Staff shortages force San Diego firefighters’ first power outage in more than a decade


Staff shortages forced San Diego to shut down a city fire truck and three specialized firefighting units last weekend, the first time the city has resorted to “cold snaps” in more than of a decade.

Multiple factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires in northern California, have come together to create an unusual staffing shortage that is unlikely to happen again, Fire Chief Colin Stowell said on Wednesday.

“Fainting is totally our last resort and I can’t remember the last time this happened so I wouldn’t expect it to happen on a regular basis,” Stowell said. “The many factors and complexities that create these challenges will slowly abate over time. “

The pandemic has isolated 22 firefighters due to possible exposures to the virus, while several other firefighters are on state-approved COVID-19 leave to care for their family members.

Separately, many of the city’s firefighters are helping to fight forest fires in northern California. Many more have recently returned from there, making them unlikely to volunteer overtime on days when a staff shortage arises, Stowell said.

“We saw conditions that we just hadn’t seen before,” he said.

Another factor was the cancellation last year of one of San Diego’s three annual fire academies due to the pandemic. This cancellation cost the city up to 30 new firefighters.

“The circumstances have lined up perfectly,” said Jesse Connor, president of the union that represents the city’s firefighters.

Connor agreed with Stowell that further brownouts are unlikely. He expressed optimism that many firefighters are returning to more normal circumstances than they have experienced recently.

The crisis began early last Saturday when more than 90 firefighters assigned to work that day informed the city that they would not do so due to vacation, time off or some other factor. That’s nearly triple the 30 to 40 firefighters who don’t come on a typical day, Stowell said.

The city typically fills those vacancies by offering overtime to other firefighters not assigned to work, but Stowell said they did not have enough volunteers on Saturday to fill the 90-plus positions.

This forced firefighters to make the difficult decision to minimize three teams of specialist firefighters and a fire engine in Point Loma, Stowell said.

The engine company was chosen strategically as it is one of 13 companies operating from a “dual” station, meaning that the station is home to both an engine company and a truck company.

When the city cut eight fire trucks a day in 2010 and 2011 to save money, all engines were located in double houses, so the affected station would still have an emergency team in place.

Trucking companies have aerial ladders to fight fires in tall buildings. Firefighters are trying to strategically locate them across town.

Stowell said another reason Point Loma was chosen is its proximity to fire stations near Ocean Beach and Mission Hills. If further brownouts are needed, he said, it’s likely the city will choose a different dual station.

The three specialist teams that went missing last Saturday are the mobile operation team, the mine clearance team and a rapid response team operating in Encanto.

The mobile operations team is a two-person team that operates Friday and Saturday evenings only in the Gaslamp district, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.

The Bomb Squad, which works out of Station 1 downtown, is still available when it is closed, Stowell said. The crew is assigned to an engine company, and they are removed from that engine if there is a bomb incident.

The rapid response team is a two-person team that responds to emergencies from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. This team was also extinguished Thursday, September 23.

Connor said there was no easy choice when the city must decide which crews to cut down. But, he said, the choices seem reasonable.

San Diego has been trying for several years to hire enough firefighters to have a back-up crew, which would reduce overtime costs and make blackouts less likely.

The city has 942 firefighters, 74 less than the city’s 1,016 officials set a target. The shortage has delayed a plan to deploy “rush hour” roving engines to reduce response times in areas with high call volumes.

But Stowell said on Tuesday it would be simplistic to blame last weekend’s blackouts on long-term staff storage.

“It is the extenuating circumstances that cause these problems,” he said. “We’ve been down to well under 942 in the past and we haven’t struggled like we’re struggling right now, so we have to look at other factors.”

Some critics have questioned why San Diego needs four firefighters on each truck and engine instead of three. But city officials say the three-person teams conflict with federal “two-in, two-out” guidelines, which recommend that when two firefighters enter a burning building, at least two remain outside in. rescue case.

An analysis conducted ten years ago by The San Diego Union-Tribune found that 12 of the country’s 15 largest cities use teams of four.

An ongoing city fire academy is expected to graduate on Nov. 8, giving San Diego up to 30 more firefighters. Another academy is scheduled to start on November 13.

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