A San Jose fire station ranked nationally for responding to thousands of service calls, but that notoriety speaks to a larger problem.
Fire Station 26 received more than 5,800 service calls in 2021, ranking 15th in the nation. But the station is just one of 34 firehouses in the San Jose Fire Department, which is contending with a host of issues. Staffing shortages have led to burnout and longer response times. The aftermath of budget cuts more than a decade ago—which led to massive layoffs and the closing of five fire stations—is still being felt by the department. Plus, fears of worsening wildfires and the ability to tackle them have become a greater concern.
On top of all that, the city’s population has grown to more than one million residents. Last year, SJFD responded to more than 94,700 calls, placing them 31st in the nation.
Staffing is one of SJFD’s biggest issues. The majority of calls involve medical emergencies and SJFD has a shortage of medical workers including paramedics. Station 26 responds to an average of 15 calls daily, Chris Cobillas, a fire engineer at the station, told San José Spotlight.
“There is a lot of station pride in what we do and providing good service and running so many calls. But also with that there’s a lot of burnout,” said Cobillas, a board member of San Jose Fire Fighters Local 230. “That affects when we come back home to our families. We burn the wick on both ends.”
Station 26’s coverage includes major highways and high density housing, SJFD spokesperson Erica Ray told San José Spotlight. The department is working to offset the load by building more fire stations, using funds from Measure T—a $650 million bond measure approved by voters in 2018 for disaster preparedness, public safety and infrastructure projects.
While resources are a step in the right direction, many San Jose Fire Department stations need personnel, including medical staff, Local 230 President Matt Tuttle said. Station 26 alone responded to more than 4,000 medical calls in 2020-21.
“Being drastically short on paramedics means the paramedics that we do have are working a way different schedule,” Tuttle told San José Spotlight. “They’re oftentimes working 72 or 96 hours during a work week. That does lead to fatigue, it leads to an increase in injuries, it leads to a multitude of other issues too, like PTSD.”
Medical emergencies make up 60% of calls, according to a city report. Only 5% are for fires and the rest are incidents such as traffic accidents and false alarms.
Response times are also affected by staff shortages, Tuttle said. Some cities have up to five engines responding to the same amount of calls that Station 26 gets to in a year, he said. The response time can be more than eight minutes.
“Our response times are some of the worst in the county,” Tuttle told San José Spotlight. “It’s frustrating because when somebody calls 911, they expect us to respond in a timely manner and we do our best to ensure that. But we’re only as good as the resources that we have available.”
To ease the burden on Station 26, Ray said construction is slated to begin next spring on a new station, Fire Station 32. The project is expected to be completed in fall 2024. Ray also noted Fire Station 37, which opened in May, is helping address the needs at high call volume stations like Station 26.
Councilmember Maya Esparza, whose district includes Station 26, said the heavy workload at the local station is the reason she fought to bring the new station online.
“The safety of our residents and firefighters is the highest priority, and this means giving our firefighters the resources they need to do their job effectively,” Esparza told San José Spotlight.
Cobillas said the difference between Station 26 and other local firehouses like Stations 2 and 3 are only a couple calls a day.
“We know we’re going to be there for days on end and potentially be in very precarious situations,” he said.
Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected] or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.