San Diego Fire Department’s Station 21 in Pacific Beach could be idled due to COVID absences

San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell (right) speaks at a City Hall in March 2020.
San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell (right) speaks at a City Hall news conference in March 2020. In the background is Police Chief David Nisleit.
(Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

As of Sunday, 113 firefighters were isolating; most have tested positive for COVID-19, fire union president says


More than 100 San Diego firefighters are in isolation due to the coronavirus, prompting department leaders to put together an emergency brownout plan outlining which fire crews will be idled if staffing shortages demand it.

Among stations that could be impacted is Fire Station No. 21 in Pacific Beach.

COVID-19 cases have again surged across the country and region, and the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has been hit hard. Jesse Conner, president of the labor union that represents city firefighters, said that as of Sunday, 113 firefighters had either tested positive for the coronavirus and were in a state-mandated isolation or had been exposed to the virus and were isolating while they waited on test results. He said the majority of those affected had tested positive. The department employs roughly 960 firefighters.

To address the growing staffing shortage, department leaders developed a plan which allows for the closure of up to seven engine companies each day, in addition to three specialty crews — the Mobile Operations Detail, the bomb squad and Squad 55, a fast response team. The plan was laid out in a memo from San Diego Fire Chief Colin Stowell dated Dec. 30.

The plan was slated to go into effect Monday, but Conner said some stations were idled the day the memo came out because of staffing shortages. Brownouts continued into the weekend, as well. On Saturday, two specialty units and two engines were shut down, followed by two specialty units and 5 engines on Sunday.

“All stakeholders understand that this plan will result in a decrease in service levels and economic and emotional impacts on the workforce,” Stowell wrote. “Not all stakeholders agree with every aspect of this plan, but this is the best option available currently to address the current staffing shortages during this recent surge in COVID cases.”

According to the department’s plan, three specialty crews are the first to be taken off line. The Mobile Operations Detail is a two-person crew that works Friday and Saturday nights in the Gaslamp Quarter. Fire department spokesperson Mónica Muñoz said because there are other fire stations downtown, shutting down the mobile detail results in minimal impacts.

Squad 55 is another two-person crew that works 12-hour shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in southeastern San Diego. There are also two other fire stations in the area that can take on this crew’s responsibilities.

The bomb squad has been a dedicated, two-person team for about a year. When this unit shuts down, the crew embeds with an engine company. However, if a bomb call occurs, they are pulled to address that incident.

“This means SDFD always has bomb-trained personnel on duty whether they are on the dedicated crew or on an engine or truck company,” said Muñoz.

The last units to face brownouts are engine companies, which are four-person teams consisting of a captain, engineer, firefighter and firefighter/paramedic. Only stations that are so-called double houses will be affected by engine shut downs, officials said. 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.

An engine was last taken out of commission on Sept. 25. At that time, only 22 firefighters were in isolation or on leave to care for family members with COVID-19. Several other factors contributed to a brief spate of brownouts that month. Many firefighters were in Northern California, helping with raging wildfires, and a fire academy that was cancelled due to the pandemic had likely cost the department about 30 extra firefighters that had been expected to be hired.

According to Stowell’s memo, the stations that may lose staffing are: Station 1 in downtown San Diego, Station 11 in Golden Hill, Station 12 in Lincoln Park, Station 14 in North Park, Station 20 in the Midway District, Station 21 in Pacific Beach, Station 28 in Kearny Mesa, Station 29 in San Ysidro, Station 35 in La Jolla and Station 40 in Rancho Peñasquitos.

Conner stressed that although the plan has been put in place, that doesn’t necessarily mean units will be taken out of rotation every day. Healthy firefighters are are working overtime to cover as many extra shifts as possible, and administrative support personnel are being relocated to cover some vacancies as well, he said.

“We saw the storm coming and the department, therefore, came up with this emergency plan,” Conner said. “But it’s a day-to-day decision. If we have the staffing, there won’t be any brownouts.”

Other San Diego fire employees also in isolation due to COVID-19 include 15 lifeguards and six civilian employees. Those staffing shortages have not caused any operational changes.

The fire department may soon face further staffing woes. City employees, including firefighters, were required to comply with the city’s vaccine mandate by Monday. Non-compliant employees will face termination.

As of mid-December, about 83 percent of the city’s firefighters were vaccinated, according to city figures. Almost 120 firefighters were not fully vaccinated and 45 had not reported their vaccination status to the city. About 85 firefighters requested medical or religious exemptions. Updated figures were not available Sunday.

Spokespersons for Mayor Todd Gloria have said the city plans to maintain public safety even if the city loses personnel like firefighters because of the mandate. Courtney Pittam, the mayor’s press secretary, previously told the Union-Tribune that Gloria has worked to ensure the city is a competitive and desirable employer for police officers and firefighters by investing in academies, wages and pension benefits. She noted that both the police and fire departments have recently put recruits through academies.

“This shows that even with the proposed vaccine mandate, we continue to attract both police officers and firefighters to serve our city,” Pittam said in late November.

The mayor has described the mandate as a necessary step to protect employees and the public and to ensure the city efficiently provides services, some of which have been impacted by the pandemic.

Conner, the firefighter labor union president, said it’s unclear how many firefighters currently in isolation are vaccinated.

COVID-19 cases have been trending upwards for weeks across the country. On Dec. 29, San Diego County officials reported 3,653 new cases, the highest total since Jan. 7, 2021.