Weary Firefighters In ‘Crisis’ From Understaffed Stations, Cal Fire’s Riverside County Unit Says

The union that represents Cal Fire firefighters in the Riverside County Unit has filed a workplace-safety complaint with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, alleging that unusual levels of physical fatigue and mental stress have set in because of excessive overtime worked due to inadequate staffing.

Even during normal times, state firefighters are required to work significant amounts of overtime, especially during the height of fire season, when they fill in for coworkers who have been assigned to brush fires out of the area for days or weeks at a time.

But during the pandemic, 559 Riverside County Unit firefighters have been in quarantine at some point — some multiple times — said Capt. Peter Boctor, the deputy vice president of the statewide union’s Riverside district, making the situation worse.

“In 2020, due to the effects of COVID-19,” the complaint says, “the already existing staff shortages reached a crisis level. The union respectfully requests that DOSH conduct an immediate investigation into these unsafe conditions.”

Tim Edwards, the president of Local 2881, the unit that represents state firefighters, engineers, captains, battalion chiefs and other positions, including more than 1,000 in Riverside County, said the solution is to hire more firefighters.

Boctor, who works out of Station 90 in Perris, said he feels that crisis in his aching joints and hears it in his crew’s discussions of suicide and troubled marriages, which are always concerns among public-safety employees nationwide. He tries to triage the mental pain by counseling them, with limited success.

“It’s incredible to see the defeat in my guys’ faces every week,” Boctor said.

Cal Fire responds to brush fires on state-owned land. Also, some counties such as Riverside contract with Cal Fire for municipal firefighting and paramedic services in unincorporated areas. And some cities, such as Perris, Moreno Valley and Temecula in Riverside County, also contract with Cal Fire for those same services.

It is up to each county and city to decide how many firefighters they want to pay for to staff their stations. The state engines average 3.1 firefighters over the course of a 3-days-on, 4-days-off shift, Boctor said. County engines average 2.67, Perris engines average 2.67 at Station 101 and 3.1 at Station 90, and Temecula engines average 4.0.

The city of Riverside, which operates its own fire department, averages 4.0 firefighters on its engines at most stations, said Capt. Brian Guzzetta, a department spokesman.

Lower staffing levels mean more firefighters are required to work overtime when someone is sick or on vacation.

Edwards said the county has been understaffed for years.

“The county has to stop trying to make a fire department work with the least amount of staffing possible,” Edwards said. “Firefighters are not super men and women and they need a break. It has to be addressed.”

County spokeswoman Brooke Federico referred questions about staffing choices to the state. County supervisors Kevin Jeffries and Karen Spiegel did not return messages seeking comment.

Stephen Hale, a spokesman for the city of Perris, said in a statement, “The city’s funding meets Riverside County’s required staffing standards.”

In Temecula, having four firefighters on an engine allows for quicker attacks on fires by the first crew to arrive because it meets the minimum safety standard of two firefighters inside a building and two outside, Assistant City Manager Greg Butler said.

The city can afford that staffing level after voters passed a 1-cent addition to the city sales tax in 2016, he said.

It’s unclear how successful the complaint to Cal/OSHA will be. Spokesman Luke Brown said Cal/OSHA does not confirm active investigations. He said generally speaking, a state safety standard would have to be violated for an investigation to begin.

From 2016 to 2019, according to the complaint, Riverside Unit firefighters worked the equivalent of more than 3,600 days of mandatory overtime per year to cover staff shortages. In 2020, that figure soared to 5,355.

Boctor said he worked 18 days in a row in December, finally putting up his family’s Christmas tree on Dec. 24.

The captain said one crew member’s marriage “grenaded” in a span of two months.

For now, Boctor said, he hasn’t seen firefighters’ struggles affect their service to the public.

“The way we are heading now, I absolutely 100% agree that something catastrophic will happen if we continue on the road we are on,” he said.

From www.pe.com

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