San Diego lifeguards at OB Town Council blast fire department take-over of 911 calls

Fire Chief Fennessy sends email

Fire Chief Fennessy: The "minor changes" he'd implemented resulted in a "politically motivated" backlash from lifeguards.
  • Fire Chief Fennessy: The "minor changes" he'd implemented resulted in a "politically motivated" backlash from lifeguards.

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.

Lifeguard Harris: "Eighteen firefighters they want to send, because they're going to throw their ladders in the water?"

Lifeguard Harris: "Eighteen firefighters they want to send, because they're going to throw their ladders in the water?"

"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."

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Well...it's an ALL OUT OLD FASHIONED TURF WAR between Fire and Lifeguard personnel. Years ago, in an administrative cost cutting measure, the separate Lifeguard Deprtment, was folded into the Fire Department forming the Fire-Rescue Department. Seems like the cousins never really got along and now we, the taxpayers are suffering while the kids are bickering.
I'm just wondering where's the Mayor during all this squabbling? Absent as usual, doing nothing, as usual, never taking a stand, never leading, never anything. Reminds me of the guy who led us from behind for the last eight years. Or maybe Faulconer is trying strategic patience we all know how well that works.

Just like the Federal Government, the City's first duty is the safety of its citizens. It's time to end the turf war, correct the problem, and get the Mayor to grow a spine and lead this City as it's CEO!

It's the subjugation of the lifeguard corps under the fire department that was politically motivated. It should never have happened and is now threatening lives.

The state and almost all of our neighboring coastal cities still have lifeguards as their own command under either public safety or parks departments: Del Mar, Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, San Clemente, Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, etc. The only exception I could find was Oceanside—which I assume does not have our weird run-around on routing 911 calls or else we would have heard of something by now.

I mean, why the hell would water rescue calls go to fire rescue first, let alone ever? And expecting lifeguards to use computer equipment in sand and saltwater? The only thing more ridiculous would be to have lifeguards call in to fire rescue for authorization before jumping in to save someone. Guess I shouldn't give anyone any ideas.

The one instance (which Harris acknowledged) where fire might be the appropriate first call would be in the event of an inland river or lake water rescue, where fire is likely to have the closest personnel, since guards stick to the beaches. His argument seems to be that in times where this type of call is likelier (heavy storms when few people are at the beach and the inland water bodies are behaving erratically) it's appropriate for fire to receive the calls first. Sunny days, obviously much more common in San Diego, are the arena in which this battle is being fought.

Several months ago I was talking to a groundsman at Mission Point Park (South Mission Beach). when 5 young adult SCUBA divers approached us, one of whom was in agony having been stung by a ray, and asked for help. The groundsman called his supervisor and was told to have the victim call 911...The divers had no cell phone so after a moment the groundsman called 9-11. In a couple of minutes we could hear a siren coming and in another couple of minutes a young lifeguard arrived.

He evaluated the situation but made NO EFFORT to treat the victim. He said a fire truck was on the way...I asked him if a fire truck was necessary for a stingray wound...He snapped, "stand back and stay out of the way!" We all chuckled at his arrogant demeanor.

We then heard a fire truck siren from across the bay on West Mission Bay Blvd, and a few minutes later the truck arrived at our location. Four firemen poured out of the truck with walkie talkies in hand and approached "Mr. Bitchen", the Lifeguard. The lead fireman confirmed the victim had a stingray wound and instructed the Lifeguard to transfer the victim to the Lifeguard facility and soak her foot in warm water, which "Mr. Bitchen" did.

So let's review the incident...City groundsman (against supervisor's instruction) calls 9-11; arrogant jerk Lifeguard, "Mr. Bitchen" arrives on the scene and does nothing; fire truck with 4 firemen on board arrives a few minutes later; Lifeguard is told to treat the victim.

Isn't a City Lifeguard qualified and authorized to treat a stingray sting? If so, "Mr. Bitchen" should have treated the victim from the start and not wasted a fire truck and 4 firemen.

Wow. Guess I didn't need to give anyone any ideas! Sounds like they're already making lifeguards get authorization from fire before acting. Prophecy is a curse, believe me.

Doesn't it seem unfair when you realize firemen start off making about $50,000 a year when they first start and within a couple of couple of years are being paid $80,000 to $100,000 a year plus benefits?

Like Jon Hart said, do they really save lives? Why should a whole bunch of firefighters respond to a call that really needs EMT's? Are EMT the exclusive domain of firefighting? If it is not a "fire" why not respond with the appropriate professional?

We live in a time where firefighters, many with only high school educations, are getting paid over $100,000 a year and can retire in their early 50's. Sure it's dangerous work, when they work. But roofers get disabled and killed more often than firefighters and they don't make 6 figures and get to retire at 50.

Something is really wrong with this system. There are less fire thanks to technology. But there are not less roofing or fisherman deaths because of technology. Firefighters spend most of their time cleaning, lifting weights, shopping, and other low risk tasks while other professions like roofing don't have the luxury of sitting around and waiting for a leaking roof. They are exposed to danger every time they show up for work.

It's called the Fire-Rescue Department, so they's why they respond to medical emergencies. Firefighters (NOT "firemen") are also EMTs; it's a requirement to get hired. Lots of workers have a HS diploma, and make excellent salaries. What's your point?

I think his point is that a lot of citizens would like to see an audit on the cost/effectiveness on the way the Fire-Rescue Department is staffed, duties allocated (hours assigned), salaries, overtime allocations, and retirement benefits. I might add that taxpayers in other California cities have raised the same concern.

While emergency services are certainly important there are many taxpayers that feel, as Ponzi stated, that the current Fire-Rescue Department structure, from hiring practices to retirement benefits, might be obsolete and actually be abusing the public funding. I believe that's his point!

Why is it that people believe that no one should make a decent living or have a decent retirement. The Walmart economy is a false economy that's only product is cheap products now and an huge investment in poverty later. Yes, cops and fire personal get to retire at 50. It is the kind of work that few can maintain into their late 50's & 60's. As for education both cops and fire fighters attend job specific training and education. I know a lot of college educated idiots that are ill equipped for any job.

It's job/wage/retirement envy.

I often ask why do people who can hit a 90MPH baseball consistently & fairly, run/catch/throw a football for a touchdown repeatedly, sink a basketball threw a hoop, return a 120MPH tennis ball, race a car safely at more than 200MPH, or hit a tiny white dimpled ball multiple times to find a hole in the ground all to "earn" ridiculously high salaries? Exactly what do they contribute to our culture that justifies their high salaries compared to other "professions" which are paid wages where few could support a family.

I'm Just Wondering.

Police and firefighters are paid well because their services are in demand. And most of us couldn't even make it through the tough training period. But the majority of people can get a job at Walmart because the skill levels are low. So the pay isn't good. That's the reality of the job market. San Diego has lost police officers because they went to another city where the pay is even higher than here.

You're all ignoring the elephant in the room. Unions. The only reason firefighters and police make the money they do is unions. If Walmart were unionized they would earn more too. Considering the many media reports about police these days I doubt they would be qualified to work at Walmart.

By the way, I am not the least envious of their pay or benefits, I feel they are milking the system and slowly bankrupting cities. The overtime, "13th check" and other scams these unions promote. Fire captains earning almost $200,000 a year? No envy, just amazement with what the taxpayers tolerate. Remember the firefighters that beat down most of the wildfires in fire season are often volunteers, prisoners or others that are not on the dole. They are important players in knocking down those forest fires but they don't earn anything like $200,000.

So you'd also say that movie/TV actors are overpaid because they belong to a union (SAG-AFTRA)? Are teachers making too much pay because they belong to AFT? Are you an anti-union person? As for fighting wildfires, volunteers, prisoners, etc. are badly needed, just as volunteers are needed at nonprofit organizations. They aren't working there for the money. The comparisons being made are bogus.

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