Injuries, transfers, retirements and resignations are fueling the staffing issues that are forcing Long Beach Fire Department personnel to work overtime shifts multiple times per month and leading to a diminished quality of life, a department official said Tuesday.
LBFD Deputy Chief Jeff Hardin told the City Council’s Public Safety Committee that among its ranks, basic life support ambulance operators were the most affected workers. Over 71% of the people in that class of workers who were hired since 2020 have resigned, leaving the department with just 18 active ambulance operators.
While call volume has gone up 37% since 2008, staffing has not increased, and the issue has been compounded by people who are out on leave or completing months-long training courses, and by positions simply going unfilled. Firefighter staffing is down 25%, and paramedics, which provide advanced life-saving services, are down 19%. Hardin said injuries and vacancies are playing a role in both drops.
Those positions have been “force hired”—meaning people who are already on staff are required to work on scheduled days off—an average of seven times per month, Hardin said. He noted that firefighters, on average, are force hiring five times a month, and paramedics are force hiring four times a month because of staffing shortages.
Hardin said the department tries to be mindful of how many additional shifts each employee is working, but force hiring has been necessary to remedy the staffing shortages.
“Our constant staffing is 128 personnel per day,” Hardin said. “If we get to a certain point, we have to look at alternative measures like a brown-out of a station and those kinds of extremes.”
The presentation to the committee came just over two weeks after a BLS ambulance operator and their partner fell asleep on the way to a call and crashed into a power pole in East Long Beach.
After the accident, unions representing the ambulance operators and the city’s sworn fire personnel called for immediate changes to address the exhaustion and fatigue its members are facing, which is leading to work safety issues.
The employees inside the ambulance that crashed had responded to 19 calls in less than 24 hours.
The presentation concerned the committee members.
“Have we figured out a balance where we say, ‘OK, this is too much for the employee,’ and it becomes a risk?” said Councilmember Al Austin, who chairs the committee.
While the crash involved ambulance operators, which are EMTs represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Long Beach Firefighters Association said its paramedics and firefighters are facing similar challenges, and shortages in BLS units mean paramedics or fire engines have to respond to routine medical calls.
IAM is preparing for contract negotiations with the city with an expectation that a new labor deal will be approved before the start of the fiscal year in October.
The Fire Department is budgeted to operate three 24-hour BLS units and two 12-hour BLS units, but it currently has just the three 24-hour units with one or none of the 12-hour units. The department said on the morning of the crash the two 12-hour BLS units were not in service due to staffing issues.
Concerns over staffing shortages are not new. Department employees were interviewed by a consultant team hired by the city to identify cuts or fee increases to help the city balance its budget.
In the report, personnel said the exhaustion brought on by the increased call volumes and staffing shortages was leading to increased stress, sleep deprivation and crumbling relationships.
Hardin acknowledged the challenges the department is facing in a presentation to the same committee in August 2022, when he said the workload had led to the LBFD losing employees to other, slower departments.
“Eventually, these people break,” Hardin said in 2022. “And we have people now that are broken and say they can’t do this anymore.”
On Tuesday, Hardin shared data that showed that since 2018, the department had lost 85 sworn personnel. Fifty of those losses were due to retirement, while 17 were resignations to pursue other employment, relocate or for personal reasons.
The department is looking at changing its policies to bolster its ranks faster. Hardin said it expects to onboard 45 new ambulance operators in the coming months to lessen the workload for existing employees.
LBFD is also looking at shortening academy times, altering work schedules, and allowing for other city employees who are certified as an EMT or paramedics to fill shifts.
The department previously said that could mean lifeguards could serve as ambulance operators, and Hardin said Tuesday it’s looking at allowing other ALS-certified fire personnel who have attained higher ranks to fill paramedic shifts.
Hardin said the department is planning a larger than normal fire academy that will start in August, which could help with firefighter staffing levels, and it’s expecting paramedic staffing to be helped by the return of over 20 firefighters currently going through paramedic training.
However, the new personnel might only soften the blow of the next round of expected departures. Hardin said the department is expecting 30 or more new vacancies by December.
Long Beach employee unions call for action after ambulance driver falls asleep, hits power pole
‘Eventually these people break’: Report details stresses on firefighters as city looks for cuts