Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2007 | Danny Castillo, a rookie firefighter at the Los Angeles City Fire Department, left the San Diego Fire Department last August for his new job. The move made financial sense for Castillo, his wife and three children, he said. He’s on course to earn $20,000 more a year, and now he gets free dental.

Castillo is one of only five people who left the Fire Department for other agencies last year. Since his departure, Castillo said he has been fielding calls from his old colleagues, asking him how they can follow in his footsteps.

“Now I find myself sort-of coaching them through the process of getting hired,” he said.

For months, representatives of the San Diego firefighters union, Local 145, have been saying they fear an SDPD-style recruitment crisis looming for their department.

Citing rising numbers of firefighters leaving the department and a decreasing pool of qualified applicants for their academies, union officials have argued that the city’s refusal to offer them a pay boost for three years has hurt the department’s competitiveness with other agencies. That could lead to local firefighters taking jobs elsewhere, they said, a problem that has plagued the San Diego Police Department.

But data released by the department show applicants are still lining up in their thousands to become San Diego firefighters, while attrition remains at a trickle. And at the same time the firefighters’ union has been stirring up fears of a looming crisis, it has been holding recruitment fairs for other cities at its Mission Valley office.

As the Police Department failed to win a raise for its troops for three years running, and police officers saw their take-home pay cut by increased healthcare contributions, officers began leaving the department in droves. In 2006, the department lost more troops than in the previous five years combined, and the police union embarked on an aggressive campaign to show the department’s plight.

In this year’s contract negotiations, the Police Officers Association won a 9 percent basic pay raise for most of its officers. The union is pushing for further raises in the years to come.

Local 145 officials acknowledged that the Fire Department’s recruitment and retention figures do not come close to showing a crisis on the scale of the Police Department. However, they said the first warning signs are starting to show: Recruits turning down academy spots, firefighters transferring to other local departments and a general feeling within the department of disillusionment.

“Our people are looking for other jobs, they are clearly actively looking, there’s no doubt about that,” said Ron Saathoff, president of Local 145.

At the same time the union is sending out danger messages, however, Local 145’s headquarters in Mission Valley has been hosting recruitment fairs for other firefighting agencies. For two days in August, part of the union’s office played host to a recruitment drive run by the city of Los Angeles.

Saathoff defended the recruitment fair, saying the union has always provided similar events for their members.

“We’ve always made opportunities available for our people,” he said. Saathoff continued: “I’ve got to look out for the well-being of my guys, and I’ll make every opportunity available to them.”

Last year, five firefighters left the Fire Department for non-retirement reasons. So far in 2007, four firefighters have left the department’s staff of 1,153 uniformed personnel. Last year, the San Diego Police Department lost 25 officers in a one-month period.

Assistant Fire Chief Javier Mainar, who oversees operations at the SDFD, said until recently firefighters would only leave San Diego if their family situation forced them. Now, he said, he’s started to see firefighters leave for purely economic reasons — something he said is of mild concern.

“It used to be the occasional one every couple of years or so, and we’re seeing an uptick there, but it’s definitely nothing of crisis proportions,” Mainar said.

Castillo said he knows of at least six firefighters who are looking to transfer out of San Diego. He said that as baby boomers retire from fire departments all over California, the floodgates have opened for applicants keen to become firefighters. He said applicants may well still get their training in San Diego, but could easily be tempted away by higher pay and better benefits elsewhere.

“As soon as they get the phone call from the bigger cities, they’re leaving,” he said.

Saathoff said the first indications of a coming crisis can also be seen in other numbers.

For example, he said, some recruits who make it all the way to the academies run by the SDFD are turning them down for academies elsewhere. That’s an extraordinary development, Saathoff said, and contrasts drastically from a few years ago when thousands of applicants chased a few dozen academy positions and nobody thought of turning down a chance to be in the San Diego academy.

Last year, 12 firefighters turned down invitations to join the academy. So far this year, 13 places have been declined. In 2003, only three invitations were declined.

But the statistics show the total number of applicants for the initial department test — the first rung in the ladder to becoming a San Diego firefighter — was higher last year than it has been since 2001. In 2006, more than 2,000 people showed up for tests that would eventually produce just 62 places in two fire academies.

“We’ve always enjoyed success in getting people to come in, and we attract well-qualified people. Just at the last academy orientation I was astonished at the quality of the candidates we’re getting in,” Mainar said.

By contrast, the SDPD has struggled to fill its academies of late. Despite a recent resurgence in applications, thanks largely to a concentrated effort to market the department as far afield as Arizona, the department has been unable to stem the flow of people leaving with enough new recruits.

Saathoff said the next couple of years will be crucial for the Fire Department. He said the city’s firefighters have seen their pay drop by $400 to $600 in the last two years due to higher contributions to retirement and healthcare. Any further cuts could be a catalyst for much greater staff losses, he said. All of City Hall’s labor unions will be returning to the bargaining table soon.

“If you see them pull healthcare from our retirement, then you’re going to see this turn into a crisis,” he said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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