When the city of Watsonville initiated several cost-saving measures as the Covid-19 pandemic began to take hold in March 2020, the City Council froze four positions in the police department, and two in the fire department.
None of these were filled positions, but the move still left the departments struggling to fill shifts and with increased workloads for officers and firefighters, said Watsonville City Manager Matt Huffaker.
Currently, Watsonville Police Department has 92 total employees, which is down from 97 employees during the previous fiscal year, Huffaker said.
Watsonville Fire Department was down two positions during that time period, Huffaker said. Fire Chief Rudy Lopez says the department lost nine positions over two years.
But those staffing numbers are climbing again as the world moves out of the pandemic, thanks in part to a sales tax created to help fund the fire and police departments approved by voters in 2014 and again in 2020.
“We owe our existing staffing levels to the Watsonville community who voted to pass Measure G and its continuation in Measure Y,” Huffaker said.
Thanks to that revenue, the fire department is expected this year to return to a full staffing level of 40 sworn positions. In addition, it has allowed WPD to hire seven new officers and four support staff, Huffaker said.
The fire department is now looking to recruit local young people into its ranks by restarting its Watsonville Youth Academy, and its Fire Cadet Program.
Put on hold during the pandemic, the program was aiming to hold two separate sessions this year. But Fire Chief Lopez says that numbers of people signing up have fallen short, likely due to lingering fears of the pandemic.
The program includes training, mentorship and service opportunities in the community, Lopez says.
Those that are successful in the cadet program can eventually work their way up to the Watsonville Reserve Program, from which the department can hire new recruits. It includes an opportunity to be sponsored through paramedic training, which can be the most financially onerous part of becoming a firefighter, Lopez says.
All of this, says Lopez, is a way to provide life skills and a possible career to young people while boosting the numbers of firefighters who live in the community.
“We serve in one of the most honorable and noble professions there is,” Lopez said. “But it has to be more than emergency services. There is so much opportunity with the youth in Watsonville, and we want to be part of the solution, helping young people succeed.”
WPD Sgt. Antonio Figueroa says the department currently has 71 officers on its roster, which includes the police chief down to patrol officers.
In addition, there are three recruits—two males and one female—set to graduate from the police academy. The department is also looking to hire one additional female officer.
Figueroa pointed out that the recruits must still go through a six-month field training program before they become full-fledged patrol officers.
In total, he said, the recruitment process takes about 18 months from the intensive hiring process to the academy to the field training program.
But once complete, the department can more easily fill shifts and take the burden off current officers.
“Then we can have a little breathing room, because having four more extra bodies really does impact us in a positive way,” he said.
Like Huffaker, Figueroa praised Measures G and Y for helping keep WPD’s staffing levels strong.
“That has really helped,” he said. “If we weren’t filling those positions it would be a hard hit to us.”
Anyone interested in joining Watsonville Fire Department’s youth program can call the fire department at 786-3200.