Lifeguards present case against Fire-Rescue convergence

A lifeguard performs a rescue at WindanSea Beach, March 16.
(María José Durán)

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department officials presented the San Diego City Council Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods committee with the CityGate study on lifeguard services, April 5, which reviewed and made recommendations on operational, economic and dispatch issues. After the presentation, several lifeguards provided opposing thoughts on the report.

CityGate, which was issued in January, has sparked controversy over one of its recommendations — integrating the lifeguard dispatch and tracking resources into the Fire-Rescue facilities. As a result of the plan, land-water rescues (at rivers, lakes or other inland bodies of water) are first transferred from the 9-1-1 dispatch to a Fire-Rescue dispatcher, who then identifies the best agency to handle the call.

For Fire Chief Brian Fennessy, this change was positive and he said it helped the department deal with the large amount of calls dispatchers usually receive when a large storm hits San Diego. As an example of the improved coordination, he highlighted the swift water rescue performed Feb. 28 at a flooded hotel in Mission Valley. “(There were) police officers, fire fighters and lifeguards working together,” he said to the Council committee.

But for lifeguards, this change is delaying their everyday work. The most noted incident happened late January at La Jolla’s Children’s Pool, when the 9-1-1 call was allegedly delayed by five minutes.

City Council member Chris Ward (District 3) asked Fire-Rescue personnel about the changes. Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts responded that only the inland calls are being transferred to the Fire Department. “The change was one of the biggest challenges we had, handling gigantic amounts of calls. It’s been a tremendous improvement,” he explained.

Lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, who is a steward for Teamsters 911 union, told the Light the new policy is confusing, and beach rescues are now being filtered to the Fire-Rescue department. “(The policy) wasn’t vetted, there was no instruction and no training, and they didn’t look at the whole picture,” he said, adding that lifeguards agreed to integrate the lifeguard dispatch in the Fire-Rescue Command Center whenever there is a heavy rain event. “But that’s only two or three days a year,” he said.

The lifeguards presentation made clear that the fastest way to process water rescue calls is to send them directly to the lifeguard dispatcher, who then issues a radio call heard by all lifeguards on the field. “CityGate does not provide a justification for forcing a caller who needs help to go through three dispatch centers before being connected to the safety personnel who are most equipped to help,” the lifeguard presentation concluded.

For District 1 City Council member Barbara Bry, who’s a member of the Public Safety & Livable Neighborhoods committee, the change in policies is “a seasonal issue mostly geared toward the rain,” she said, adding that she was impressed to hear lifeguards perform 9,000 water rescues per year.

Cliff Rescues

Another hot point included in the CityGate report is the recommendation that Fire personnel be alerted and sent to cliff rescues.

“This issue is how the Department utilizes the Lifeguard Services Division’s Cliff Rescue personnel and equipment for cliff rescues during daylight hours but then utilizes the Fire Operations Division special rescue personnel at night to provide the same service,” the CityGate report reads, “It should be the mission of the entire Fire-Rescue Department to send the closest, most appropriate resource and personnel to any emergency, including cliff and inland swift water rescue situations, on a 24/7/365 basis.”

But for lifeguards, this policy is a waste of City’s resources. “Over the last six years, Lifeguard Services have made approximately 300 coastal cliff rescues utilizing from three to six lifeguards. Of those, Fire-Rescue was needed in only 40 of those rescues,” lifeguards claim.

According to the report, the service could also be improved thanks to geographic location emergency technology. Bry showed interest in this upgrade. “I have a background as a technology entrepreneur and I’m very interested in this. Would you recommend to spend some money to upgrade the operation?” she asked lifeguards, adding that they should include the technology upgrade in their budget request.