Brown-out plan in place with roughly 15% of San Diego FFs in COVID isolation

Department leaders have created a crisis plan that allows for the closure of up to 7 engines and 3 specialty crews


Lyndsay Winkley
The San Diego Union-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — The number of San Diego firefighters who are in isolation due to COVID-19 continued to grow on Monday, jumping from 113 to 131. It's an upward trend that fire Chief Colin Stowell doesn't expect to change for at least several weeks.

"I'm going to be a realist on this one and say we can expect these numbers to climb just as we're seeing in the general population," Stowell said in an interview Monday. "We know that the holiday season brought a lot of gatherings. We're going to see those numbers to continue to increase."

"I'm going to be a realist on this one and say we can expect these numbers to climb just as we're seeing in the general population," said San Diego Fire Department Chief Colin Stowell, who spoke at an event in 2019. (Photo/Tribune News Service)

Last week, mounting coronavirus-related absences prompted department leaders to put together a brown-out plan that dictates the fire resources that would be idled if staffing shortages demanded it. Currently, about 15 percent of the city's roughly 960 firefighters are in isolation.

The plan, which was released Thursday, allows for the closure of up to seven engines and three specialty crews — the Mobile Operations Detail, the bomb squad and Squad 55, a fast response team.

Stowell said Monday that many factors are considered when the department chooses to brown out an engine. Department officials analyze how many calls a particular station handles, how long it would take nearby crews to cover the station that is impacted and how many fire stations are close enough to help out the station that would be short-handed. Officials are work to avoid browning out stations that are right next to each other.

The chief reiterated that only stations that are so-called "double houses" would be affected by engine shutdowns. A double house describes a station that is home to both an engine company and a truck company — so if an engine is taken off line, the station will still have one crew in place for emergencies.

"We are not leaving any communities completely unprotected," he said.

Even that level of coverage likely wouldn't be possible, Stowell said, if available firefighters hadn't stepped up to take on extra shifts — often sacrificing time with their own families to help lessen the impact of the staffing shortage.

"These folks have already gone through an exhaustive two years," the chief said. "They are completely worn down, and now we're asking even more of them, to step up and work additional shifts to try and make sure we're providing adequate service to all our communities."

Stowell said he hopes the plan will get them through the current shortage, but it can be revisited if the number of firefighters in isolation continues to climb. He was hopeful that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recent decision to shorten the recommended COVID-related isolation period from 10 days to five days will help healthy firefighters get back to the job more quickly.

Stowell said many who are testing positive for the virus are vaccinated and are only experiencing symptoms for a few days before improving.

Before vaccinations were available, it was fairly common for a firefighter sick with COVID to be out for weeks — in some cases months, Stowell said. Vaccinated firefighters have been making speedy recoveries.

Other staffing woes may be on the horizon.

City employees, including firefighters, were required to comply with the city's vaccine mandate by 11:59 p.m. on Monday, and non-compliant employees face termination.

Officials said Monday that as of Dec. 29, about 87 percent of the city's roughly 960 firefighters were vaccinated. Almost 110 firefighters were not fully vaccinated and 13 had not reported their vaccination status to the city. Just over 90 firefighters requested medical or religious exemptions.

Last month, employees who were not fully vaccinated, including firefighters, were sent letters that identified ways to comply with the city's vaccine mandate. Those options were: immediately get vaccinated, request a medical or religious exemption, request a leave without pay, apply for retirement or resign. Employees who did not select one of the available options by Monday will be sent a notice of termination.

Neither Stowell nor city officials could say how many firefighters were likely to be terminated.

"There are a lot of individual decisions being made for various reasons," Stowell said. "We do know there are some strong opinions out there and we will likely see some people make some hard decisions that will affect their careers. Our goal is to not lose anyone so if there is a way to reasonably accommodate them with their exemptions, that's our intention."

Stowell said the department should know more about how the vaccine mandate will impact staffing later this week.

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