Humboldt Bay Fire Captain Brandon Harlander and Chief Sean Robertson at Fire Station 1 in Eureka. Photo: Isabella Vanderheiden.


Humboldt Bay Fire Chief Sean Robertson is trying to keep his department afloat amid an “acute staffing crisis” that has plagued the agency for nearly two years. 

Robertson, who will retire as chief at the end of this year, did not attribute the staffing crisis to a single issue, but said non-competitive wages have made it difficult for Humboldt Bay Fire to retain employees. In the last two years, the department has seen 17 employees, including several high-ranking staff, leave for higher-paying positions with the Arcata Fire Protection District and other agencies in the Bay Area. The department is currently down by seven people, which has forced the department to implement rotating closures at its five stations. 

The Outpost stopped by Fire Station 1 in Eureka this week to chat with Chief Robertson and Brandon Harlander, fire captain paramedic and union president, about the ongoing staffing crisis and the department’s future. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


LoCO: Can you describe the current staffing challenges at Humboldt Bay Fire? How many positions are currently vacant?

Robertson: We have an acute staffing crisis; we’re essentially down by seven people right now. We have 48 firefighters designated in our staffing model but we’re currently at 45 because we have three permanent position vacancies. We also have four temporary vacancies that are either from a military leave deployment, illness or injury, and those have [extended] from one to 12 months. 

We have a policy that says if we have this many long-term vacancies – a month or more – we have to shift to a four-station deployment model. There are many reasons for that policy, but the primary motivation is to protect our firefighters from getting burned out because that happens from mandatory overtime. It is also more fiscally responsible because our overtime budget has, historically, been significant as we often have a staffing shortage. 

We can usually backfill people leaving the department via recruitment but we’re not seeing qualified candidates. We’ve been recruiting firefighters since January and received about 30 applications. From our first round of interviews, 11 people qualified and five came to our invited interviews but we still didn’t get any good candidates out of that process. We’re going to try again but if we’re unable to fill those positions we’re likely going to be in this staffing model for the rest of the year because it takes several months to get people through our background and physical process to get hired, and then it takes another two months to get them through all the training they need. 

We’ve lost 17 people in the last two years to higher-paying agencies. Almost half of those people went to the Arcata Fire District because they passed a special district taxMeasure F – that enabled the district to offer significantly higher wages and a great benefits package. They took seven of our people, almost all of [whom] had 10 or more years of experience and were in the upper ranks. That had a huge effect on us. That started two years ago, and since then the rest of the people we lost have gone to other agencies across the state. 

The fact is, we’re one of the lowest-paid municipal fire departments in the state and there are a lot of jobs out there. If you go to Arcata Fire, you can make $30,000 more a year as a captain. And if you go to the Bay Area you can make double what you would make here. We can’t compete with the Bay Area, but we’re trying to be more competitive locally. 

Our primary concern, again, is the acuteness of this crisis. We can implement short-term solutions but it’s going to compound eventually. And in the next five years, a lot of our staff is going to be approaching retirement age and they’re gonna leave. We’re going to lose a huge amount of knowledge and experience, and we’re trying to figure out how to solve that problem. We expect that we will have to keep one station closed through the end of the month, but we’re hoping to staff all five stations in July because some of those people on leave are going to come back. 

Harlander: I just want to add that the citizens have been very supportive of us with the passing of Measure H [the 1.25 cent sales tax] on the city side and the benefit assessment on the fire district side, which won’t take place till 2025. We just want the citizens to know how much we appreciate them and ask that they be patient with us.

We’re unique compared to law enforcement because they can stack calls and save some of them for later. We can’t do that. We have to go now, whether it’s a call about someone’s house flooding, their water heater catching on fire, the classic cat stuck in a tree, and everything in between. And when we’re not on an emergency, we’re training for an emergency. 

LoCO: How has this staffing shortage impacted the department’s response time?

Robertson: Yes. We’re seeing a one- to three-minute increase in our response times. In the last two months, we’ve had nearly 10 significant incidents in Station 4’s jurisdiction, including a few structure fires and a gunshot situation. That delay in responding to those significant issues can have a consequence, but our firefighters have continued to demonstrate exceptional skills through this challenging period. We’re very fortunate to have the people that we have. Again, it just reinforces the need to have and keep those experienced firefighters. 

Our call volumes are always fluctuating but with this spike in significant incidents, we have much more overtime that needs to be filled. The regular rest cycle we have programmed into our schedule is not occurring, and that fatigue builds up over time. It’s not just physical, it’s emotional and mental because they’re not getting the rest they need at home and their families are affected. That’s why we’ve gone back to rotating between stations rather than keeping Station 4 closed.

Harlander: Being down to four stations becomes a safety issue for both the firefighters and the citizens, and it becomes a less safe community for everybody. We understand our job is inherently dangerous, but when we lose that extra personnel that we would normally have at the scene of a fire or vehicle extrication that can affect the patient or victim involved.

LoCO: What do you attribute the staffing crisis to? I know fire departments are navigating similar issues across the country, but is there anything impacting Humboldt Bay Fire specifically?

Robertson: There are several variables. Post-COVID, we’re seeing a totally different labor pool out there, and I think that’s really impacting every industry. But for [fire departments] specifically, we’re all competing for a limited number of personnel and employees, and everybody else is able to pay their employees way more than we are.

As for local barriers, there is no way to get your Fire Fighter 1 Certification here locally. You have to go to a certified testing center to get that certification, and the nearest ones are in Santa Rosa and Shasta. We try to hire local people as much as possible, but that’s become an issue. 

Since COVID, I would say 90 percent of the people who have applied have no experience. They worked in a simple retail job or at a warehouse before the fire academy, they got their EMT and Fire Fighter 1 certifications, and now they’re looking for a job. In these last four years, we’ve had problems dealing with basic social skills and basic task functions. Like, we have to teach someone how to use a screwdriver. We have to teach them how to talk to people and interact.

Harlander: These are real conversations that we’ve had.

Robertson: And I don’t think this is something that’s just specific to the fire service. The police department has had a huge staffing shortage as well, but they’re much more competitive locally than we are. And on top of that, we’re competing against every other service industry where there are safer and easier jobs that people can do. That said, we think it’s the best job in the world. And there aren’t a lot of jobs where you can go through six months to a year of training and start out – even with our bad pay here – at $52,000 a year. That’s still pretty significant.

LoCO: I know you, Chief Robertson, have brought this issue to the Eureka City Council at least twice in the last year. How has the council responded to the ongoing staffing crisis? Has Humboldt Bay Fire asked for additional funding from the city?

Robertson: The City of Eureka and the Humboldt No. 1 Fire Protection District are our parent agencies, and they provide funding for our JPA (Joint Powers Authority), which we formed eight years ago. I have constantly asked the JPA Board of Directors to help support our firefighters to avoid having to lose so many people. Of course, it’s very complicated as labor contracts often are, especially with a JPA that has two parent agencies. There’s definitely support from the JPA, but the city and the district need to support their firefighters more, and I think they’re well aware of that. The challenge is how to do that and be fiscally sustainable. 

When Measure H passed in 2020, the city had more revenue coming in but the district’s revenue was still relatively flat because of COVID’s effect on sales tax. We were able to absorb it and maintain what we had because of our reserves. And then we came out of it with this acute staffing crisis because of staff joining Arcata Fire. 

In the fall of 2022, I asked if we could provide an essential worker stipend to our firefighters like the city had given to the workers earlier that year, but because we don’t qualify for ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funding, we couldn’t pass anything onto our firefighters. We have to rely on the county or cities to give us ARPA money. The city was able to provide an essential worker stipend to our firefighters. We were also able to advance the last year of the COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) by six months. So, that was a way to at least take care of the people that are still here, right? But it was too little too late for a lot of other folks.

We’ve been trying to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the JPA [and the Humboldt Bay Firefighters Local 652] – which we passed at [Wednesday] night’s meeting – but it’s only for 18 months. The MOU asks the JPA board to help our firefighters more to prevent us from losing more people.

LoCO: You mentioned earlier that Arcata voters passed a special district tax to help fund operations at the Arcata Fire Protection District. Could the JPA do something similar?

Robertson: Unfortunately, we don’t have that ability. We’ve certainly discussed forming a special district, which is what Arcata Fire has done, but that is another process. 

We don’t really have the ability to go get our own funding. We’ve looked at several alternative revenue sources, including community paramedicine with St. Joe’s Hospital, an alternative interfacility transfer agreement with the hospital, or something similar to what the CSET (Community Safety Engagement Team) is doing. You know, assisting a nurse or a mental health clinician in taking care of people on the streets to prevent them from going to the hospital. However, there’s a lot of legislature [sic] that prevents us from doing that. We’ve looked at almost every opportunity we can to obtain more independent funding but it’s very complicated.

LoCO: I was anticipating that this conversation was going to be more focused on the need to get the city council or voters on board for a sales tax measure to give firefighters a wage hike, or something to that effect, but this is, as you said, very complicated. 

Robertson: It is, it’s complicated! That’s a big part of this issue. And I would say the police union, or other city departments, are probably dealing with something similar. The City of Eureka, for example, is having a hard time hiring an assistant city attorney because it’s competing with other cities and the county. The county seems like they’re doing fine with recruitment, but look at their budget right now. What’s going to happen next year? They’re probably going to have to lay off a bunch of people.

And looking at the Arcata Fire District, they offered this amazing contract and an incredible benefits package to their employees but now they’re not offering those same benefits because they’ve gone through all of the revenue they got from the special tax. My perspective is a bit biased because of the loss of our people, but I started in Arcata 28 years ago, so I have a deep affiliation with them. So, is their funding actually sustainable? When the tax sunsets in 2030, will it be renewed? Have they been good stewards of their money? I’m a taxpayer in Arcata and I’m going to be thinking about things like that. The pressure is on us all the time, especially the fire chief.

It wasn’t an easy decision when we reduced service to four stations but it wasn’t sustainable. It was crushing us. It’s important to emphasize that this isn’t easy for anyone. It’s not that the city council sucks and they don’t support us, it’s not that the administrators suck, the unions suck, etc. They want to support us and we’re all trying to work on the same thing. But the reality is, we’re having a huge crisis.

Harlander: We are a young department and our labor group is working on building those relationships with JPA members and the city council to educate them on what we do. There are some misconceptions about what we do and don’t do but we’re working on building a positive relationship and moving forward because we haven’t really had a relationship in the past. It’s been an us versus them dynamic and we’re trying to get rid of that that mindset. It’s been an uphill battle.

LoCO: That reminds me, I came across a statistic somewhere – possibly from Humboldt Bay Fire – that said something like 90 percent of the calls fire departments respond to are non-fire calls. Is that true?

Robertson: That is true. Only four percent of our calls are for fires. We go to a lot of other calls that you could say are fire-related, like smoke checks. But our call breakdown, which is coded into our system in a particular way, says four percent of our calls are for actual fires. Around 60 percent of our calls are medical. The rest are false alarms or what we call “good intent” calls where people just call us for whatever their problem is like their water heater is leaking or there’s a bear in a tree. 

LoCO: I mean, I do get it. Lighting a water heater can be scary!

Harlander: We’re more than happy to do it. That’s our job.

Robertson: Another thing that comes up frequently is people asking why we send our giant ladder trucks to a medical aid call or a tree down on the roadway. We have to be ready for anything after that. We had a call where the crew went to medical aid at the Rescue Mission and then they got a call right after for extrication on the highway. 

If we didn’t have the truck, we wouldn’t have all the tools we may need on hand or there would have been a delay if we had to go back and get the truck. People don’t realize that, but that’s why we have these ginormous trucks.

LoCO: What are the next steps for the Humboldt Bay Fire? And, Chief Robertson, can you talk about your career trajectory and how you will continue to support the department from afar?

Robertson: As I said, we’ve implemented this MOU with the JPA, and we’re hoping that that prevents anybody else from leaving. But the next step is preparing for the next year when we need to negotiate again and analyzing what our needs will look like. 

The Fire Fighter 1 Academy development at College of the Redwoods is my trajectory. I had planned to retire or step down as chief after five years when I initially took this job because I think that’s an effective period of time for a fire chief. This opportunity to be a full-time faculty at CR only came up two months ago when they created the position. The goal is to create an accredited fire academy. I think that is going to be a key part of recruitment and retention for Humboldt Bay Fire and other local fire agencies. I’ll start there in August, and our fall class is already full with 35 people. I’ll still be with the fire department to offer any advice through December, but a good chief steps out of their role to let the new chief do their job.

LoCO: Is there anyone in line to take over the position?

Robertson: The board made a selection last night and the candidates will be notified today. Once that’s all concluded, we’ll write up a press release.

LoCO: And what’s next for you, Captain Harlander?

Harlander: I’m going to continue to build this place and make it great. This is an awesome organization and I wish more people would come to work here. We’re a really, really family-oriented, tight-knit group of people. A lot of us hang out on our days off. And I’ll just say, I’m not going to be chief any time soon! I just want to keep building this place up.

LoCO: Is there anything else either of you would like to share with our community?

Robertson: We appreciate the community’s support and we encourage them to be more engaged with their fire department by learning more about what we do through our various social media accounts and engaging with the city council and the JPA board. We are committed to our mission statement, which is a “commitment to community service through leadership, vision, and integrity.” We have the obligation to respond when called and that’s what we do. We just need some understanding of our current position and its effect on the community with the station closure. 

Harlander: I would also like to encourage people to attend city council and JPA meetings. Also, come by the station for a visit! We love having visitors and we will always do a station tour and talk about our job because we love to do it. And if they’re interested in a career, you can always come on a ride along for a couple of hours or 24 hours to see what we do.