Lifeguard and government officials gathered at WindanSea Beach Sept. 23 against a backdrop of the surfers lifeguards watch while on patrol, to kick off a fundraiser for Gareth “Chappy” Chapman. A three-year seasonal lifeguard at WindanSea, Chapman sustained an injury during a routine rescue in August and is unable to work in the offseason.
As he explained to the gathering, “It was a normal day, nothing special, about half an hour before we were shutting down for the day ... when a four-foot wave knocked me head first onto the beach, I heard a pop in my back. I was paralyzed for about 10 seconds. Thankfully, my co-workers knew exactly what to do and convinced me to go to the hospital.”
Expecting to make a full recovery in the next month or so, Chapman said he is gradually regaining feeling in his left arm and is able to do minor chores around the house and exercise on a stationary bike.
However, with the city’s Workman’s Compensation program, he is only earning $250 a week, which he jokes is “hard in San Diego,” thankfully, his wife Kaila, a nurse, has been there to help.
Lifeguard Association spokesperson Sgt. Ed Harris said the San Diego Lifesaving Association set up a relief fund to assist Chapman with the financial challenges of rent and medical expenses.
“Our seasonal staff includes 200 un-benefitted employees who work three to six months a year. they drop everything when the sun comes up (during the summer season) to keep our beaches safe. they are the backbone of the lifeguard service and we need to take care of them,” he said. “During the offseason, they have to find other work. So normally, Gareth would be going on to another job, but he cannot work right now.”
Harris described Gareth, a Pacific beach resident and native of South Africa, as “a very humble and very kind kid,” when speaking to La Jolla Light. “He’s a very competent waterman, he works at WindanSea with a small crew of four to five and makes dozens of rescues a day. the womp (surf break) just got him that time.”
those who wish to donate can do so by clicking here or dropping off a check made out to San Diego Lifeguard relief Fund at any main lifeguard tower — such as those at Mission Beach, Ocean Beach and La Jolla Cove.
“the relief fund is for him right now. If he gets back to work and there is still money in the fund, then it will roll over into the next year and help other guards,” Harris said.
chapman added, “We are first responders and we put our lives on the line. there is a lot that can go wrong in the ocean ... and we’re looking to get financial coverage just like other first responders. the relief fund that has been set up is due to the fact that lifeguards do not receive coverage to pay for surgery or money to live off while they recover.”
Lifeguards have been working toward getting this protection, known as presumptive coverage, for two years. It would provide for long-term health care in the event of injury or illness (including contracting illnesses during skin-abrasion to fluid contact) on the job comparable to the care offered to other first responders, such as police and firefighters. In that time — with a minor pause during Harris’s term on the San Diego city council from April to December 2014 — the lifeguards and the city have negotiated the terms of the coverage, often failing to meet lifeguards expectations. “We just want to be treated as equals (to fire and police responders),” he said. “The city would come back with an offer that we could not accept, but we submitted our final offer and now it goes to city council. We have strong support with certain councilmembers, namely Sherri Lightner and Marti emerald.”
Council President and District 1 representative Lightner confirmed the presumptive coverage is a “meet and confer issue” with some councilmembers “strongly in favor of it,” and that it is in closed session negotiation. “For me, it’s an issue of equity,” she told La Jolla Light. “The other first responders get this coverage and it’s not questioned. Why are we treating lifeguards as second-class citizens? They probably do more real lifesaving everyday. San Diego lifeguards are top-of-the-class with respect to their training and expectations, they should be treated better.”
A vote on the issue could come as early as this month.
“When you come down here and see the number of lifeguards, it’s clear the water is not safe, but we make it safe,” Harris said. “We are preparing for large waves (with an El Niño weather pattern) and it’s disconcerting we are coming into these kinds of conditions knowing the city administration doesn’t support the health and safety of the lifeguards.”
Want to help?
■ To donate to the lifeguard relief fund: sdlifesaving.org/sdlg-relief-fund