San Francisco at 1 million: Population boom has cops and fire looking to hire 

click to enlarge Firefighters
  • Mike Koozmin/2012 S.F. Examiner file photo
  • Firefighters battle a blaze at Pier 29 in June 2012. The Fire Department, which currently has 1,450 firefighters, anticipates needing at least 400 more as the population grows.
With San Francisco’s population set to ignite, the days of police and fire hiring freezes are over.

The City’s population is projected to rise by 35 percent between 2010 and 2040, meaning 300 to 500 more cops need to be hired, along with up to 600 more firefighters.

An upcoming report from the Association of Bay Area Governments predicts that San Francisco’s roughly 825,000 current population will grow to 1 million by 2032, and 1,085,700 by 2040 — the most rapid three-decade period of growth since 1920 to 1950.

When Police Chief Greg Suhr took over the department in spring 2011, the force was 300 officers below its mandatory minimum of 1,971. At the time the minimum was set in 1979, that was about one officer for every 360 residents. To keep up with the droves of people moving into The City, two annual police academy classes are up and running again, and Suhr said the department should reach full staffing by 2018.

And the chief doesn’t expect the new recruits to stop flowing for some time.

“We believe the number of officers, given what’s going on with the population growth in The City, is probably somewhere more between 2,300 and 2,500,” Suhr said. “Cops do count. There is no one in this town who believes we have enough police officers.”

While homicides in San Francisco are down by 50 percent since 1993, The City has seen an uptick in property crimes, attributed mainly to thieves taking advantage of pedestrians carrying pricey smartphones and other mobile devices.

The City, according to the Police Department’s CompStat database, is on pace to report more than 55,000 crimes in 2013 — a 22 percent increase over last year. Nearly 40,000 of those are property crimes, prompting police to pass out fliers saying “You’ve been mugged” to phone-absorbed residents walking in trouble spots like The City’s new tech hub in the mid-Market Street neighborhood.

San Francisco also is constructing a $243 million public safety building in the Mission Bay redevelopment area that will include a restored 1920s-era fire station, the Fire Department’s 44th. No new full-fledged fire stations are currently planned. But Lt. Tom O’Connor, the president of San Francisco Firefighters Local 798, estimated that the current level of 1,450 firefighters will need to return to the standard staffing level of 1,840 — and then some — to deal with both fires and mounting paramedic calls.

“We can already feel it that the population is increasing,” O’Connor said. “And you couple that with the widespread use of cellphones — everyone is a 911 Samaritan when it comes to things that happen on the streets. Calling about almost anything has never been easier.”

O’Connor said ending the department’s widespread use of overtime to cover the shortage of personnel would require 250 to 300 more firefighters at present, and even more when the population increases.

“We’d have to hit 2,000 [firefighters and paramedics] between fire and ambulance,” O’Connor said. “We’re going to need more ambulances more than anything. That’s sort of our Achilles’ heel.”

San Francisco at 1 million

The City is poised to hit the mark in less than two decades. This five-part series will explore the challenges San Francisco faces in handling this population milestone.

SUNDAY: What will San Francisco look like with 1 million residents?

MONDAY: Utility operators prepare for the population crush

TUESDAY: More people means more work for police and fire personnel

THURSDAY: Muni will need big changes to handle big boost in passengers

FRIDAY: Housing philosophy of “build more now” sure to be tested in the future

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Dan Schreiber

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