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Santa Rosa weighs ramping up recruitment to meet firefighting needs

Santa Rosa officials are hoping to concentrate over the next several months on improving their firefighting recruitment efforts, spurred by consultants’ concerns about high overtime costs incurred by an overworked force.

A city-funded report conducted by the Emergency Services Consulting International firm for $31,000 recommended the Santa Rosa Fire Department find the money and personnel to add 14 new firefighters to its ranks while filling its five vacant existing positions after overtime spending skyrocketed to about $6.1 million from summer 2017 to summer 2018 - a span that includes the response to the October 2017 firestorm. The report, which also called for an audit into on-the-job injury causes, determined that adding new firefighters to shore up the department’s 126-job ranks would slash a few million dollars each year from the city’s personnel budget, outweighing the additional salaries.

The report’s discussion at Tuesday’s City Council meeting prompted Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner to acknowledge that his firefighting force is stretched thin. And even though Santa Rosa - struggling with systemic budget woes - has lifted a hiring freeze imposed last year, fire officials have had a tough time hiring the firefighters they need, Gossner said.

“And on top of that, we have been working our workforce like crazy for the last two years, and with that comes injuries,” he said. “So we have a significant amount of people out on injury. We’re trying to get them healthy, we’re giving them the time they need and the support they need. But this is the cycle that we’re in, so we need to get to full staffing.”

Gossner has come out in support of Measure G, a half-cent countywide sales tax on the March ballot estimated to add about $51 million, about 10% of which would go to the city. The measure needs a two-thirds majority to pass.

City Manager Sean McGlynn tempered support for hiring new firefighters quickly with advocacy for keeping in mind the city’s structural deficit, which is fueled by rising pension obligations. He called for better outreach to bolster existing recruiting efforts.

“There is a great urgency to hire folks, but we’re also trying to build relationships with other parts of our community that have not considered traditional work in the fire department,” McGlynn said.

One such part of the community, as Vice Mayor Victoria Fleming pointed out, is women, who are largely outnumbered among firefighting ranks. Fleming, the only woman on the seven-person council, pressed Gossner to explain what he would do to better engage women who may not have thought a career in fighting fires could be part of their future.

“I’ve heard firefighters in this meeting today referred to as ‘he,’ ‘him,’ and ‘men,’ and it’s unacceptable,” Fleming said. “The reason it’s unacceptable is that that type of perspective prevents people from believing they can be in the fire service.”

Gossner said Santa Rosa fire officials “try very, very hard to recruit women, people of color, add diversity,” and said they were using new methods to improve the department’s hiring practices along with others in the firefighting field.

“This isn’t just a problem for the Santa Rosa Fire Department, this is a problem for the fire service,” Gossner said. “Everything we can do to make a change is a good change, but the people have to be there, and we’re just not seeing the numbers that we’d all like to see.”

Fleming also called for, and McGlynn agreed on the need for, additional financial analysis about the long-term impact of a hiring burst: “We shouldn’t just say, ‘It makes sense today’- it needs to make sense in 30 years,” she said.

The report will factor into city budget discussions once the City Council gears up to write a new spending plan, starting with a preliminary financial update later this month.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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