SDFD chief Brian Fennessy recently changed the way radio dispatch works. All water-related 911 calls now go first to the fire department, instead of going directly to lifeguards, who've historically made all water rescues.
Lifeguard union chief Ed Harris contends that the change adds a step slowing down the lifeguards' emergency response time.
The origin of the SDFD internal dispute is not hard to trace. Harris can pinpoint the exact day, Jan. 21, and one particular incident that brought the contentious issue into sharp relief.
“During extremely large surf, a woman was washed off the rocks and into the ocean by the Red Tile rip at 437 Coast Blvd.,” Harris said. “While guards were available, they did not know a woman was in distress. She was rescued by a citizen, then brought to the road for assistance. Fire-Rescue called lifeguards five minutes after the 911 call was made and asked if we were aware of the call. The lifeguard dispatcher said no.
“The call was not transferred to lifeguard dispatch due to changes imposed by the San Diego Fire chief,” Harris continued. “The changes require police to transfer some water emergencies to Fire-Rescue dispatch, rather than lifeguard dispatch, as it has been done for more than 30 years. While most (responses) are not delayed five minutes, all water emergency calls routed through Fire-Rescue dispatch are now delayed 1-2 minutes before lifeguards are called.”
Lifeguard union members have since filed a grievance in opposition to the recent radio-call routing changes with San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer.
In response to the lifeguards' challenge to emergency call dispatch changes, Fennessy replied: “SDFD’s mission is to protect life, property and the environment. The Lifeguard Division is a key component of our success providing seamless services to community members. We understand the tremendous value they bring in their everyday interactions with everyone who works, lives near or visits our coastal areas.
“When someone calls for help, responding quickly with the right resources remains our focus,” continued Fennessy. “Developing a new department would not provide any demonstrable benefit to the community members we serve. We will continue to work with all employees and stakeholders on innovative programs and projects to improve the services we provide.”
Noting SDFD is “in the business of saving lives and keeping our neighborhoods safe,” Fennessy, added, “That was never more evident than during the recent storms when lifeguards and firefighters worked together for the common good and saved lives.
“It’s unfortunate that Local 911 leadership would suggest public safety has been compromised in some way to score political points. Nothing could be further from the truth. Using scare tactics like that as a public safety professional is irresponsible and dangerous.
“Statewide, the services that local lifeguards provide fall within the scope of local fire departments. Creating a separate department for lifeguards would be unprecedented, do nothing to improve public safety and increase costs. We are going to continue to respond as one department, and not let politics get in the way of doing the right thing for the public we are sworn to serve.”
Harris noted that lifeguards and fire have been collaboratively linked since the '40s when “it was determined it would be a good fit.” He said lifeguards were subsequently moved out of the city's park and recreation department and placed with fire.
Harris noted the lifeguard department is unique, for a variety of reasons, including the sheer volume of calls and rescues they deal with.
“We have about 300 personnel who've made about 9,000 water and 300 cliff rescues the last six years,” Harris said. “We work with fire, and we call them when we need them. But we don't need 18 firefighters showing up on every call.”
Harris contends Fennessy was out of step in instituting the new call routing system “without consulting the lifeguards.”
The mayor will now investigate the change Fennessy instituted with water-related emergency calls.
“The mayor will make a determination as to whether Fennessy can do what he's doing (with emergency calls),” said Harris. “If the mayor's office doesn't uphold our grievance, then it will move to the City Council.”
What if the lifeguard union's demands to go back to the old emergency call-routing system are not met?
“We'll be having those conversations (about seceding from SDFD) with our members to try and get them to understand we're not happy (with new emergency call system), and we don't think the public is safe,” concluded Harris.