Lifeguards vote to leave fire department

SAN DIEGO — Amid a growing rift between San Diego’s lifeguards and San Diego’s fire chief and fire department, members of the lifeguards union voted overwhelmingly to lobby the City Council to create a Marine Safety Department in an attempt to break away from the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, union leaders said Thursday.

“The lifeguards are calling on Mayor Kevin Falconer, and each San Diego City Council member, to consider and support the creation of this department and the naming of an independent lifeguard chief,” union head and lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris said in a statement. “In doing so, the lifeguards assert that City of San Diego will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual operating budget expenses, and more importantly, increase public safety along San Diego’s coastlines, cliffs and waterways.”

Harris, a former interim City Council member who finished third in the mayoral race last year, said the Wednesday night vote was 80 percent in favor of leaving the fire department. The lifeguard union, which is part of Teamsters Local 911, argued that creating the city’s first Marine Safety Department will streamline essential departmental operations, save money, boost morale and expertise, and ultimately lead to safer beaches.

“I am proud we are moving in this direction,” said lifeguard and union leader Dana Nelson. “Being absorbed into the bureaucracy of the Fire Department has been terrible for morale among front-line lifeguards who tend to be around their 30s like me … Given the huge importance of ocean tourism to San Diego’s economy, do we really want to be a beach city without an expert lifeguard service?”

The overwhelming vote to leave the fire department comes amid a growing rift between the lifeguards and the fire department that deepened in late August when a lifeguard swift-water rescue team prepared but was ultimate barred from responding to the Gulf Coast to help in Hurricane Harvey search and recovery efforts.

“We are sickened that (Fire) Chief Brian Fennessy has blocked our response,” Harris wrote in an open letter at the time, explaining that the team had packed and was ready to respond to help with the flooding. “The Coast Guard reports through CNN that there are thousands in need and the worst is yet to come, (but) still we sit here. We have plenty of staff to send, but we are blocked.”

Harris held a news conference to criticize Fennessy, prompting the fire chief to call his own news conference later that same day where he explained the lifeguard rescue team was not requested, but other San Diego-area search and rescue teams did respond.

“All of us in public safety want to be there — we can’t all be there,” Fennessy said during the Aug. 29 news conference. “There is a system that provides the resources during these types of disasters. I can’t just send them down there because they want to go.”

Deployment decisions are made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state offices of emergency services.

But that dispute over the Hurricane Harvey response was only the latest controversy between the lifeguards and the fire department. Earlier this year the lifeguard union filed a grievance in opposition to the change in dispatching procedure for inland water rescues. And in July, Harris filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego accusing Fennessy of “purposefully and recklessly manipulating public-safety data and procedures in order to rationalize an expansion of the fire department’s personnel.”

In the lawsuit, Harris claimed funneling 911 calls for inland water-related emergencies to the city’s fire department dispatch instead of lifeguard dispatch had caused confusion and delayed response, with one such incident involving a 2-year-old at Mission Bay Park.

City officials countered that reassigning such calls to the SDFRD dispatch center was a necessary move because the lifeguards’ system, which only allows for two calls to be answered at a time, tended to be quickly overwhelmed, forcing some 911 calls to go unanswered during high-volume periods, such as in severe storm conditions.

“Lifeguards and firefighters are dispatched to inland water rescues simultaneously and within seconds of 911 calls — far faster than lifeguard dispatch is able to accomplish,” Fennessy told reporters in March.

According to Fennessy, emergency response times had improved as of March, not worsened, since the dispatch change went into effect in January. The procedural revision has resulted in no calls going unanswered during extreme storm conditions this year, the chief asserted.