Local Cal Fire Union Complaint To Cal/OSHA Claims Crews Are Overworked, Exhausted

Local 2881, a union that represents hundreds of Cal Fire firefighters up and down the state, has filed a workplace complaint with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA. The complaint alleges that firefighters in Riverside County have become overworked, and as a result, have experienced exhaustion that has extended beyond work for some affected.

“We’re at that breaking point and it does no service to the residents of the communities that we respond to if we have an individual that’s not mentally or physically prepared to do the job,” said Cal Fire Local 2881 President, Tim Edwards.

The union represents more than 1,000 firefighters throughout the county. The 5-page complaint was filed on February 10 and stated, “the Riverside County Fire Department has resisted contracting for sufficient staff. To address these chronic staff shortages, RRU has consistently ordered CAL FIRE employees to work massive amounts of mandatory (i.e., ordered or ‘forced’) overtime.”

As a result, the complaint claimed that some firefighters’ mental and physical abilities have waned while higher divorce rates have plagued some crew members’ personal lives.

“When someone has an issue they call employee support services and gets help. Their call load has almost doubled if not tripled, specifically over the last year for sure. What we’re seeing, unfortunately, over the last year is not just divorces but more drug and alcohol abuse because they’re trying to cope with those stresses in a way they are easily available to them,” said Edwards.

In some of the most extreme cases, the complaint stated that firefighters were dealing with excessive mental stress “so severe that they have had suicidal ideation.”

Cal Fire firefighters work a 72-hour work week, the longest shift pattern in the country, according to Edwards. For instance, in a normal situation crew members who would enter on a Monday morning would go home Thursday morning, but that is no longer the case. Edwards said they are having to stay for unknown periods of time because there is no staff to come and relieve them at times.

The tipping point came in December when roughly 300 firefighters were out either due to COVID-related issues, or preplanned employee vacations. That led to some crew members having to work 40-50 days nonstop. Although, according to Edwards, that wasn’t the start of when the excessive working began.

After a tough year riddled with challenges, including the pandemic and California’s worst wildfire season on record, the issues only exacerbated the problem. In alignment with state and county public health guidelines, many firefighters were having to stay at home for extended periods of time to quarantine, while those who were working would have to stay on duty to bridge the working gap.

“The board of supervisors have been made very clear for the last several years that the staffing within Riverside County is not conducive to a working environment,” said Edwards.

Edwards said the responses they’ve received from the county loop back to budget issues, with officials making it clear that the county cannot afford to hire additional staff.

“But if you look at all the overtime calculated over all the years that have been spent- one-third of that, even one-fourth of that could have been spent on staffing appropriately,” Edwards said.

Upon reaching out to Riverside County Board of Supervisors Chair, Karen Spiegel, she referred News Channel 3 to Cal Fire “since the firefighters in CALFIRE/Riverside County Fire Department are state employees.”

Spiegel went onto add “the county contracts with CALFIRE and pays for 3.0 staffing on our county fire engines. The staffing schedules, however, are determined by the state agency. For the fiscal year 2020/2021, the county’s contract with CALFIRE was $212,855,731. For fiscal year 2019/2020, the county’s contract with CALFIRE amount was $208,801,031.”

Fourth District Supervisor V. Manuel Perez also responded: “I just learned about this, but I am obviously concerned.  As firefighters take care of the public, we need to take care of our firefighters.  I look forward to seeing how we can better support them as a county.”

Edwards said it’s also up to the cities that contract Cal Fire to add more staff to their stations.

“Each individual city that there’s a contract with dictates the staffing within that city. So the county oversees 30 plus stations and then the cities have their own so all the money that funds these either come from the city or the county” Edwards said.

Several cities in the Coachella Valley, excluding Palm Springs and Cathedral City, contract Cal Fire for first responder services.

A spokesperson for the city of Palm Desert told News Channel 3:

The City of Palm Desert relies on the Fire Department to identify its operational needs and what modifications, if any, are needed to meet them. Fire Station No. 71, which handles a very significant call volume, was brought to the City’s attention last year. In response, the Palm Desert City Council approved funding for an additional paramedic squad (two paramedics per squad for a total of four), at a cost of approximately $1 million dollars annually, to lessen the impact on the station crew.

The spokesperson added that the new positions included fire apparatus engineers and “firefighter II paramedics,” which start on Monday.

A spokesperson for the City of Indio said they had not heard the complaint.

Mayor Steven Hernandez was also unaware of the issue, and didn’t have a comment on the issue.

As of Friday evening, we were still waiting to hear back from the cities of Desert Hot Springs, La Quinta, and Indian Wells.

Edwards acknowledged that he believes many city officials are unaware of the problem. He said the union was working to educate people.

“Policymakers need to understand that you are physically and mentally breaking individuals that you want to work 30 plus years and have a healthy career and have a good family life.”

From www.kesq.com

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