Staffing levels in the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department are so low right now that fire fighters are being forced to work overtime.
Those who refuse are courting risks to their careers.
"We look for volunteers to work overtime,” says Chief Javier Mainar . “When we can't find them, we go down a rotational list to 'force hire' those positions. If you refuse us, we can't chain you to the fire station. You can certainly leave. But then you're subject to discipline that escalates."
Fire fighters historically volunteer for a lot of extra shifts.
And for their employers, paying the time-and-a-half premium is cheaper than paying costs that go along with hiring more personnel.
But for San Diego firefighters these days, the job has turned into long days' journeys into nights -- all in a row.
"We work a day on for 24 hours, then off for 24 hours,” Mainar said in an interview Thursday, explaining how the firefighters’ overtime shifts come about.
“We capture (them) before (they) can go home that first morning and say 'Look, we need you to fill an open position that we have.’ So you're there for the 24 you just finished before we’re telling you now the 24 that you must do -- against your wishes -- and the 24 on your regular shift that follows. So you're there for 72 hours."
That's because San Diego Fire-Rescue’s ranks are now down to 800 firefighters -- 125 below staffing levels going back three years.
It’s a stretch during which no recruits have been hired, and a lot of veterans have retired.
Two new, 16-week academy classes have been scheduled for a total of 72 prospects.
But they won't all graduate, and will take time to get seasoning in the field.
"We should be able to (graduate) 50 or 60 of them,” says Frank De Clercq, president of San Diego Firefighters Local 145. “And that will have an effect; it will help. But it's not going to fix it."
So mandatory overtime is the order of the day until further notice -- with refusals subject to warnings, suspensions, all the way up to termination.
Says Mainar: "Roughly ten percent of those people are saying, 'Look, I just can't be there today, so I'm going to risk discipline for that action’."
But at what point does forced overtime add up to overwork, fatigue, and morale issues?
Following orders can mean having to make adjustments in family commitments, and/or letting certain things slide.
"They have concerns,” De Clercq says. “They've got requirements at home to assist their families with day care, or taking kids to school. And when you're gone for several days in a row, it makes it more difficult. Again, that affects their morale, but I think they're always going to step up to the task."
San Diego Fire-Rescue’s overtime hours have almost tripled on a fiscal year-to-year basis, before discounting some months in the city's budget crisis in which 8 of 47 engines were browned out.
The trend figures to continue until those academy classes produce graduates to back-fill the vacancies, and more classes are added.
In a study last year by the Chicago News Cooperative, San Diego had the lowest number of firefighters, per capita, among the nation's ten largest cities.
The most recent consulting report on facilities and resources in the department recommended building ten new fire stations.
Which begs the question of how to staff them.