fire resources. In the last few years,
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We're seeing approximately 50% of what we've seen in prior years,
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Forcing those on the front lines of mega fires to work longer shifts.
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These firefighters are literally gone all summer long
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And with COVID and year long fire season pushing departments to the breaking point. The question is, will we have enough manpower? If the big one hits during a mega fire or another disaster,
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It is a fear, I think by all emergency managers, that there will be simultaneous disasters across the state. And are we going to have enough resources when somebody calls 9 1, 1 for help,
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Stonewall says, there's no doubt. There's a staffing crisis, plugging departments across the state, including his, but he's optimistic with their proactive recruitment. They will meet their staffing goals by 2023. And despite the challenges STO will hopes more young people consider a career in the fire service because there's a lot of opportunity and the work is fulfilling
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And you leave the next day when you're heading home. And you know, you made a difference in somebody's life and you don't get that kind of satisfaction from a lot of careers.
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Kitty Alvarado, KPBS news,
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.
He said in his 30-year career in the fire service he's never seen some of the challenges they're facing now.
"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.
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."