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Fire Chief, Lifeguard Union Leader Feud Over Dispatch Policy

A Toyota lifeguard vehicle in an undated photo.

Credit: City of San Diego

Above: A Toyota lifeguard vehicle in an undated photo.

Fire Chief Brian Fennessy Wednesday adamantly denied claims that a recently instituted policy routing emergency water-rescue calls to his department instead of to lifeguards delays response times.

Lifeguard union leader Ed Harris alleged this week that the change has caused unnecessary problems, including a delay in rescuing a toddler who nearly drowned in Mission Bay last weekend. Harris also contended that costs increase and overall emergency staffing gets stretched too thin when firefighters are sent to calls historically handled by lifeguards.

"We cannot afford to have the (San Diego Fire-Rescue Department) divert our trainers, personnel and budget," Harris wrote in an opinion piece run by the OB Rag news website. "Teaching firefighters how to swim and perform river rescue is not acceptable."

The lifeguard union, which is part of Teamsters Local 911, has filed a grievance in opposition to the changes, which center on inland water rescues.

City officials countered that reassigning such calls to the SDFRD dispatch center was a necessary move because the lifeguards' system, which only allows for two calls to be answered at a time, tended to be quickly overwhelmed, forcing some 911 calls to go unanswered during high-volume periods, such as in severe storm conditions.

According to Fennessy, emergency response times have improved, not worsened, since the dispatch change went into effect three months ago. The procedural revision has resulted in no calls going unanswered during extreme storm conditions this year, the chief asserted.

"Lifeguards and firefighters are dispatched to inland water rescues simultaneously and within seconds of 911 calls — far faster than lifeguard dispatch is able to accomplish," Fennessy told reporters at a late-morning briefing at the department's emergency command center in Kearny Mesa. "The decision to have inland-water-rescue calls forwarded from San Diego police to this center has resulted in significant public-safety improvements."

Fennessy called Harris' allegations "patently false."

"There's been no confusion on the part of the police and the fire- rescue department dispatchers, and there have been no delays as a result of this change," Fennessy said.

Referring to Sunday's disputed rescue call, the chief denounced what he described as a "disgraceful" effort to "politicize a family's personal tragedy."

"Shame on you, Ed Harris," he said.

Following the news conference, the union official denied that he had any ulterior motive for his efforts to reverse the dispatch change.

"I don't understand that (accusation), in all honesty," Harris said.

Harris reiterated that emergency personnel's response was delayed "by a full minute" during the near-drowning event at Mission Bay last weekend and insisted that the former dispatching system — in which seasoned lifeguards directly answered water-rescue calls — was considerably more efficient and effective.

"We made 9,000 water rescues last year, and that's a darned good record," he said.

According to Harris, the city lifeguard agency got a mere 15 minutes' notice prior to the dispatch change going into effect on Dec. 15 — shortly before a strong storm hit the region.

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