Adequate staffing has become a major concern for firefighting agencies in Western locales.
While the federal government is experiencing a shortage of firefighters in the West, and the state of California is ready to add 393 to the Cal Fire rolls, local departments continue to struggle with staffing and some get creative in how they keep staffing hours available for service.
In a recent press conference in Colfax alongside Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter and other Cal Fire officials, Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom cautioned against citizens taking comfort in the fact that no major wildfires have yet broken out.
“For people who think, ‘boy, things are going well,’ don’t hold your breath,” Newsom said. “This thing is delayed, it’s not denied. The new reality is the hots are getting hotter, the dry is getting drier, the wet is getting wetter … that’s the world we’re living in.”
The state’s hiring boost will be a $26.5 million commitment, Newsom said, necessary as the state enters peak fire season.
Porter said the fire season could still be large and damaging; last year’s devastating fire season – which left more than 100 people dead – is the new normal, officials say.
“Fires are going to start to get bigger and less controllable from here on out until we get to winter rains,” Porter said.
The state budget will be further supplementing firefighting efforts with the addition of 13 new engines and helicopters, plane and fire detection cameras.
Meanwhile, the Department of the Interior is short hundreds of firefighters, as a result of recruitment problems and the government shutdown from December through January.
Locally, it’s a department-by-department scenario.
– Sutter County Fire Department has been open about its challenges with staffing (as well as deteriorating equipment and skyrocketing overtime costs), due to low and stagnant funding. The department usually has only one firefighter staffed at a time, meaning it relies on mutual aid assistance from nearby departments.
– In Linda, staffing is stationary, Chief Rich Webb said Friday, and the department has gotten creative.
There are always two full-time personnel every day at both the Linda and Plumas Lake stations, augmented with its internship program, which provides at least one intern every day at the Linda station.
Also, volunteer firefighters or paid on-call personnel sign up for a shift and are paid a flat stipend and a certain amount per call. On top of that, all personnel carry radio pagers and are alerted for any call other than routine medical. On structure fires, there can be between 16 and 19 people available.
“It’s not uncommon for us to have four or five on duty at Linda,” Webb said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate.”
– Yuba City Fire Department leadership also feels fortunate for its staffing levels: it’s currently fully staffed, aside from a few vacancies being filled by promotions.
The department was awarded its fourth “Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response” grant, which has provided nine limited-term, full-time firefighters for three years.
Two years ago, six positions within the department were frozen in the budget, which is why it went after the grant option, Fire Analyst Bill Fuller said Friday.
“This past year, we’ve got people on the SAFER grant filling our needs, but we need to have a plan in place at the end of the grant,” Fuller said.
While the grant is a welcome reprieve from short staffing, it’s only temporary, which may also bring challenges. In past recruitments through the grant, the Yuba City Fire Department has seen 300 applicants. For this most recent, only 100 firefighters applied and after testing, the pool dropped to 38.
“The timing we were going for, it was kind of impacted by Cal Fire reaching out to fulfill the Governor’s plans to beef up the Cal Fire ranks,” Fuller said.
At Yuba City, staffing challenges include high overtime coverage, injuries incurred due to fatigue, and the “youth movement” – Fuller explained that a significant amount of time has to be committed to train newer personnel, and there’s been a quick rise in ranks. What would normally take between five and 10 years to get to reach a certain position at another department may be accomplished in three years here, Fuller said. That puts strain on older staff to mentor, and hours and dollars on the department to train.
Still, the department knows it is better off than others, locally.
“We’re extremely fortunate. A lot of time you don’t see cities get two (grants) in a row,” Fuller said. “I think everybody’s goal is to have a plan in place to deal with staffing (when the grant runs out).”