San Diego Lifeguards Complained They Couldn't Help Houston. Here's What Really Happened.
The union leader for lifeguards accused San Diego's fire chief of risking lives by not letting lifeguards go to Houston. It was the latest confrontation in a long-simmering dispute between the two.
The fire chief said the system worked, and it would have been odd for San Diego to send lifeguards who were not requested. The quarrel all goes back to a disagreement over who gets to do cliff rescues, and a change to how dispatch handles water rescue requests that is now the subject of negotiations.
A crew of expert San Diego lifeguards stood ready to help rescue efforts following Hurricane Harvey’s landfall in Texas, but San Diego’s fire chief blocked their efforts.
That was the story, at least, that picked up steam when veteran lifeguard and union steward Ed Harris shared it last month.
San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy said that version of events is a lie, and accused Harris of politicizing a catastrophe.
Harris said it’s Fennessy who risked lives because of politics.
The dispute was only the latest clash between the leaders. A confrontation like this has been building for months.
It goes back to Fennessy’s decision late last year to change the way certain 911 calls are routed. He later reversed the changes, but both sides are now discussing them at the bargaining table, a step Fennessy skipped last year, much to the lifeguard union’s dismay.
The lifeguard union has even discussed breaking away from the Fire Department, though it’s unclear how much support there is for such a move, let alone the mayor or City Council. One hundred permanent lifeguards and 200 seasonal lifeguards patrol 17 miles of coastline and perform 9,000 rescues per year.
A lot has transpired over the last year. Here’s how it became so tense — and so public.
When Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana in 2005, San Diego’s lifeguards helped with rescue efforts for weeks.
As Texas watched Hurricane Harvey approach, members of the lifeguards’ swift water-flood rescue team prepared again.
“The flooding threat situation in Gulf Coast Texas has potential for widespread impact with heavy rain and storm surge flooding,” San Diego Lifeguard Marine Safety Lt. John Sandmeyer wrote to the team on Aug. 25. “In order to be ready for deployment today (Friday, 8/25), 11 Lifeguard RRT Blue Team members are rostered and will be ready to go within 2 hours.”
There are two ways distressed officials can summon first responders from places like San Diego.
When a natural disaster hits, the Federal Emergency Management Agency sends Urban Search and Rescue task forces from across the country to the affected area. San Diego County has one such team, composed of 45 firefighters, more than half of whom are from the city’s San Diego Fire-Rescue.
States can also send out requests for help through a state-to-state Emergency Management Assistance Compact. In California, those requests route through the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, or Cal OES.
San Diego lifeguards are not part of the FEMA team, but 11 of them are part of the regional Cal OES Swift Water/Flood Rescue team.
By 8 p.m. Aug. 25, Sandmeyer wrote the specialized lifeguard team again after talking to Cal OES Assistant Chief Doug Nakama, once a San Diego Fire-Rescue Department employee. Nakama did not respond to requests for comment.
“All, There is no new update from Sacramento … Thanks to all who have dedicated their efforts to keep the team at its peak preparedness for response. We will keep the three trucks and three trailers in ready mode through the weekend at least,” Sandmeyer wrote. “Stay ready and patient. This is the system that counts on all of us to be constantly vigilant and prepared even when our number is not called.”
Sunday morning, Aug. 27, Sandmeyer wrote the lifeguard crew again, saying all eight of California’s FEMA Urban Search and Rescue task forces were heading to Texas, but none of the swift water teams were. That meant no lifeguards, but “We are remaining on standby as directed from the Cal OES office,” he wrote.
Monday night, Aug. 28, Harris emailed Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts, asking him “to immediately approve vacation time off” for himself and a colleague. “We want to leave for Houston to help out with flood rescue. The officials in Texas have sent out an urgent plea for help. We will be taking our private boat, truck and other equipment. No city equipment needed. We would like to leave tonight so we need approval or denial in the next two hours,” wrote Harris, who is a member of the lifeguard dive team, but not the Cal OES swift water team.
Wurts replied denying Harris’ special request. The swift water rescue team is “ready to deploy at a moment’s notice,” Wurts wrote. “Should our Cal OES team be called upon to deploy we will need to ensure adequate coverage of emergency operations here in San Diego.”
With that denial, Harris criticized department leadership to the media. He released a letter apologizing to Texas’ governor and Houston’s mayor and citizens for not being there to help.
“As professional lifeguards, we are saddened that there are moms, grandmas and children that we could rescue if we were only allowed to go help,” Harris wrote. “We are sickened that Chief Brian Fennessy has blocked our response.”
Harris held a press conference early Tuesday morning. “It’s like us sitting out on the beach and watching a kid drown. You know. That’s not what we do,” Harris said, according to KUSI.
Fennessy held a press conference of his own later that day.
“I will say it. He is blatantly lying,” Fennessy said, according to 10News. “To represent that we or the system failed in sending him or our lifeguards out is just a flat lie.”
A Fire Department spokeswoman elaborated.
“The swift water team was not on standby nor did we ready them to go to Texas until we received a request,” spokeswoman Mónica Muñoz wrote in an email. “Our department didn’t put anyone on standby to go to Texas.”
But Sandmeyer’s emails seem to belie that claim. He specifically told lifeguards to be ready to go.
Muñoz said lifeguards could not be placed on official standby, because they don’t even have a payroll code for standby — which requires employees to refrain from alcohol and puts them on the paid standby clock.
But mere hours after the press conferences, that changed, sort of.
“The state anticipated a request from Texas,” Fennessy said. “We told them they are anticipating orders.”
Once more, the lifeguards got ready and waited. The Fire Department’s Facebook page showed the lifeguards packing up. But alas, those official orders never came either. Just two of the state’s 13 swift water teams were sent to assist. San Diego was not one of them.
Amid the delay, Harris continued to “seriously question the leadership that has failed to simply say ‘GO. we can figure it out on the way,’” he wrote on his Facebook page.
“This type of waiting was heavily criticized following Hurricane Katrina. That should not be normal,” Harris said in a text message at the time.
Harris also said Fennessy’s decision to wait on official orders conflicts with his promotion of a “mission-driven culture,” which says sometimes you go outside of policies to save lives.
Fennessy sees it differently.
“If you are on a large incident and there is no communication … we don’t expect you to wait on instructions from your boss to go do your job,” Fennessy said. “If you are a lifeguard and you see someone drowning, go make the rescue.”
Fennessy said Harris was talking about “violating policy in a non-emergency environment.” The difference? “Time-compression,” meaning there is an immediate need in front of you, versus a two- to three-day drive to Texas.
“At the end of the day, the system worked. The system worked good,” Fennessy said.
Sending the team without official orders would have been out of order and irresponsible, Fennessy said.
“The state and the feds are going to go, ‘What are you doing?’” Fennessy said. “I’d fully expect if I did send them, my boss would go, ‘OK. Are we going to get reimbursed for that?’… Losing my job would be a plausible outcome. There are a number of things I’d be willing to lose my job over. This isn’t one of them.”
Fennessy also said that the firefighter team sent was appropriately trained. Though the lifeguards are great swimmers, “they don’t have any experience when you get into that house and you have to make a breech.”
The local firefighter team sent to Texas was highlighted by the Houston Chronicle. The team returned to San Diego and quickly turned around for a trip to Florida to help with Hurricane Irma.
‘A Minor Change in Protocol’ Makes Waves
Fennessy traces the start of the recent tension to late last year, when he changed the 911 call routing protocol for inland water rescues. Before versus after, “That was night and day. Villain. Boom,” Fennessy said.
Rather than send inland water rescue calls straight to the lifeguards, police dispatchers would now route the calls to San Diego fire dispatchers, who would decide whether to alert the lifeguards.
Lifeguard union leaders balked at the move. Inland water emergency calls are supposed to go from police to lifeguard dispatch, according to the lifeguard union contract with the city. And lifeguards are supposed to be primary inland water responders throughout the year.
But the two-line lifeguard dispatch center was overwhelmed with calls during a heavy rain storm in January 2016. Callers got a busy signal or sat on the phone for 15 to 20 minutes.
Fennessy said he shared those reports with the city’s policymakers last year, and they agreed that was unacceptable.
Routing inland water calls to fire dispatch was the easiest fix, “So nobody is left on hold. … To me, it was a common-sense decision,” Fennessy said. “How do you not do it?”
But sending inland water rescue calls through three dispatchers instead of two causes delays. The time difference could mean life versus death, Harris countered. He also said some dispatchers errantly sent some coastal calls to fire first.
Harris made that point when a boy drowned at a pond at Mission Bay Park, and also when waves swept away a woman in La Jolla. Harris’ motives were questioned by Fennessy then, too. Fennessy contends neither incident saw delays.
“Lifeguards are very important to me,” Fennessy said in the video. “No work has been taken away, nor is ever any work being considered to be taken away.”
In the written memo, Fennessy called the switch “a minor change in protocol” and wrote, “I want to be clear that I continue to support the Lifeguards being the primary responders to coastal cliff and swiftwater rescues.”
But his efforts to smooth things over didn’t dampen union frustrations.
The lifeguard union filed a grievance and the Fire Department ultimately went back to the old way.
Now, city officials are at the bargaining table pushing to bring the change back.
If it stays with lifeguards as it is now, “I would tell you lives would be at risk,” said Fennessy.
Coastal Cliff Rescues
Tensions between lifeguards and firefighters go back even further than the dispatching row.
Since 1998, San Diego lifeguards have been part of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. Before that, lifeguards were part of the city’s Park and Recreation Department, and before that, the San Diego Police Department. The origin of city lifeguard services date back to 1914.
Though their roles and specialties differ, both lifeguards and firefighters act as first responders to calls for help, so their work can and does overlap, especially along the coast. Within the overlap, other tensions have flared.
Per their contract, lifeguards have primary responsibility for coastal cliff rescues during daytime hours, a practice dating back to 1979.
If a victim is injured, or it’s unknown if an injury exists, an ambulance and fire truck will be sent to assist. Otherwise, for non-injury cases, lifeguards can handle daytime rescue calls solo under existing policy. At night, the Fire Department is in charge of cliff rescues, but lifeguards on duty can assist.
The system works, Harris said. Out of 300 daytime cliff rescues over the last five years, lifeguards have called fire 40 times, but, “Every time there is a new chief, it’s a wrestling match.”
Fennessy didn’t bring up cliff rescues as an area of tension, but the division of labor on the cliffs has been challenged before by firefighter union leadership.
In 2010, then-firefighter union president Frank De Clercq wrote the City Council saying the existing daytime cliff protocol, in effect between 9 a.m. and 8 p.m., “delays paramedic level assessment and transport.”
Because of the lifeguard union contract, De Clercq wrote, “Unfortunately, citizens in the beach areas that suffer injuries, or illness, do not receive the same level of service.” He asked the Council to review the impacts of the contract and “allow the Fire Chief to decide the best way to provide for the citizens.”
Chester Mordasini, president of the Teamsters union that represents the lifeguards, responded in a March 2010 letter to then-Mayor Jerry Sanders. He called De Clercq’s remarks “political maneuvering” and “an attempted hostile takeover” of lifeguard duties by firefighters “to justify demands for more compensation and resources.”
Mordasini also said firefighter cliff rescues are less efficient, and rely too heavily on a helicopter when it’s not needed.
“The Lifeguard Division can consistently achieve in less time and with a fraction of the resources the same results as the Fire Operations Division. Most Lifeguard-run cliff rescues are achieved in less than one hour using between seven and eight lifeguards,” Mordasini wrote.
The protocol remained in place after all the back and forth.
If the policy disputes weren’t personal enough, Harris recently upped the ante by suing the city for retaliation.
Fennessy is technically Harris’ boss.
Harris filed a claim against the city on July 18 alleging he faced retaliation for standing up to Fennessy, whom he called a “bully.” Harris said city leadership has wrongfully targeted him in internal inquiries in recent months. He asked the court for an injunction to postpone any disciplinary action until his claim is heard.
He said he’s looking for action, not compensation.
“I’m not looking to get money out of the taxpayer,” Harris said. “Nothing gets done in this city without outside pressure. … The city is so dysfunctional.”
“We don’t do that,” Fennessy said of Harris’ claims. “The Fire Department, the chain of command, does not retaliate.”
Harris said he was threatened with a reprimand and was the subject of two fact-finding inquiries because of his criticism of the 911 protocol. He also claims the city repeatedly violated his rights under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights by failing to provide enough information about their concerns.
Last November, Harris was investigated for remarks he made to colleagues. The inquiry was dropped after Harris asked the city for the materials the disciplinary action was based on and details about what rules and policies Harris was accused of violating.
Another probe in May aimed to find out whether Harris had provided two 911 tapes to KUSI in March. No disciplinary action was taken.
In a separate fact-finding notification sent May 30, Harris learned his interactions with Mossy Toyota were under review, and that he was accused of interfering with the city’s contract with the dealership by allegedly asking it to postpone delivery of new lifeguard trucks.
The lawsuit is still pending.
“The city gave me a great job,” Harris said. He said he’s “defending a job that should be defended.”
Through it all, Fennessy says he remains supportive of lifeguard operations.
“I’m proud to have lifeguards. … I brag about my lifeguards,” Fennessy said. “We don’t have any rift. We don’t have any feud. The lifeguard steward doesn’t like me very much. Maybe a few others.”