Staffing shortages push local firefighters to the brink

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SAN DIEGO – Some California fire departments are feeling the pinch of staffing shortages and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department is far from immune.

Fire Chief Colin Stowell said Monday it’s been a challenge to fill up fire stations each day with weekends being particularly difficult. Staffing has been an obstacle for more than a year, he said, but the past few months have become even worse for a variety of reasons.

“We’ve still been able to staff them,” he said, “but it has not been easy and we have mandated that people stay back and work days they didn’t volunteer for.”

The result has forced some firefighters to work well past their shifts when nobody is available to fill them. According to San Diego City Firefighters Association President Jesse Conner, some have reported working stretches of up to 96 hours straight since the outset of the pandemic.

“A year and a half of that will — I assure you — break down even the most resilient firefighters,” Conner said.

Among the reasons for staffing difficulties is an increase of firefighters out on leave and built-up vacation days from the pandemic that firefighters are using on top of physically demanding fire seasons leaving some of the city’s most critical first-responders worn out, according to Stowell.

“When they come back, the last thing they want to do is sign up for an overtime shift,” Stowell said.

To combat staffing issues, the city is working with the local fire union, San Diego City Firefighters Association, to agree on a staffing policy change. An additional fire academy also is being held this year and next.

But one thing is clear, firefighters are still standing by to keep every part of town as safe as they can.

“Our number one priority is to make sure we staff every one of those fire stations every day and provide the same level of service to the public that they expect,” Stowell said.

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