There's a serious problem with the way 911 calls are routed between the city's fire department and its lifeguards. At least that's what the lifeguards are saying.
"There's been a policy change that waterway 911 calls are no longer being routed through dispatch from SDPD to lifeguards, they're now going from SDPD to fire and then to lifeguards," Ocean Beach Town Council president Gretchen Newsom explained to attendees of a Wednesday night (April 26) meeting to explore the impact of the change. "The lifeguards contend that this is creating a lag in their response time, in their ability to most effectively address 911 calls."
Lifeguard union rep and onetime-city councilman Ed Harris and fire chief Brian Fennessy were both invited to explain the changes, which have led to a public dispute between the sides in recent weeks.
"As you may or may not be aware, the California Teamsters Local 911 represents members of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and Lifeguard Services Division," Newsom continued, now reading an email sent by Fennessy declining to attend the event or sent a fire representative. "They have filed a grievance related to SDFD routing of 911 calls. The grievance will be heard by San Diego's city council in the near future. To ensure that the city and Local 911 receive a fair hearing before the city council, it is important that I refrain from discussing the issues related to the grievance until the council has heard and decided on the matter."
Instead of participating in the public forum, Fennessy invited members of the council to tour the data center where calls are routed, an offer he said had been received enthusiastically by other beach-area civic groups.
Fennesy apparently did not have the same reservations at the time the grievance was first filed, hosting a lengthy press conference in which he blasted Harris and the union, insisting that the "minor changes" he'd implemented resulted in a "politically motivated" backlash from lifeguards. Appearing before city council two weeks later, however, Fennessy sought to downplay the dispute and scope of the changes.
Harris, however, was blunt in his assessment of Fennessy's performance.
"This fire chief started about 15 months ago, he brought us down and we had a great meeting and said we should schedule out monthly meetings, so we got on his calendar and scheduled them for a year out. The next month, day of, he can't make it. Next month, the day before, sorry guys can't make it. Next month, can't make it," Harris told the crowd in OB. "He cancelled every meeting for 14 months. That is not working together."
"While he wouldn't be here tonight, he has no problem with a 40-minute press conference surrounded by people that are all on his payroll. This will be our response to that."
Harris explained that the change in call routing was similar to more temporary changes that have long been implemented during heavy storms, when the possibility that water rescues will be needed inland rather than along the coast guards normally patrol and where the closest responders are more likely fire personnel. During these times the two emergency dispatch centers merge under the authority of the fire department, of which the lifeguards are themselves a part.
"We have made it quite clear that we embrace lifeguards going down to the fire communications center. – in certain extreme weather circumstances," Harris explained. "We send our dispatchers down there and establish a joint command. But remember it only rains [heavily] maybe four or five days out of the year."
The rest of the time, however, guards say they should get water emergency calls directly from police dispatch, who first handle all incoming 911 calls. Harris said that under the previous system, lifeguards could be en route to a potential rescue within 10-15 seconds of receiving a call.
"Their 'minor change' means that we're not getting the calls for at least one to two minutes, sometimes more," Harris said. "That's not a minor change when you have potential drowning victims. There's no reason people in distress should have to wait through three dispatch centers before someone can reach a lifeguard boat or truck that's likely just minutes away."
"You'll hear the fire chief say 'We dispatch them in one minute.' It's like me calling you calling you on your cell phone, but you don't have a cell phone," Harris continued. "Because when they enter us into CAD [Computer-Aided Dispatch, a technology preferred by fire and police personnel], we have to be able to receive it.
"We don't have it in our jet skis, in our boats, or in any of our trucks aside from nine river-rescue units. We will never have CAD on the beach – when we're driving down the beach, the last thing you want is a lifeguard looking down at a computer screen instead of watching little kids in the water or potentially running under the wheels of our vehicles. It's insane, but that's what they want us to do."
Harris went on to blast fire for what he described as not only slower, but also bloated response protocols.
"For one 'rescue two,' listed as an overturned vessel on a lake, they want to one, notify the lifeguards via the CAD system that we can't receive; send one engine, one truck, one battalion chief, one rescue vehicle, an ambulance, a helicopter, and another lifeguard. Eighteen firefighters, they want to send, because they're going to throw their ladders in the water?
"The truth is that San Diego's firefighters aren't recruited for aquatics. You look across the nation, Google 'firefighter fatalities' or 'firefighter drowning,' they're everywhere because they don't have a choice in Minnesota. Here you have a choice – you have 300 men and women who are recruited specifically for their aquatic ability. But they want to send 22 firefighters while at the same time saying they need to add firefighters because they don't have the resources to cover the city."
One meeting attendee, who identified himself as a CalFire captain (the state's firefighting service) with 15 years' experience, voiced his agreement.
"Firemen are jacks of all trades, masters of none," the captain said. "These guys [lifeguards] are in the water every day – keep up the fight, you guys are doing the right thing."
"You've got 30 years of past precedent but more importantly, it's 30 years of phenomenal success," Harris concluded. "We have not had a drowning in a guarded area for 18 years, then we've had two recently [after the changes]. That has us concerned."