Consultants who were hired to find ways to cut the Long Beach Fire Department’s budget say the department is already stretched too thin, with overworked employees who have been “broken” by the demands of their job, according to an unreleased draft report reviewed by the Long Beach Post.

The city of Long Beach commissioned the report by AP Triton, a consulting firm that focuses on fire service, to find savings in the LBFD’s budget while city management was trying to plug a projected budget shortfall of as much as $41 million at the outset of the pandemic.

As part of their research, AP Triton interviewed hundreds of fire personnel in 2021 in order to compile a 481-page draft report that the Post was able to view multiple times prior to it becoming public.

A person familiar with the report, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the document had not yet been released, said firefighters described a workplace beset by mounting stress that’s been exacerbated by the pandemic and staffing shortages.

In the report, firefighters say the stresses of the job has led to failing marriages, substance abuse and concern about when one of their colleagues will snap and hurt themselves or others.

Sleep deprivation is the main complaint, a result of the volume of calls the department responds to, which have increased by 34% since 2010 (this does not include calls handled by Marine personnel), according to department data. Members of the department have reported having coworkers help keep them awake on their way to calls or sleeping in their vehicles as they wait for the next call to come in.

Existing staffing shortages have been compromised by dozens of employees out on leave for stress or long-term injuries and could be made worse by a looming “armageddon” of retirements.

Dozens of captains, firefighters and highly trained engineers are eligible for retirement and others are seeking transfers to improve their quality of life, according to testimonials within the report and interviews conducted by the Post.

“You can walk into any fire station and just see it. You can recognize it,” said Rex Pritchard, president of the Long Beach Firefighters Association, who also works as an engineer at Station 10. “People are mentally and physically exhausted, they’re just done.”

City Manager Tom Modica said the report relied a lot on subjective comments, which are important, but he said the city pushed back on some of the complaints where it appeared that statements made by individuals became fact.

Modica said the city is still working on a third phase of the report, which could present opportunities for the department to become more efficient and increase revenues, but that phase of the report isn’t expected to be completed until the end of the year or early 2023.

‘Holding the wall’

The fire department rarely responds to fires. Instead, department members say it has become a primary source of medical care for some residents, resulting in the overwhelming majority of calls firefighters respond to being for injuries or illness.

In February, the last month for which the city has public data, the department responded to 4,981 calls with 4,180 of those (84%) being medical responses.

Personnel say that responding to medical issues is part of the job, but the volume of calls has resulted in firefighters and paramedics having less time to address a call before moving on to the next—and even less time to rest in between.

“I would yell at my partner to stay up with me as we’re driving back to the station,” said Rachel Ma, a paramedic who’s worked for the department for five years. “They would fall asleep inside [the truck] because they know we’re going to get another call.”

Long Beach Fire Department deliver patients to Los Alamitos Medical Center, Monday, Dec. 21. Photo by Brandon Richardson.

Ma said “holding the wall,” a term used in the department to describe the process of waiting for a patient to be admitted to the hospital—which is often necessary for patients in critical condition, when paramedics may continue providing care during the wait—has contributed to the department’s resources being stretched.

Federal law prohibits hospitals from denying patients care, but delays have stemmed from hospital bed shortages, or sometimes admitting patients is held up due to insurance or testing delays. Bed shortages, especially during the height of the pandemic, made it difficult to get patients admitted to a hospital in a timely manner.

Sometimes, Ma and her partner can hold the wall for eight to nine hours for less urgent patients, and sometimes they’re forced to drive to other cities in search of an available hospital bed.

The 31-year-old attributes the five broken bones, torn rotator cuff and hypertension she’s been diagnosed with to the onslaught of calls the department gets. However, she chose to come to Long Beach after graduating from the academy in Culver City, saying it takes a “special breed” to want to work in a busy environment.

“What’s considered a busy station in Culver City is the equivalent to a slow station here,” Ma said.

Deputy Chief Jeff Hardin illustrated just how busy stations can be during a presentation to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee in August. Hardin said Fire Station 3, located near Drake Park, used to average about 11 calls per shift but that average jumped to 16 calls per shift in 2021.

Hardin said some days it can be 30 calls, with the average response lasting 30-45 minutes, which means firefighters are working non-stop for 24 hours and don’t have time to rest. The department continues to lose people to other departments,  Hardin said.

“Eventually these people break,” Hardin said. “And we have people now that are broken and say they can’t do this anymore.”

Every firefighter has basic life support training and a smaller number go through the rigorous training required to become a certified paramedic, like Ma.

Long Beach Fire Chief Xavier Espino sitting at his office table, Tuesday, Feb 19, 2019. Photo by Sarahi Apaez.

Right now, there are 20 firefighters going through that training, according to LBFD Fire Chief Xavier Espino. And that has placed more strain on other personnel to cover the 200 shifts per month that are now vacant.

Espino, though, is hopeful that with a new class of paramedics and the potential return of people from leave, things could get better.

“The situation as it stands today is not good, but I do see light at the end of the tunnel,” Espino said.

Forced hiring 

Cuts to the fire department began in the mid-2000s when the economic collapse of 2008 put the city in a similar position as the start of the pandemic; it was facing a massive budget deficit and needed to make drastic cuts to balance the city’s budget.

Engines were removed from some stations like Station 1 in Downtown while other stations lost their rescue unit and over a dozen positions were eliminated entirely. Fire officials point to 2005 when daily staffing was closer to 140 fire personnel covering the city as the high point they’d like to return to. Espino says at the “very top level” daily staffing is now 124.

Espino said additional apparatus would be nice, but adding them requires more people. Each engine requires 12 firefighters and each paramedic or rescue unit requires nine employees. He said he needs approximately 40 more people, which he hopes will be helped by upcoming academies and people returning from leave.

But with 20 firefighters at paramedic school and between 30-40 out on some sort of leave, forced hiring has become a necessity to ensure the city’s 25 stations are staffed.

The typical work month for a firefighter consists of 10 24-hour shifts, but that hasn’t been the case for department personnel who say the staffing shortages are leading to them being “force hired” —required to work on their days off—multiple times per month.

When the department needs to fill shifts it can “force hire” people for as many as three days in a row. For more interchangeable positions, there’s a larger pool to draw from, but for more specialized positions, like engineers, who drive the engines and trucks, it’s smaller.

The report showed that through June of 2021 engineers were force hired 1,427 times, up from 2020 (911) and 2019 (825). About half of the department’s 84 engineers who drive and operate the department’s engines are eligible for retirement, according to the report.

Kevin Scott, a deckhand who has worked for the department for the past 19 years, said he had a five-year plan where he’d gradually work fewer and fewer overtime shifts before retiring at the end of this year.

However, the past 10 years have been almost endless overtime, a lot of it mandatory, or picking up shifts for other firefighters who were required to work but had weddings, funerals, surgeries or other life events that couldn’t be missed.

Scott compares the mixture of being away from home, sometimes as many as 20 days per month, and the constant barrage of emergency calls like being “in a foxhole” and bombarded 24 hours daily.

He works as one of the department’s peer counselors who help debrief firefighters after traumatic calls and serves as “a shoulder to cry on” and a referral point to psychologists who are available to the department. The workload is weighing on people, Scott said.

“You get that sense that everyone is on a slow simmer, but if you crank up the heat a little bit and they’re boiling over,” Scott said.

Multiple firefighters interviewed for the report referenced recent suicides within the Long Beach Police Department and Los Angeles County Fire with personnel saying they believe it’s not a question of when, this will happen in the LBFD.

“Fortunately, we have not checked that box yet,” said one person interviewed in the report.

Possible solutions 

Part of the AP Triton report is supposed to propose potential solutions for the department, but it’s unclear what those will be. Assistant City Manager Linda Tatum said that the third phase could be finished sometime in the next few months, but it could still take some time to implement any of the recommendations because it will require meeting with employee unions and potentially developing new policies.

The report identified a few opportunities to raise revenue for the department, which could help offset rising costs. One area highlighted was fire inspection fees; the city currently charges about two-thirds of what it could charge. The report said raising those could generate about $3 million but city management said that number was “high level” and disputed if that projection was accurate.

Another area of focus could be raising fees for residents using the emergency services provided by the department. In 2015, the City Council approved a $250 first responder fee, which was lower than other area cities, but changing fees and how the city collects them will be a policy decision.

“How much do you want to go after the people who can’t pay?” Modica said.

Modica said the recently approved three-year contract for the fire department could help buy the city time because it included pay increases to help retain current firefighters and paramedics, and potentially attract people to transfer into the city.

But with the addition of new fire and police contracts comes a bigger budget deficit in the future, which is now projected to be about $43 million next year. Even if the third phase finds more revenue, cuts could still be required.

“We’re facing a much larger deficit now and it’s just a matter of math,” Modica said. “You have a deficit, all your needs and every department would like to add, but you have to balance the budget at some point.”

Modica said the city needs to look at how it can be more efficient. Can fire stations be combined or relocated to more appropriate parts of the city? Are there solutions that don’t require taking every person the department transports to a hospital?

Espino said the department is looking at new pilot programs that could allow firefighters to use an iPad to call a doctor that could assess a person in the field and write prescriptions rather than transporting them to a hospital where units could be stuck holding the wall.

The department is also looking to partner with the county on a program that would allow patients to be transported to alternate locations like sobering facilities or urgent care, something they’re not currently allowed to do. Both could help the holding the wall issue, Espino said.

It’s also looking to bolster its mental health support system to provide more professional help to employees. The department is in the process of seeking a provider that would give firefighters similar access to mental health services that the city’s police officers have.

But there are still challenges ahead, especially for the department’s aging stations, some of which were built in the 1930s.

The city’s development impact fees charged to developers to offset new demands on city services have not been updated in some time and have generated just about $500,000 per year for the fire department, according to city officials.

The revenue can only be used on infrastructure and the new Fire Station 9 in North Long Beach is expected to cost $25 million.

Modica said the city made a decision to focus on inclusionary zoning, which requires a certain percentage of new units built in parts of the city to be affordable, rather than raising fees paid to support fire, police and park infrastructure.

City officials compared setting developer fees as a “goldilocks” situation where they try not to set the fees so high that it discourages future development.

The department could look to bonds to help speed up the replacement and retrofits needed immediately at least five stations, Espino said. The upcoming academies could provide an influx of new firefighters and help reduce the amount of overtime personnel are being forced to work, something Espino said he never had to endure when he joined the ranks 37 years ago.

“Their busy today would probably have had me retiring a long time ago,” he said.

Editors note: This story has been updated to show that Linda Tatum is the assistant city manager. 

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.