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Fire department struggles to fill shifts because exhausted firefighters are turning down overtime

Fire stations have to be adequately staffed at all times.

SAN DIEGO — Some of our county's biggest wildfires started in October, but as we head into this potentially dangerous time, local fire departments are struggling to fill shifts. Exhausted firefighters are turning down overtime.

This past weekend, an engine company at Fire Station 20 was shut down for 24 hours. The reason? A lack of staffing. And it's not just a problem here in the city of San Diego, they're experiencing this across the county and the rest of the state. 

“Shutting down an engine company is our absolute last resort,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Colin Stowell. He added that he can’t remember the last time an engine shut down because the department didn't have enough bodies. 

“It really is frustrating because there's no perfect solution here,” Stowell said.

Some of our crews are burnt out because they spent weeks battling huge blazes in other parts of the state, but without question, the heart of the problem centers around the pandemic. 

“We do have 22 folks out right now with COVID and we've got an unknown number of people out on state-approved leave to take care of family members that have COVID-like symptoms right now as well,” Chief Stowell said.

On top of that, firefighters were called into action to help staff vaccine clinics, and with those firefighters gone from fire stations other firefighters had to work overtime to backfill the shifts. The local firefighters union said it made sense to have the firefighters filling that need. 

“We have paramedics who give shots, give medicines, on a daily basis and so if you're looking for an immediate workforce to target a threat to public safety, absolutely you're going to rely on the fire department,” said Jesse Conner, President of San Diego City Firefighters Local 145.

Conner said in years past firefighters usually jumped at the chance for overtime, but right now that's not the case. 

“They're just mentally and physically exhausted and so they're really enjoying wanting to enjoy some time off work right now," Conner said. 

That said, our fire stations have to be adequately staffed at all times. As a result, firefighters can be forced to work mandatory overtime and if they don't have a good excuse for turning it down, they could face disciplinary action. 

As for Fire Station 20, which is located in the Sports Arena area, it wasn't completely shut down. There was still one truck company working out of it - so about half the usual staff. Fortunately, there were no major incidents during that time.

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