San Diego’s Fire Chief says he has never seen his fire department this thin; more than 13% of city firefighters are now in isolation because of COVID-19, triggering what are known as "brownouts" at fire stations citywide.
When an emergency brownout is activated, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department limits stations with two companies down to just one on a rotating basis, according to SDFD.
While no stations are closed under this plan, which went into effect on Jan. 3, three specialty units will go idle -- a two-person crew that patrols Gaslamp Friday and Saturday nights, a similar engine that covers Southeast San Diego, and the bomb squad.
The firefighters from browned-out engines will work in place of other firefighters to fill holes in the department.
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SDFD Chief Colin Stowell says only stations with double companies will undergo a brownout, but both the chief and the fire union say this still puts firefighters and the public in a precarious situation.
“This is unprecedented for sure,” Stowell said over a remote video interview Monday afternoon about the department's skeleton workforce.
As of Monday, 131 San Diego city firefighters are in isolation - 110 tested positive for COVID-19, with 20 tests still pending. That’s a massive blow for a department that staffs roughly 960 firefighters total.
Stowell says 86% of San Diego firefighters are fully vaccinated. 108 firefighters are currently unvaccinated.
“We just don’t physically have enough bodies that are healthy enough to work,” Stowell said.
Stowell says the department will consistently brownout three specialty units and three engines each day. Those engines are at station 40 in Rancho Penasquitos, station 11 in Golden Hill and station 20 in Midway.
On Monday, the department also had to brownout engine 21 in Pacific Beach.
A draft memo sent to NBC 7 by sources within the fire department outlines a plan that allows for up to 7 engines to brownout each day, rotating between these 10 stations across the city.
“It needs to have two units out of that fire station for us to even consider closing that unit down,” explained Stowell. “So that way we are never leaving any community completely unprotected.”
But there is still a lot of room for concern.
“There’s no good option when it comes to emergency brownout any unit,” said Jesse Conner, President of the San Diego City Firefighters IFF Local 145.
Conner says just because a station has a double company doesn’t mean both companies have the exact same equipment, meaning a crew might need to lean on another station to be able to pump water or use a ladder.
“It can create coverage gaps if we have to emergency brownout any unit in the city,” says Conner.
And, the workforce that is considered healthy enough to work is already overworked.
“There’s a level of frustration,” says Conner. “A level of exhaustion, and we do have a few folks that are at their wit’s end.”
Stowell says 47 firefighters working Monday were supposed to have the day off. Had there been no brownouts, that number would have jumped to around 80 firefighters. It’s a situation Stowell says just isn’t sustainable.
When asked what worries him the most about the brownouts, Stowell responded, “Not knowing how long we’re going to be in this for.”