As city councilors continue monitoring public safety staffing, the Tulsa Fire Department reports they’re down 60 firefighters because of retirements and being unable to hold academies last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The situation is being exacerbated with 15 firefighters out with the illness. A couple are in the hospital with it.
Deputy Chief of Field Operations Brent Goins said around 20 firefighters a day are working overtime to meet minimum staffing requirements, meaning 48 hours on and 24 off rather than the other way around.
"Obviously, if you're at work that long doing what we do, you're subjecting yourself to injury, that type of stuff. So, it's not the safest way to operate. We would rather have the personnel," Goins said.
The firefighter shortage could grow to 70 through additional retirements by the time there’s a fire academy late this year. Recruiting Officer Anthony Payne said while there are around 150 applicants to interview, finding them has been tough, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"If you're at home, you can quarantine or protect your family the way you want to, but when we're out there on the trucks, those guys are dealing with it every day. They're going into houses, we don't know who has it, we've got to act accordingly. So, that's been something that's scared people off this last year," Payne said.
Pay is another big factor. According to the local union, TFD ranks 10th out of 11 comparable cities in the nation and 16th in the state for pay and benefits.
"We've had a lot of individuals leave for higher-paying departments, and we've had a lot of candidates decline our offer to go to other departments within the state," Payne said.
Payne said TFD is also losing applicants to higher-paying industries like tech, finance and engineering, and that some people learn after starting the process they aren’t up to the hazards that come with being a firefighter.