Flanked by San Diego Fire-Rescue officials and San Diego Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts, Fennessy at a press conference characterized the claims leveled by lifeguard spokesman Ed Harris at him as “politically motivated.”
Fennessy countered Harris and the lifeguard union's claim that his altering of how radio dispatch works, with all water-related 911 calls now going first to the fire department instead of directly to lifeguards, has caused unnecessary problems, including delaying lifeguards’ emergency response times.
Noting SDFD “fosters quality relations with its labor unions,” Harris said of Teamsters Local 911 representing lifeguards, “It's been a challenge with them for many years. So much so, that my predecessor refused to have any interaction with them, as it always ended in hostile conflict.”
Pointing out there was no trouble with lifeguards until a “minor change” to how water rescue calls inland was instituted this past December, Fennessy maintained the dispatching change “significantly reduced the life safety risk to the public.”
The lifeguards have officially challenged Fennessy's new call routing system appealing to Mayor Kevin Faulconer's office. Lifeguards are even suggesting the possibility of seceding from SDFD if their concerns are not adequately addressed by the city.
Fennessy labeled as “absolutely ridiculous,” Harris's allegations that he had a plan to have firefighters replace lifeguards, or that lifeguards were giving firefighters swim lessons.
Regarding lifeguards separating from SDFD, Fennessy said, “I can tell you all right now, this will not happen.”
Fennessy said the radio dispatch change became necessary following serious flooding citywide during the recent winter storms. He said emergency call volume during storms revealed a flaw in lifeguards existing radio dispatch system.
“There were 911 calls being forwarded from police to lifeguards that were not being answered at all by dispatchers because the call volume quickly overwhelmed lifeguard dispatchers,” Fennessy said adding, “Lifeguards are not trained – or experienced – to handle such a large call volume.”
The fire chief added the technology used currently by lifeguard dispatch is old, pointing out their system “only allows for two calls to be answered at a time, giving a busy signal if both lifeguard dispatch numbers are busy. Clearly, a change needed to be made.”
Fennessy described Harris's claim that the radio dispatch change has “led to serious confusion” as “patently false.”
“There's been no confusion, no delays as a result of this change,” he said adding, “We (SDFD) don't accept the factual inaccuracies being represented.”
San Diego's fire chief also criticized the way allegations from the lifeguards' union have been brought forward.
“Shame on you Ed Harris, you crossed the line,” Fennessy said. “And shame on your members that supported your approach. Our hope is, that in the future, you won't use a family's pain (to make a point) – that you'll use a different approach.”
Michael Zucchet, general manager of the San Diego Municipal Employees Association, the city's largest labor union, commented, “We share and support all of the words and sentiments of the chief and are disappointed on how the lifeguards’ union has responded on this matter.”
Zucchet described the lifeguards’ decision to attack the fire chief's changes to the radio dispatch system as “political decisions, not decisions made on behalf of the public's safety.”
Zucchet characterized radio dispatch rerouting as “very minor, common-sense changes based on real happenings with call volumes.
“This has mushroomed into this messy drama bringing in old political grievances,” Zucchet concluded.
Responding to the fire chief's criticism of how he's handled the radio dispatch controversy, Harris said, “No matter how they (SDFD) slice this, when they add a step (police calls to fire then to lifeguards) it will cause delays and confusion.”
Harris also denied Fennessy's claim that his criticism of changes to how emergency radio calls are dispatched was politically motivated.
“He's looking at this from the lens of a career firefighter,” Harris said. “He's not able to see it from the lens of a career lifeguard, because, the changes he's making are changes that won't be reversible.”