San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy (left) and Veteran Lifeguard Ed Harris. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

A union dispute could lead to a major reorganization of emergency services at City Hall.

San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy is in the midst of a campaign to further integrate firefighters and the city’s lifeguards, an effort that has so upset a majority of the city’s permanent lifeguards that they voted to break away from the city’s fire department last month.

The vote has no legal significance, but 80 percent of the city’s 95 permanent lifeguards who voted Dec. 6 want to leave the fire department after roughly 20 years under fire leadership, according to union numbers.

Now, emails obtained by Voice of San Diego reveal just how fraught the fire chief’s relationship with lifeguards has become. In them, Fennessy claims repeatedly the lifeguard contract must change to give fire more leeway to provide public safety services in the city.

In one email, Fennessy celebrates that a change he made to 9-1-1 emergency dispatch won’t comply with the lifeguards’ contract with the city, writing “this will rock their world!”

In another, he writes about plans to add firefighters to more cliff rescues.

Lifeguard concerns center largely on alleged job encroachment, as Fennessy aims to send firefighters to all 9-1-1 calls for cliff and inland water rescues — calls that lifeguards are contractually responsible for and entitled to first.

Fennessy has repeatedly shot down allegations he wants firefighters to take over lifeguard jobs.

Before lifeguards can break away and form their own city department, they’ll need the approval of the mayor and City Council, and it’s unclear what support might exist at City Hall.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer hasn’t come to any conclusions yet, but senior press secretary Greg Block wrote in an email Faulconer believes the current fire department structure under Fennessy’s leadership “is an exceptional operation with dedicated professionals that provide outstanding emergency and rescue services to the citizens of San Diego.”

Lifeguard union leaders say they met with Faulconer’s chief of staff, Aimee Faucett, on Dec. 13 to discuss their proposal to form an independent “marine safety department” within city government.

Block said lifeguard union representatives told Faucett “they are working on a study about how a separate department might work. We look forward to reviewing their proposal upon its completion.”

Fennessy told VOSD in September he opposed removing lifeguards from his department, calling the current structure “a natural fit.” Fennessy declined to comment about the recent lifeguard vote through a spokeswoman, who cited active “good faith negotiations” with the lifeguard union.

Before the lifeguards voted, a series of emails obtained by lifeguard union officials through a public records request gave them a glimpse of Fennessy’s efforts and intentions behind the scenes in the last year as tensions rose.

The emails, shared with VOSD, also reveal Fennessy knew changes he made to 9-1-1 call routing would violate the lifeguard union contract long before the union filed a grievance over it.

The emails also show Fennessy had even more changes in mind for cliff rescues and the job title of Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts, whom lifeguard union steward Ed Harris has argued needs more authority and independence than the current hierarchy provides.

“I will be pushing for full integration which will likely upset the LG workforce,” Fennessy wrote in a Nov. 12, 2016, email to two people with The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “It will start with Rick as he is an ‘at-will’ unclassified employee and thus has no union protections. He will have it tougher than me as he will be the lightning rod when it comes to criticism.”

In another email sent to consultant Gary Stewart with CityGate Associates eight days earlier, Fennessy wrote, “Rick (Wurts) will become the Deputy Chief of Lifeguard Services and no longer ‘Lifeguard Chief’. He will wear (the) same uniform, badge and collar brass. It will send a pretty clear message to those below him.”

Wurts, whose title hasn’t changed, did not answer questions and referred VOSD’s inquiry to other fire officials.

CityGate was conducting a review of the city’s lifeguard operations at the time, which concluded various elements of lifeguard infrastructure are lacking and called for more integration of fire and lifeguard operations, saying existing practice “does not meet the Fire-Rescue Department mission of sending the closest, most appropriate resource to each request for assistance.”

Harris, the lifeguard union steward and member of the lifeguard dive team, rejects that conclusion.

In an email, Harris argued that Fennessy “feels we should send the world to every call. Sending the ‘world’ to calls that are easily handled with well trained guards is not a better approach to calls, nor is it economically responsible when you look at the overall city budget.”

It’s unclear exactly why Fennessy was in touch with the Pennsylvania academics, because much of the correspondence was redacted by city officials. Fire spokeswoman Monica Munoz said only that “SDFD has a longstanding relationship with Wharton School and faculty. They have assisted with firefighter and lifeguard leader and mission critical team development.”

In Fennessy’s email to them and others, he makes his intent to disregard the lifeguard contract clear, as well as his reasons for doing so.

In short, Fennessy sees the lifeguard contract — which gives lifeguards priority for inland water rescues and daytime cliff rescues — as a big problem that hinders public safety. The chief wondered what the public would think if it knew that, to respond to flooding, lifeguards had to drive past fire stations that were closer to the emergencies. And they did that just to comply with a union contract.

He said changing it would be a surprise to lifeguards.

“In short, I expect this will rock their world!” Fennessy wrote to The Wharton School academics Nov. 12, 2016.

Fennessy criticized the lifeguard contract to others, too.

In a different email to the CityGate consultants on Nov. 4, 2016, Fennessy wrote, “My meeting with the CEO and LRO has to do with my noticing them that I will be directing staff to disregard those elements of the (lifeguard) MOU that negatively affect the provision of life safety services…I’m taking home the printed MOU to review this weekend and to identify those areas of the MOU that are operational in nature and that should be removed.”

In a Feb. 24, 2017, message to Kim Zagaris, the state fire and rescue chief for the governor’s office of emergency services, Fennessy writes, “I have been able to work with the attorneys and human resource staff to find ways to not allow the MOU language to compromise public safety.”

A directive Fennessy gave in December 2016 had rocked the boat.

That month, Fennessy told police dispatchers to send 9-1-1 calls for inland water rescues straight to fire dispatch, instead of lifeguard dispatch, as required by the lifeguard contract. The move attracted a grievance from the lifeguard union. Eventually Fennessy reversed the change, and the lifeguards dropped the grievance, but an unfair labor practice charge is still pending before the Public Employment Relations Board.

Now the issue is being negotiated at the bargaining table.

Fennessy sidestepped the lifeguard contract to make one controversial change last year, but planned much more.

The emails show Fennessy also planned to change cliff rescue procedures, but that never happened. Existing practice allows lifeguards to handle daytime non-injury rescue calls solo. At night, the fire department takes responsibility for cliff rescues, but lifeguards on duty can assist.

Fennessy wrote the CityGate team early last year indicating changes were being made to cliff rescues.

“I briefed the Mayor and he knows that I am going to say that we have resolved the inland water rescue delayed response issue and are going to be adding fire units to the cliff rescues and treating them as we do any other medical aid. This may be the first time that Local 911 (lifeguard union) hears the cliff rescue plan, but we must address and resolve asap,” Fennessy wrote on Jan. 27, 2017.

It’s not clear in the emails what stopped Fennessy from changing cliff protocols.

“The cliff rescue response plans have not changed yet,” Munoz, the fire spokeswoman, said in an email to VOSD.

Harris, the lifeguard union steward, found Fennessy’s emails troubling and said his safety concerns about existing policies are unfounded.

“The areas flagged as a danger by Fennessy are clearly not a danger as the statistics show we are excelling at what we do,” said Harris. “There is no driving by fire resources enroute to emergencies. Fire has yet to present any type of integration plan, nor have they a plan for how they would train up more than 800 (firefighters) to make river rescues or cliff rescues.”

Harris said fire’s technical rescue team “are the only ones able to make a cliff rescue… They are stationed downtown so they are not close to any cliffs or inland water. Closest and most appropriate would only work if every (firefighter) is trained to a proffesional (sic) level in Cliff and River Rescue.”

He added, “Is the Mayor and Council prepared to train more than 800 fire fighters to be aquatic and cliff experts?”

Any effort to staff paramedics on the beach or send firefighters to every cliff and river rescue call is a waste of resources, Harris said.

“Where will the money come from? Parks, libraries or police… we are allowed to treat thousands of minor medical aids like stingrays, cuts and minor burns without medics. We are Emergency Medical Technicians fully qualified,” Harris said.

Ashly is a freelance investigative reporter. She formerly worked as a staff reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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