Long Beach fire chief says staff shortages is causing overtime strain on ambulance crews

Recruits joining brush-fire crews, schooling and training causing staff shortage, fire official says.

Ambulance file photo 2019

Wikimedia Commons

Ambulance file photo 2019

The Long Beach Fire Department (LBFD) Chief Xavier Espino informed the Long Beach City Council via a memo Nov. 1 that his department was recently facing a shortage of full-time employees trained to operate Basic Life Support (BSL) ambulance units.

“To staff the units that we have available in the city, we were forcing mandatory overtime for the people that were full-time employees,” LBFD Deputy Fire Chief Jim Rexwinkle told the Signal Tribune via a phone call Tuesday, “So, to keep all five units in service, we were forcing people to work two, sometimes three, additional shifts a week. It got to the point that it was just becoming too much of a burden because most of these people are still going to school or they’re taking tests for the fire department.”

This ultimately impacted how the department staffed its ambulance units as it tried to temporarily remove some of the pressure full-time ambulance operators were experiencing.

The shortage of full-time BSL ambulance crews–– which transports residents to the emergency room and responds to non-life threatening calls, such as a twisted ankle or low-speed traffic accident–– is causing the department to use Advanced Life Support (ALS) units to pick up more BLS calls.

ALS ambulances typically respond to critical-emergency calls such as strokes, heart attacks and calls that need immediate medical attention.

According to the memo, the department has three 24-hour BLS units, two day-time peak BLS units and nine ALS units.

Rexwinkle told the Signal Tribune that pulling ALS units to cover BLS unit calls is not impacting response times.

“The system–– especially when we have nine Advanced Life Support units in the city right now–– is able to handle it,” Rexwinkle said. “Sometimes we’ll transfer a BLS patient in an ALS unit, just because it’s more expeditious.”

Typically, the fire department hosts a class of 20 BLS operators. This year, the department has “lost more than that.”

“Although we had two classes this year, it wasn’t enough to keep up with attrition,” Rexwinkle said. “What we’re looking to do is get a class going as soon as we can. We’re optimistic that we may get some people through the processes before the end of the year.”

BLS ambulances are operated by non-sworn ambulance operators. Rexwinkle said that many of these operators are still in school and training to be firefighters. As part of that training, some firefighters have joined brush-fire teams in other areas to gather more experience in the field.

California was recently struck by several wildfires. From Jan. 1 to Nov. 10, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection recorded a total of 5,366 wildfires that burned about 128,299 acres this year. Rexwinkle said that although ambulance recruits did not respond to specific brush fires, some did go off to work with wild-land firefighting crews.

The department is hoping to fill up its full-time positions as quickly as possible. If ranks aren’t filled before the end of the year, the department is planning to start a class in January next year, and immediately follow-up with a second session, Rexwinkle said.

According to Espino’s memo, the reductions in daily staffing is temporary, but it will continue to happen until more ambulance operators are hired.

Rexwinkle said the department is currently down to 14 full-time and 20 part-time employees. The ideal goal would be to have 28 full-time positions and part-time employees to pick up vacation shifts.