SAN DIEGO – More than 130 firefighters with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department are out sick with COVID-19 or are in isolation due to exposure, triggering a major staffing shortage among vital first-responders in the community.
As a result, the agency is operating under an emergency brown-out plan this week to backfill vacancies.
“We just physically don’t have enough bodies to staff all of our units anymore,” San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell said. “We are certainly experiencing the same surge that the rest of the county and country is experiencing. We are seeing a significant increase in our folks testing positive, in isolation or quarantine, unable to work dealing with anything from mild to severe symptoms.”
Under a brown-out plan, engines and certain response teams are temporarily shut down in order to backfill other vaccines. All stations are open and responding to emergencies, but a station may be down an engine.
In that case, it could impact response times if multiple calls come in at once.
“We are closing one unit out of a station that has multiple units,” Stowell said. “So, nowhere in the city are we shutting down an entire station. Every community has a fire engine or fire truck.”
Currently, five engines, a squad team and the bomb squad team are temporarily shut down. Those decisions were based on several factors including response time from neighboring stations and call volume on a three-year average, according to the chief.
As resources are moved around during the brown-out, firefighters working overtime may be feeling burned out, Stowell said.
“Our folks continue to step up,” he said. They are resilient and they continue to work these shifts but it is coming at an expense no doubt. My concern is for their longevity, their health, and if this is sustainable.”
Other agencies such as Cal Fire San Diego County and Escondido Fire both have normal staffing during the surge of cases.
Stowell said he hopes schedules will return to normal in the coming weeks. It is unclear how long the staffing contingency plan will last.