The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has a chronic understaffing problem.
Now it has a plan of attack: It aims to add more than 200 firefighters over the next five years.
The idea is to offset the employees retiring or otherwise leaving by creating a relief pool of workers who can fill in for firefighters who call in sick or go on vacation to trim skyrocketing overtime costs.
But will the hiring spree solve the staffing shortage?
Hiring and training firefighters is an expensive, time-consuming process. And even as the city is sending roughly a third more recruits into the front end of the pipeline than it typically hires, it is losing dozens each year to retirements and other departures.
The roots of the staffing shortage are tangled and deep and can be traced back more than a decade.
The department began to fall behind as the city, already facing financial woes caused by underfunding its pension system, was hit by the national recession that began in late 2007.
Managers imposed cost-cutting measures, including hiring freezes and delaying equipment leases. They implemented a “rolling brownout” program that idled up to eight fire engines per day so the displaced crews could cover shifts that otherwise would have been worked as overtime. That program lasted 17 months.
Experienced firefighters headed for the door, putting in their papers before cuts to rein in retirement benefits went into effect. In 2009, 100 firefighters retired, double the number who retired the previous year and nearly triple the number who retired in 2018.
Now the department, with between 30 and 50 vacant positions, is stepping up its hiring efforts.
Fire officials say they want to cut overtime costs, which totaled more than $45 million last year, up from $32.5 million in 2017, as well as hire staff for new stations and roving engines. The chief’s five-year plan is to add about 220 firefighter positions.
In 2013, after nearly three years without hiring a single recruit, training academies began again — some years with one training class and some years with up to three.
After holding two fire academies in fiscal 2019, the city plans to run three next year, with plans to continue the pattern for the following two fiscal years. The goal is to graduate 97 recruits per year.
But even with the hiring process back on track, the city is finding it can’t always fill its academies.
Those looking to join the fire service often submit applications anywhere that is hiring — and these days there are a lot of opportunities.
San Diego has a strong reputation for providing top-notch training, promoting an aggressive approach to firefighting and fostering a supportive, family-like work environment. In recent years, the city has spent millions purchasing new fire equipment, replacing old engines and brush rigs, and is building and renovating fire stations.
As a large department, it provides the chance for firefighters to perform varied tasks: from cliff and beach rescues to specializing in fighting wildland fires or high-rise blazes. It has helicopters, busy urban stations, a bomb squad and a hazardous-materials team.
San Diego also has something else that makes it unique: It is the only large fire agency in the state that does not offer newly hired firefighters a defined-benefit pension. The city stopped providing pensions to new hires, except police officers, after voters approved Proposition B in 2012. The reform measure called for the city to instead offer 401(k)-style retirement plans.
It also mandated a five-year freeze on pay hikes that left firefighter compensation relatively low when compared to other agencies in San Diego County and Southern California. A city survey conducted in 2015 showed some firefighter salaries were at the bottom of 24 agencies that were compared.
So in addition to planning for employees who are retiring, department leaders also try to anticipate how many workers will decide to switch to other departments.
Between fiscal 2014 and fiscal 2018, 41 firefighters left San Diego for other departments. That is more than the number who left for jobs with other firefighting agencies in the previous 10 years.
Fire Chief Colin Stowell said the departures are a shift. He said many firefighters used to take a longer view about city firefighting careers, often staying until they reached retirement age.
“I’m losing people now to Chula Vista and National City and Carlsbad, where 10 years ago, nobody left the big fire department in the county to go to a small department,” Stowell said. “They not only offer higher pay, but they offer a pension. That’s long-term security for these individuals.”
And more are on the way out.
Just this summer, the Orange County Fire Authority hired five San Diego firefighters. Two successfully completed an Orange County academy in June while three more firefighter-paramedics are going through one now.
Orange County pays significantly more than San Diego — its salaries for firefighters in 2018 started at $70,500, compared to $40,456 for San Diego, according to pay data from the state controller’s office.
That department is headed by former San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Brian Fennessy, who worked 28 years in San Diego and left in 2018. He knows better than most the problems San Diego faces when it comes to recruiting and retaining firefighters.
“What I was always told by policymakers was, ‘Hey, we don’t have a problem attracting people for the fire department jobs; they line up around the corner by the thousands,’” Fennessy said. “That was always the answer: You’re getting the numbers.”
In recent months, the city has taken steps to restore some benefits slashed under Proposition B, with the City Council approving an interim plan to restore death and disability benefits to firefighters.
The future of pensions is unclear. State courts found the ballot measure wasn’t placed on the ballot legally and have ordered the city to financially compensate roughly 4,000 city workers who don’t have pensions and were hired after the measure passed. While the issue faces years of court challenges, union leaders say they are hoping members will eventually get pension money and a meaningful pay boost in the next city contract.
“They will come here if they are looking for a job, but first chance they get to leave, they will leave and then we’ve lost all the training and experience — and then we have to reinvest to get somebody new up there,” said Jesse Conner, president of San Diego City Firefighters IAFF Local 145.
THE FIRE ACADEMY PIPELINE
Those interested in becoming firefighters start by submitting applications. You have to be at least 18, a high school graduate with a valid driver’s license, a U.S. citizen or have the legal right to work in the country. You also need to hold an Emergency Medical Technician certificate.
Applicants who meet the minimum qualifications are invited to take a written test for entry-level firefighters, administered once a year at Golden Hall.
The number of applicants has fluctuated over the years. In 2013, after the hiring freeze was lifted, nearly 5,000 people submitted applications to become firefighters. In its most recent cycle, 2,043 people applied — 1,718 of whom met the minimum qualifications.
Just over 1,000 took the test, with 956 passing.
Candidates considered most promising are invited in for in-person job interviews and submit to background checks. Top applicants are offered fire recruit jobs that pay $3,324 a month and are given spots in the academy, which costs the city about $1.5 million per session to run.
Ideally, the city wants each academy class to consist of 36 paid recruits and six open enrollees, made up of students taking fire technology classes at Miramar College. Sometimes, the numbers come up short.
When officials were setting up the 87th academy, the city made job offers to 36 potential recruits, but 10 declined the offer. To fill seats, San Diego invited more open enrollees. On orientation day, there were 26 paid recruits and nine open enrollees; 30 ended up graduating.
For the 86th academy, the city offered 45 people conditional job offers to get 34 to accept, according to Stowell. “Never did you used to offer people a job who had tried year after year, and they’d say, ‘I changed my mind,’” the chief said.
LEAVING SAN DIEGO
In a department of about 900 firefighters, the departures to other agencies are far from a flood — there were 13 in fiscal 2016 and 15 in fiscal 2017.
But fire officials at other large agencies in Southern California say losing firefighters to other agencies is almost unheard of.
“Literally, they don’t leave here to go to another agency. They retire,” said Los Angeles County Fire recruitment specialist Andrea Avila. Her department not only offers good pay and benefits, she said, but opportunities for advancement and growth that can’t be matched by smaller departments.
Orange County also has few defections. “We don’t lose firefighters to other agencies,” said department spokeswoman Colleen Windsor. “Our attrition is from retirements of firefighters who spent their career with OCFA.”
Paul Burgon had been with San Diego Fire-Rescue for 13 years and had been promoted to an engineer when he and his wife agreed he should try to get on with another agency. He said he didn’t expect to see much of a change in his salary if he stayed in San Diego.
“I was tired of living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.
Burgon got hired in Orange County and went through its 14-week academy, graduating as a firefighter. Even with the demotion, he said his pay jumped significantly.
“I love San Diego. I miss it, I miss it a lot,” he said. “I miss the guys, I miss the stations. It is a different culture and I miss it. But I don’t regret (the move) in the slightest.”
Anthony Le was a firefighter in San Diego for 3½ years before he left to take a job in Los Angeles County. He was born and raised here and said being a firefighter in his home city was a dream come true.
“The ability to serve the very streets I grew up on, riding on the engine on a street I used to play basketball on — that feels gratifying. It is a fulfilling feeling,” he said. “Having to ultimately leave that, it is heartbreaking.”
But Le said he was willing to start over, after going through another grueling academy, because the pay scale is so much better in Los Angeles County, where average total wages for firefighters in 2018, including overtime, topped $150,000.
Le said it’s almost taboo for firefighters to talk about testing for other departments, but he knows former colleagues who are looking to make a change. If San Diego doesn’t increase its pay and benefits, he and others worry San Diego could become a “stepping-stone department.”
Firefighters received a 3.3 percent pay raise in July and city budget records for 2020 included plans for hiring at least 46 new firefighters and an additional $6 million to cover more overtime costs. A city spokeswoman has said the plan also leaves room for any financial impacts from the city’s updated contract with the firefighters union.
Those looking to leave can find a number of departments that are hiring. The Los Angeles Fire Department would like to hire up to 150 firefighters this year, while the Chula Vista Fire Department is seeking to fill 22 firefighter-paramedic slots. The Orange County Fire Authority wants to hire at least 100.
Orange County set up a special shortened academy class this summer made up of 40 experienced firefighter-paramedics who had applied from other agencies. Three of them were from San Diego.