Staff shortages force San Diego's first fire engine brownout in more than a decade
A city fire engine and three specialty units were shut down due to an unusual staffing shortage caused by COVID-19 and wildfire response efforts
The San Diego Union-Tribune
SAN DIEGO — Staffing shortages forced San Diego to shut down a city fire engine and three specialty firefighting units last weekend, the first time the city has resorted to "brownouts" in more than a decade.
Multiple factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires in Northern California, came together to create an unusual staffing shortage that is unlikely to happen again, Fire Chief Colin Stowell said Wednesday.
"Brownouts are totally our last resort and I can't remember the last time this happened, so I would not expect this is going to be a regular occurrence," Stowell said. "The many factors and complexities creating these challenges will slowly subside over time."
The pandemic has put 22 firefighters in isolation because of possible exposures to the virus, while several other firefighters are on state-approved COVID-19 leave to care for family members.
Separately, many city firefighters are helping fight wildfires in Northern California. Many others have recently returned from there, making them unlikely to volunteer for overtime shifts on days when a staffing shortage arises, Stowell said.
"We've seen some conditions that we just haven't seen before," he said.
Another factor was the cancellation last year of one of San Diego's three annual fire academies because of the pandemic. That cancellation cost the city as many as 30 new firefighters.
"The circumstances just lined up perfectly," said Jesse Connor, president of the labor union that represents city firefighters.
Connor agreed with Stowell that additional brownouts are unlikely. He expressed optimism that many firefighters are in the process of returning to more normal circumstances than they've experienced recently.
The crisis began early last Saturday when more than 90 firefighters assigned to work that day notified the city they wouldn't make it because of vacation, leave or some other factor. That's nearly triple the 30 to 40 firefighters who don't come in on a typical day, Stowell said.
The city usually fills such vacancies by offering overtime to other firefighters not assigned to work, but Stowell said they didn't get enough volunteers on Saturday to fill all 90-plus slots.
That forced fire officials to make the tough decision to brown out three specialty firefighting crews and a fire engine in Point Loma, Stowell said.
The engine company was chosen strategically because it is one of 13 companies operating out of a "double" station, meaning the station is home to both an engine company and a truck company.
When the city was browning out eight fire engines a day during 2010 and 2011 to save money, all the engines were located at double houses, so that the affected station would still have a crew in place for emergencies.
Truck companies have aerial ladders so they can fight fires in high-rise buildings. Fire officials try to strategically locate them across the city.
Stowell said another reason Point Loma was chosen is the proximity of nearby fire stations in Ocean Beach and Mission Hills. If additional brownouts are necessary, he said, it's likely the city will choose a different double station.
The three specialty crews browned out last Saturday are the mobile operation team, the bomb squad and a fast response squad that operates in Encanto.
The mobile operations team is a two-person crew that operates Friday and Saturday nights only in the Gaslamp Quarter, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m.
The bomb squad, which works out of Station 1 downtown, is still available when it gets shut down, Stowell said. The crew gets assigned to an engine company, and they get pulled off that engine if there is a bomb incident.
The fast response squad is a two-person crew that responds to emergencies from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day. This squad was also browned out Thursday, Sept. 23.
Connor said there are no easy choices when the city must decide which crews to brown out. But, he said, the choices seem like reasonable ones.
San Diego has been trying for several years to hire enough firefighters to have a relief crew, which would reduce overtime costs and make brownouts less likely.
The city has 942 firefighters, 74 fewer than the 1,016 city officials have set as a goal. The shortage has delayed a plan to deploy roving "peak-hour" engines to shrink response times in areas with high call volumes.
But Stowell said Tuesday that it would be oversimplifying to blame last weekend's brownouts on the long-term staffing storage.
"It's extenuating circumstances that are causing these problems," he said. "We've been at far less than 942 in the past and 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 every truck and engine instead of three. But city officials say three-person crews conflict with "two-in, two-out" federal guidelines, which recommend that when two firefighters go into a burning building at least two stay outside in case of a rescue.
An analysis conducted a decade ago by The San Diego Union-Tribune found that 12 of the nation's 15 largest cities use four-person crews.
An ongoing city fire academy is scheduled to graduate Nov. 8, giving San Diego as many as 30 more firefighters. Another academy is scheduled to begin Nov. 13.