The San Jose Fire Department is sounding the alarm, worried about understaffing and its ability to adequately respond to wildland fires in this drought.
The numerous calls coming in are taxing the shrinking number of men and women who fight them.
“There’s a huge concern of burnout,” said Matt Tuttle, president of the San Jose Firefighters Union Local 230. ”Firefighting is a very stressful job.”
The fire union said a significant part of the stress is caused by a lot of overtime because of the department’s low staffing levels.
“We do need help,” said Tuttle. “It’s taking a toll on the mind and on the body. And we’d hate to see the mental health of our members pushed that much more with the amount of calls we’re running.”
The fire union chief says several members have now filed claims for PTSD and if a big fire hits the San Jose Hills, residents might have to rely on help from other cities, and the San Jose firefighters who are already exhausted and stretched thin.
“It’s going to be a rough summer. A rough couple of months,” said Tuttle.
That’s not what Tony Alexander of San Jose wanted to hear. His family was evacuated from Mt. Hamilton Road twice during a big fire a couple years ago.
He hopes crews are ready and rested when the next alarm goes off.
“Yes I’m alarmed,” he said. “But I have confidence they’re going to come up with a plan, like they always have.”
In a statement, the San Jose Fire Department Chief Robert Sapien Jr. said staffing levels were decreased by budget cuts between 2010 and 2012.
The chief said, “As the city’s emergency response demands and physical environment evolves, the department has continuously evaluated resource and staffing levels and suggested adjustments to maintain its effectiveness.”
The chief points to the opening of a new fire station and the planning for two more.
He also says the department has put several previously sidelined engines back in service
“We totally support it and were glad the fire chief is working with us to be in collaboration with new solutions on how we’re going to do hiring,” said Tuttle.
For now, the union says its bracing for this fire season hoping the firefighters who show up to the next call are rested and ready to fight the fire, the heat, and the fatigue.
Read Chief Sapien Jr.'s full statement below:
San José Fire Department deploys resources to provide timely and effective response to all community risks including fire, rescue, hazardous materials, and emergency medical services (EMS). Department staffing levels were driven downward from previous highs by budget contraction in FY 2010-11 and FY 2011-12. As the City’s emergency response demands and physical environment evolves, the Department has continuously evaluated resource and staffing levels and suggested adjustments to maintain its effectiveness. Following a 2016 Fire Department Organizational Review, SJFD has made progress on several identified staffing goals, successfully restoring staffing on Engine 35, Engine 30 and Engine 34. It has also eliminated brownouts through the addition of budgeted overtime and put three squads into service, providing enhanced medical coverage across the City of San José. Response time challenges in identified areas have also been addressed through the addition of a landside bay to Station 20 enhancing coverage in and around Mineta San José International Airport as well as the opening of Fire Station 37 serving the Willow Glen and Cambrian neighborhoods. Additionally, funding has been identified for the addition of new Fire Stations 32 and 36, also identified as goals in the 2016 Fire Department Organizational Review. Restoration of Department resources and staffing, while constrained by budget, has been guided by strategic planning and standards of response coverage assessment.