Palo Alto firefighters stretched thin as department struggles to fill its ranks

The "Help Wanted" sign is hanging at the offices of the Palo Alto Fire Department. Similar to other private and public employers, the department is struggling to fill its ranks.

It’s a working lunch, Friday, for Palo Alto’s fire brass. The chief, deputy chief, and human resources director interviewed a candidate for one-of-10 job openings.

"What we’re really looking for are people that want to serve the community. That are committed and dedicated to service," said Chief Geo Backshire, of the Palo Alto Fire Dept.

He said he has committed 40% of his time to repopulating depleted ranks.

The 72 firefighters here have been losing positions slowly since 2010. Retirement and the "greener pastures" syndrome are partial reasons for the departures. But the advent of the COVID pandemic, and reduced tax revenues, accelerated the trend.

"Shortages in public service, police, fire ambulance, emergency services, is common. I would say most agencies across the country have been plagued with this issue," said Lisa Dadio, director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven.

Part of that plague for Palo Alto now includes mandatory overtime. The chief says it’s necessary to achieve minimum staffing each day.

"The service that we provide to the community, from a service perspective, has been seamless. But where the impact is, is on the workforce," said Blackshire.

Experts say working longer days, and extra days can drain veterans and newbies alike.

"And there’s only so much, so many days in a row that you can do before you’re literally like a walking zombie. Mistakes happen with things like that," said Dadio.

A federal S.A.F.E.R. grant will allow the PAFD’s hiring of five positions that had been axed due budget shortfalls. But there’s a time limit to use that money.

So the rush is on, to fill slots with the right candidate, before he or she is snapped up by another department struggling with the same problem.

"Ideally we would like to hire them right away – have them sign a piece of paper and bring them on. But it is a process," said Blackshire.

The city’s human resources director is involved in all hires..

Fire department officials say the position of paramedic is the hardest to hire. And all new hires may not be ready to join the rank-and-file for another four months.