Staffing shortage at San Jose fire department causes inspection backlog
Photo courtesy of San Jose Fire Department

San Jose’s fire department is short staffed, leading to a backlog in fire inspections for new buildings, a recent audit found.

Vacancies in engineering and inspection positions, which are key to getting buildings up to fire code, have increased since 2015. According to the report, the city at one point had 20 vacant engineering positions within the Fire Development Services division.

By the end of July 2020 just one engineering position was left vacant, according to the audit. Even so, 2020 had the highest number of vacancies in five years, highlighting ongoing staffing troubles within the fire department.

The shortage could spell trouble for construction in a city desperate to boost its economy with new development projects and the tax revenue they generate.

“We want to be readily available to conduct inspections at various stages of construction,” Fire Chief Robert Sapien said. “Inspection and plan review demand can sometimes exceed staff capacity and thus extend inspection appointment availability, creating a backlog.”

City Auditor Joe Rois said the increased wait time for inspections was the result of an uptick in fire systems permit applications in early 2019, in addition to the staff vacancies. Fire systems permits allow developers to install fire safety equipment and the department can receive six to 30 applications per day.

“From a customer’s perspective, fire inspections are among the last sign offs required to complete a project,” Rois said. “Such delays in fire inspections can lead to delays in opening a business or residents occupying their homes.”

Average wait times for fire inspections ranged from three to five weeks, climbing steadily since 2017, according to Rois. Wait times in 2019 were up to 30 days for sprinklers and 20 days for alarms.

According to a National Fire Protection Association report, having functioning sprinklers installed in a building can save lives during a fire. When sprinklers were present in a home, fires were kept to their room of origin 97 percent of the time.

The report also found death rates are 81 percent lower in homes with sprinklers than those without and firefighters were 80 percent less likely to be injured when responding to fires when sprinklers were present.

The audit recommended the fire department create an inspector-only position to conduct inspections so engineers can have more time to review construction plans. The department aims to keep plan review turnaround at 10 working days but the backlog due to staff vacancies dragged plan review times to around 20 days.

“Because fire requires multiple sequential inspections, the effects of these delays tend to accumulate as delays in the first inspection can cause delays later on,” Rois said.

Department officials have focused on filling Fire Prevention Bureau vacancies to keep up with inspections, according to Sapien. They have also sped up training and hired contractors to help fill the gaps in staff.

Currently, the department only keeps handwritten records of inspections and requires that customers keep copies for future review. This costs staff extra time in the field and in the office, the report states. Inspectors must call the permit center by telephone if they or a customer has questions about their record.

To streamline the audit process, the fire department will begin digitizing their plan reviews and conducting video inspections, but according to Sapien, these changes will take time.

But some lawmakers said those changes need to happen before a flood of new projects come in.

“We need to get ready if our economy will recover,” Councilmember Johnny Khamis said during a recent council meeting. “We need to be able to act quickly if permits do start pouring in.”

San José Spotlight previously reported on the impacts of staff shortages in other San Jose departments, such as the Office of Equity Assurance where overburdened staff are taking more than a year to address certain wage theft claims.

“Staffing continues to be a big issue with the city,” Councilmember Sergio Jimenez told San José Spotlight. “We know you hear it often, but we’re one of the most thinly-staffed cities in the country, and we try to do the best we can with what we have.”

Contact Carly Wipf at [email protected] of follow @CarlyChristineW on Twitter.

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