OAKLAND, CA – The Oakland Fire Department for years has filled staffing shortages by spending millions on overtime for existing employees, rather than hiring more firefighters and paramedics.
But while that strategy has saved money, the department is now so understaffed that it’s been forced to reduce medical services in West Oakland and downtown, and union leaders say that reliance on overtime is forcing firefighters to work dangerously long shifts that threatened the safety of employees and residents.
The agency was forced to remove two paramedics assigned to trucks at Stations 1 and 3, both in the heart of Oakland’s booming business corridor, to find enough people to cover 24-hour shifts for the city’s 25 fire stations, Fire Chief Teresa Deloach Reed said at Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting.
All 24 engines will still be staffed with paramedics, but the city is losing key medical backups on trucks at its busiest stations, forcing residents to wait for engines from stations farther away or rely on private ambulance companies, Reed said.
Reed said she didn’t immediately know how response times were impacted.
The reduction in paramedics will likely be temporary, but shouldn’t be treated as a stopgap, firefighter union executive Zac Unger said.
“That’s not a solution, that’s a reduction of service,” Unger told the committee.
Overtime in the department has exploded in the last few years, with firefighters working 215,000 extra hours in 2011-12 to more than 317,000 hours last year, when the agency spent $20 million in overtime. That’s up from $14 million in 2012-13, according to the department’s report.
Mandatory overtime has increased even faster. Only about 9,000 hours of overtime in 2011-12 was mandatory; that increased to 58,000 hours last year.
And though firefighters enjoyed the extra money, many are worried about fatigue. Unger himself had worked five of the last six days, he said, and some firefighters worked nine of 11 days — all 24-hour shifts.
“People want to see their families,” Unger said.
The problem happened because the fire administrators have failed to hire enough employees, especially firefighter-paramedics, to keep pace with general attrition and promotions. The city hired 19 new paramedics since 2011, all from one academy in 2012.
Bruce Nielsen, a retired battalion chief who has pressed the issue with city officials, said the agency could have hired more than paramedics from the 2012 recruitment list, but it was dissatisfied with the lack of diverse and local candidates.
“This is a self-inflicted wound,” Nielsen said. “It’s a conscious choice not to hire qualified applicants.”
It’s difficult to find qualified local firefighter-paramedics because the position requires experience as an emergency medical technician and a firefighter, forcing departments to recruit candidates from other agencies. In 2012 the department hired paramedics from as far away as Washington D.C., according to the agency.
The city is scrambling to solve the problem by creating an entry level firefighter-paramedic trainee position to allow the agency to hire EMTs from local ambulance companies and then train them in fire fighting.
But that’s “too little, too late,” union President Daniel Robertson told the city on Tuesday. The shortage will likely be a problem for years unless the department steps up its hiring.
City council members will investigate reports of firefighters calling in sick on mandatory overtime days, possibly at another committee meeting in January. Councilman Abel Guillen, who called for the report, said he was surprised during an overnight stay at a fire house to see how many calls firefighters worked in one shift.
“At some point it endangers public safety,” Guillen said.
Reed said the department is exploring other ways to temporarily reduce the staffing issues, but there’s only one long-term solution.
“The only thing that will get us through this is to hire,” Reed said.