City is beginning to lose firefighters, chief says

SAN DIEGO — San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Javier Mainar said Wednesday that firefighter retainment problems are starting to crop up, though the situation doesn’t yet resemble the staffing crisis in the city’s police department.

In a presentation to the City Council’s Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Department, Mainar said San Diego no longer offers competitive compensation when compared to nearby cities.

sdfdThe SDFRD recently lost two firefighters with more than 10 years experience and, on the other end of the scale, two departed for other departments partway through a fire academy, the chief said.

“The concern I do want to share is attrition to other agencies,” Mainar told the committee members.

“We have seen what we believe is the beginning of a trend that is going up,” he said. “We’re hearing it not only from folks who are turning us down for job offers, but also firefighters who are leaving our department and are telling us that they are going to another agency, and it’s typically because of compensation or benefit issues.”

Mainar said voter-passed Proposition B, which bars most new municipal employees from entering the city’s pension system, will be a challenge for hiring in the future because no other surrounding cities have made similar changes.

New police officers still get to join the pension system, but firefighters and lifeguards did not receive the same exemption.

The department typically loses nearly 49 employees per year, or 5.3 percent of its workforce, according to the presentation. Some years are higher because of changes to pay or benefits, the chief said.

Councilwoman Lorie Zapf said the department is budgeted for 863 firefighters and has 77 vacancies. Zapf and fellow council members Marti Emerald and Mark Kersey said it was important to halt the growing retention problems before they become as bad as what the SDPD faces.

Police officials say nearly 10 officers a month are leaving for greener pastures, and that nearly half of those on the force will be eligible to retire in four years.

Frank DeClercq, the head of San Diego’s firefighters union, said the city has to decide whether it will be a competitive employer.

He said three firefighters recently left for Oregon, which he’s never seen before, and six went to Orange County. With many employees living in southern Riverside County, it’s just as easy for them to commute to Orange County as it is to San Diego, he said.

DeClercq said he could foresee “a mass exodus” unless compensation practices change in San Diego.

The report was for the committee’s information only, so no action was taken.

——- Story by City News Service reporter James R. Riffel