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Vallejo Fire Department Understaffed, Struggling to Retain Firefighters

VALLEJO --  For Vallejo firefighter Anthony Shair-Ali, seeing a fire station close down breaks his heart.

"It's always a sad state when you see a station close or an unstaffed engine," said Shair-Ali. "It breaks our hearts."

Ten years ago, Vallejo had eight fire stations open -- today, there are six.

With the fire department understaffed and an increase in emergency calls in recent years, crews are working mandatory overtime upwards of 100 hours per week -- a point of contention, Shair-Ali said.

Shair-Ali represents the department in the local firefighters union.

"Our concern is to provide the best level of care to the citizens, and when we can’t staff a closed station and when we can’t get guys in to help staff engines," he said.

That's a problem.

Early Sunday morning, crews responded to a fire at a commercial building in the south side of Vallejo. The fire required assistance from crews in neighboring cities, including Fairfield, American Canyon and Benicia -- concerning for Shair- Ali, because the fire took away resources from those communities.

Juan, who manages the building at 110 Corporate Place, said it took 10-15 minutes after calling 9-1-1 for fire crews to arrive. He believes more of the building could've been salvaged had crews arrived sooner.

"I start coughing, coughing, coughing and I was calling the fire department," the man said of the first few minutes after the fire sparked.

According to Vallejo Fire Chief Jack McArthur, who FOX40 spoke to over the phone, the department meets target response times in 90 percent of its calls.

McArthur said the department has hired more than 20 firefighters in the last four years -- but for Shair-Ali, that's not enough.

"We would like to let citizens know we are understaffed and we can only do it with so many people and we can only do it for so long and the fatigue factor begins to weigh in,"  Shair-Ali said.

For Shair-Ali, he's worried about firefighters' health amid long work days.

Despite concerns, he remains confident in the department's resiliency.

"We are employed by the city but we work for the citizens," he said. "The Vallejo firefighters have a great deal of pride and ownership in the level of service we provide to the citizens.

McArthur cites salary and benefits as a likely reason the department is struggling to hire and retain firefighters. Despite the increase in staffing in the last four years, the fire chief admitted levels remain on the "low side," compared to nearby cities.

Public record shows Vallejo firefighters take home an average of $234,000 in total pay and benefits per year, while Vacaville and Fairfield firefighters take home $221,000 and $140,000, respectively. Shair-Ali says the Vallejo figures factor in mandatory overtime.

The fire department's union and the city are also amid long-standing contract negotiations.