LAFD's staff shortage during fire season causing firefighters to worry

The Los Angeles City Fire Department is facing staffing shortages, which have plagued the department for years, but with the city's vaccination mandate approaching, some LAFD members are concerned.

As of Wednesday, department officials said the department closed three engines, and converted four trucks into engines, meaning they closed the truck and used staffing to open the pump. The effect City-wide was closing four truck companies and adding an extra engine for the day. 

The department also closed six EMT rescue ambulances. The 38 trucks currently in service are operating with one less firefighter to try to minimize the impact, according to officials.

Public Information Officer for LAFD, Erik Scott, said the shortages are not "new."

"Staffing shortages are nothing new to the LAFD. As we've always done, we're going to continue to evaluate the ability to maintain operational readiness to respond within the city. Each morning the number and location of unfilled vacancies determine the companies to be closed but per department protocol, we never leave a station without a firefighting company," said Scott.

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Freddy Escobar, the President of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles City, weighed in on the issue.

"This has been going on for many years but the last 20 months for sure has been very tasking," he said.

Escobar said the staffing concerns are serious.

"Right now it's a huge concern. We are the most understaffed urban fire department in America. The brothers and sisters that I represent at UFLAC have been overworked, overtasked with Covid and regular calls on a single day," said Escobar.

Escobar said the members are currently mandated to work two additional days and some members are working six to ten additional days per month with 24-hour duties, and a regular schedule is ten days per month.

"We have essentially the same number of firefighters and fire stations we had 32 years ago when I was hired in 1989 so obviously this is a completely different city today. We have additional calls. We're averaging 2,000 calls per day and our staffing levels are just the same or maybe a little bit lower than we were 32 years ago. On a daily basis, we're running at least 42 members short. We're closing companies so depending on how everything is set up, potentially you can have a district that has no coverage depending on the calls they have in their district," he said.

The Los Angeles City Council voted to enact a city-wide vaccination mandate, requiring all city workers to be vaccinated or file medical or religious exemptions by December 18. The deadline was extended to December 18 after a plan was approved by City Council Tuesday.

According to Escobar, 74% of LAFD members are vaccinated, including him, but if it does not change to 100% by the December 18 deadline, the department could lose 800 to 900 firefighters. He said though he is vaccinated, he believes it is morally and ethically wrong to base employment on vaccinations.

"Can the city afford to lose 800 firefighters? Absolutely not. No way. The answer is no. We're already extremely short on staff. The impacts that this would have would be enormous. We simply can't afford to lose one member, let alone 50 members, let alone 100 members. We just can't do it. It would be devastating for the residents of Los Angeles," he said.

Jeff Burmeister, a 16 year veteran of the LAFD, and a member of "Firefighters for Freedom," said the shortages are critical especially during fire season.

"You throw in a Santa Ana condition with brush fire season and you now have a brush fire that breaks out somewhere in the city boundaries with homes threatened and a wind-driven fire, you need as many resources as possible for the sole purpose of defending property and saving lives and that is probably the most staffing dependent time when we need all hands on deck," he said.

Burmeister said in 2008, he recalls closures of stations too, but he believes the current situation can impact response times depending on where someone lives.

"If you live in a community and your resources close for the day, your next available resource could be one district away and so all things being equal, what that means is a longer response time for you, your family member or whoever is in need of 911 emergency service," said Burmeister.

Burmeister is also concerned about the potential of losing hundreds of firefighters when the mandate goes into effect.

"We have four people on each fire, maybe they go to three people on each fire engine, maybe they take members off the trucks or they close trucks. Somehow the coverage is going to change and somehow the remaining members will be stressed beyond anything we've ever seen in the fire department. That represents a critical staffing issue and frankly, that's an untenable situation for the fire department to lose that many members at once," he said.

Scott emphasized that the current shortages are not related to the upcoming mandate.

"None of the company closures are related to the Covid 19 vaccination ordinance. Currently, the Los Angeles City Fire Department does not have vaccine mandate-related shortages. Simply put, no one has been placed on leave or terminated for refusing to comply since the City's deadline has not yet passed," he said.

LAFD officials added that the office of the Operations Central Bureau (OCB) serves as the coordination center to help bureaus decide which companies should be closed and where the detailed members should be sent. Each morning, the number and location of unfilled vacancies determine the companies to be closed. Per Department protocol, the department never leaves a station without a firefighting company.