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San Diego lifeguards to deploy to Texas following union leader, fire chief dispute

San Diego Urban Search & Rescue - California Task Force 8

SAN DIEGO – Despite the public argument between the head of the lifeguards union in San Diego and the San Diego Fire-Rescue fire chief Tuesday, swift-water rescue teams were getting ready to deploy to the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas.

Lifeguards told FOX 5 Tuesday late afternoon that they were now loading up for their deployment to Texas.

The announcement came hours after SDFRD Chief Brian Fennessy told reporters that the swift-water rescue teams hadn’t been requested yet.

In an open letter to Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and the mayor and citizens of Houston, lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, a former interim City Council member who finished third in the mayoral race last year, wrote that his team packed its bags last week and readied its boats as it watched Hurricane Harvey approaching the Gulf Coast.

“They waited for the call to go that would surely come quickly. It did not,” wrote Harris. “On Saturday, our team was informed to unpack and take the boats over to the fire department … We are sickened that Chief Brian Fennessy has blocked our response.”

At a news conference, Fennessy told reporters that 24 members of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department were performing rescues Tuesday in Katy, Texas, as part of the Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 8, a specialized team of rescuers from more than 21 agencies around the county. That task force specializes in large-scale urban disasters, and more specifically confined space search-and-rescue operations when structures have collapsed, according to the city of San Diego.

He said a swift-water rescue team made up primarily of lifeguards has not been requested. Deployment decisions are made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state offices of emergency services.

Harris might not understand how the system works, the chief said.

Fennessy said he’d like to be in Houston himself.

“All of us in public safety want to be there — we can’t all be there,” Fennessy said.

“There is a system that provides the resources during these types of disasters,” he said. “I can’t just send them down there because they want to go.”

He said Harris and another lifeguard employee sent an email asking for time off so they could go to Texas to help. The agencies that coordinate disaster responses discourage “self-deployments,” according to the chief.

Harris said the lifeguard river rescue team is “nationally recognized” and it also “spent weeks rescuing people during Hurricane Katrina.” He said even after the team was told Saturday to give its boats to SDFRD, the team members remained ready and willing to head to Texas.

 

Harvey, which is now a tropical storm, made landfall in Texas on Friday night as a Category 4 hurricane before moving back over the Gulf of Mexico. It has already dropped close to 50 inches of rain in some areas near Houston and caused catastrophic flooding in Houston and the surrounding areas. The Houston police chief said Monday morning that authorities had already made at least 2,000 rescues in the city.

 

“I’m profoundly, profoundly disappointed in lifeguard Sgt. Harris,” Fennessy said.

“In my opinion, to politicize his own agenda when the great state of Texas, the city of Houston, the suburbs and now Louisiana — thousands of people are suffering, people dying — to represent that we or the system failed in sending him or his lifeguards out is a flat lie,” he said.

He said the SDFRD will look into whether Harris crossed any kind of line with his letter that might warrant disciplinary action, but his role as union head allows him to take “some liberties” that other employees can’t.