What started out as a Halloween tweet showcasing a little boy’s firefighter costume ended up highlighting the Oakland Fire Department’s staffing problems.
The tweet read, “due to staffing shortages, any child dressed as a firefighter will be required to fill a shift.”
It’s funny, but highlights just how bad things are for Oakland Fire.
Firefighters are used to working 24-hour shifts, with a day off in between shifts. But when those 24-hour shifts are back-to-back – sometimes as many as seven, eight, even 12 days straight, that’s when firefighters say it can become unhealthy and taxing on their personal life.
“We’re seeing increased injuries, we’re seeing increased sickness, and we’re seeing devastating effects at home, divorces,” said Zac Unger, Oakland Firefighters Local 55 Union President.
Unger says staffing levels at the fire department have not kept up with Oakland’s changing demands, including a year-round wildfire season, rampant fires in the city’s growing homeless encampments and new development.
“Our fire department simply has not kept up with the growth of the city,” Unger said.
He added that that’s where the mandatory overtime comes in. Firefighters, including himself, are working a string of 24-hour shifts, with very little breaks in between.
“We’re doing the best we can but everyone has a breaking point,” he said.
Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman said there’s a connection between those overtime shifts and a spike in injuries on the job.
“Slip trips and falls, back injuries, knee injuries shoulder injuries, are the most common injuries we see,” he said.
According to the chief, back in 2019, an average of 19 firefighters were hurt on the job. This year – 50 firefighters are off, recuperating from on-the-job injuries.
“The city continues to take the fire department for granted and under-invest in the fire department,” said Unger. “There are plenty of willing applicants out there.”
Chief Freeman says currently the department has 432 firefighters. He’s met with city staff to find out how the city can budget for more permanent staffing. The good news – there are two fire department academies on the way. One starts in November and the other begins in March. The bad news – OFD is far from the only fire department in California who’s hiring.
“Everyone is competing for the same pool of firefighter/paramedics,” said Freeman.