San Diego Fire-Rescue Department faces COVID staffing shortages – KPBS

Speaker 1: (00:00)

As surgeon COVID cases continue to impact aspects of daily life. Emergency responders are among the hardest hit by the growing rate of infection. More than a hundred San Diego firefighters are currently in isolation due to potential coronavirus exposure. And the staggering number of staff shortages is having an impact on your services throughout the department. Joining me now with more is San Diego union Tribune, reporter Lindsey Winkle, Lindsey. Welcome back to the program.

Speaker 2: (00:29)

Oh, thank you so much for having me. So how

Speaker 1: (00:31)

Have these shortages affected firefighting services in San Diego?

Speaker 2: (00:35)

So yesterday we put together a story that sort of explains that cause of the sheer number of firefighters who have either tested positive for the coronavirus and are in a state mandated isolation, or they’ve just been exposed to the virus and they’re sort of waiting on test results. The department put together what’s called an emergency brown out plan. And essentially what that does is it outlines which fire crews will be idled or bound out if staffing shortages demanded. And

Speaker 1: (01:07)

What percentage of the department staff is currently under isolation protocol,

Speaker 2: (01:12)

113 firefighters are in isolation at this point, and there are 960 roughly total firefighters in the department. So it it’s a, it’s a pretty significant total.

Speaker 1: (01:24)

And how has the department responded to these persistent shortages? I mean, have they put any plans into place? You mentioned the brown

Speaker 2: (01:31)

Outs that is essentially the department’s response to its staffing shortages. And basically what the brown out plan does is it creates sort of a roadmap for which kinds of units or crews will be taken offline so that the department can staff as many positions as they possibly can. Uh, so the idea is if they don’t have enough bodies to go around, which positions are they going to exist without on any given day, are we seeing a

Speaker 1: (02:02)

Noticeable will delay in response times to emergencies as a result of these infections? It’s

Speaker 2: (02:08)

Definitely too early to say if there’s a notable impact on response times, but department leaders said yesterday that that’s obviously a possibility, you know, anytime you’re taking firefighters or fire crews off the front lines, there’s a possibility that that means that those responses to particular calls are going to take longer. It’s also a risk to firefighters. You know, firefighters are obviously working within their own teams, but they rely on nearby crews to assist them should things sort of get out of hand. So if you’ve got less people who are, are able to respond to any particular incident or offer support during emergencies, you know, it’s obviously possible that you’re gonna see some, some impacts from that. But yeah, too early to say definitively, if, if we’ve seen anything that would be considered, you know, an impact from these brown outs. And

Speaker 1: (02:59)

One of the more notable measures taken has been the temporary closure of certain specialty crews, like the mobile operations detail and the bomb squad. Can you explain their roles within the department? There

Speaker 2: (03:11)

Are three specialty crews that are sort of first to be taken offline. That includes the mobile operations detail, which is a, it’s actually only a two person crew that works only Friday and Saturday nights in the gas lamp quarter. There’s also, what’s called squad 55. That’s actually another two person crew. They work longer shifts 12 hour shifts from 8:00 AM to 8:00 PM in Southeastern San Diego. And then you’ve got the bomb squad. So the bomb squad, another two person team has been its own for about a year. And when that unit shuts down, those two people actually just embed with an engine company. However, you know, if a bomb call occurs, they’re still pulled off to address that incident. So although it sounds like that’s the bigger deal, the bigger deal is actually when departments have such a shortage that they need to brown out engine companies. And those are the four person teams consisting of a captain engineer firefighter, and a firefighter paramedic that are responding to the vast majority of the calls in our city.

Speaker 1: (04:09)

As we mentioned earlier, there are more than a hundred firefighters in isolation. Are we seeing the worst of this or has this number gone up and down throughout the pandemic?

Speaker 2: (04:18)

Well, it’s definitely gone up and down throughout the pandemic, but this is clearly the worst that we’ve seen. And if the last few days or any indication, we are not done with the increases yet, we’re gonna be getting an updated total today. But 113 is higher than the 90 something. It was last week. So it’s pretty unclear how far this is gonna go before it starts in, on its downward trend.

Speaker 1: (04:45)

How has overall staffing fared during the pandemic? When we talked

Speaker 2: (04:49)

To the department yesterday about sort of the last time they saw brown outs, they brought up the September 25th incident, which involved an engine being taken out of commission. There were also a couple of other units. The at were brown out during that time. And just for comparison’s sake, only 22 firefighters were in isolation or on leave to take care of family members with COVID at that time. Now, granted, there were a couple of other factors that were sort of fueling that brown out. There was a whole bunch of wildfires in Northern California. And so we had a bunch of people up there helping with that. There was also a fire academy that was canceled and the department was really counting on, uh, you know, a couple dozen people making it through that and they would’ve been hired, but this is nothing like what we’ve seen before. So we’re very much in new territory right now.

Speaker 1: (05:35)

Are there any specific areas of, uh, San Diego that are impacted by the shortages more than others?

Speaker 2: (05:41)

The short answer is not really now. It’s really important to clarify that just because this brownout is in place, that doesn’t mean that we are guaranteed to see units taken offline every day. It really depends on sort of the available staffing in the moment. Now, the department has identified about a dozen stations across the city that could be impacted by brownouts, but which stations they choose definitely depends on the resources that they have available today. But just to kind of tell people a little bit more about sort of how they chose those stations, only stations that are called double houses are the ones that will be impacted by this. And basically a double house means that they don’t just have an engine crew. They also have a truck crew. So even if they lose an engine crew, they still have people at the station to respond to emergencies.

Speaker 1: (06:31)

And today is the mandate for staff vaccination. Do we know how much of the department staff is current vaccinated?

Speaker 2: (06:38)

Yes. So we do know that it’s, it’s a fairly high total, at least as of mid-December. So about 83% of the city’s firefighters were vaccinated. Um, almost 120 firefighters though were not fully vaccinated. And another 45 had not reported their vaccination status to the city. Um, there are about 85 who have requested medical or religious exemptions, and we are hoping to get updated figures on that today. And just to sort of answer the, probably the coming question, it is unclear at this point, how many firefighters currently in isolation are vaccinated?

Speaker 1: (07:15)

I’ve been speaking with San Diego union should be reporter Lindsay wink, Lindsey. Thank you so much for joining us.

Speaker 2: (07:22)

Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.