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'The Need For Firefighters Is Very Dire': Cal Fire Union Calls for More Mental Health Support, More Staffing

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — The men and women that fight California's wildfires are at a breaking point, according to the Cal Fire union president who said that is a result of bigger fires and a staffing shortage.

"The need for firefighters is very dire," said Cal Fire 2881 President Tim Edwards.

Edwards represents nearly 5,400 Cal Fire firefighters and said shifts that used to be 72 hours a week have become 30, 40, or 50 days without a break. Crews, he said, are unable to be relieved because of the short staffing.

"It's impacting the mental health of Cal Fire firefighters," said Senator Mike McGuire, one of four co-authors of the Fixing The Firefighter Shortage Act.

The bill calls for $220 million to beef up staff and reduce extended overtime. It cites 54,000 calls to mental health hotlines in the past four years from firefighters. If passed, the bill would fund more than 1,100 additional firefighters, 18 more engine crews and a year-long study to figure out staffing needs in the future.

A Cal Fire spokesperson told CBS13 that stations would be fully staffed by next week. The spokesperson added Cal Fire does not endorse The Firefighter Shortage Act, and that it is only supported by Cal Fire Local 2881.

"There's a major problem and of course management is going to say they're good because they don't want to say they're wrong," said Edwards. 

Edwards said within Cal Fire divorce rates are up three times, along with suicide rates for firefighters nationally, as well as rising substance abuse rates among firefighters. The legislation, Edwards said, would allow for a comprehensive study on what Cal Fire needs to retain firefighters and keep the current workforce healthy.

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