San Diego lifeguard Sgt. Bill Bender prepares his boat in May 2013 in case he needs to respond to an emergency. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

One month after the city’s lifeguards voted to break away from the Fire-Rescue Department, newly published emails reveal that San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy has been maneuvering behind the scenes to dilute responsibilities that have long been handled, quite effectively, by lifeguards.

Since the early 1900s, San Diego lifeguards have been the primary responders to water and cliff rescues in the City of San Diego. These responsibilities are presently enshrined in a labor contract, negotiated and signed by Fennessy himself, though they do not need to be. Apparently, he now wants to abrogate that agreement and assign firefighters to lifeguard responsibilities. That is no more logical than sending lifeguards to house fires.

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Rather than allowing one group to cannibalize the other, why not allow each to do their jobs? We will all be better off for that. I can say this with confidence because I was the lifeguard chief when the lifeguards were moved into what was then the fire department.

It has been a rocky road.

To some, this contretemps may appear to be a simple union dispute. But what the emails demonstrate is that, when it comes to the lifeguards, the fire chief lacks the integrity — and legal obligations — required of his position to adhere to agreements he has made. In his emails, he sometimes makes bold, bluster-filled statements on which he does not follow through.

His emails show that he is also clearly willing to throw the current lifeguard chief under the bus when convenient. Sadly, so far, the mayor has seemed OK with this.

The union dispute, though, is not as important as the public safety, management, and cost side of the equation — and that is where the public should be most alarmed.

San Diego’s lifeguard service is a world-renowned group with unique talents. Time and time again, this group has performed at an extraordinary level. Their flood rescue, cliff rescue, and ocean rescue talents are second to none.

But more importantly, from the perspective of the taxpayer, the lifeguards are highly efficient. For example, while beach attendance in San Diego in a typical year is more than 20 million and lifeguards rescue around 6,000 swimmers from drowning annually, it is very rare that there are any drowning deaths in lifeguard protected areas.

If these various duties are “integrated,” as the fire chief suggests, then many, many firefighters will need to be trained, and few of them will ever have the advanced swimming skills or cliff knowledge of the lifeguards. They will need to be equipped. The number of personnel that respond to each emergency will increase exponentially, along with the number of emergency vehicles and the associated cost of replacement of those vehicles due to mileage, wear and tear.

Why might the fire chief wish to do this?

Public safety services are budgeted based on statistics, which give the public and the City Council a sense of the volume of work being accomplished. For example, if six fire trucks are sent to a single cliff rescue, then that counts as an emergency response for each unit. If the number of responses rises, it is presumed that the workload has increased. The City Council never really knows if those responses were needed — one can only assume. But most cliff rescues are handled by two or three lifeguard units.

That is the game being played here. More responses generate statistics that justify bigger budgets for more personnel and more equipment. But when fire trucks, with their paramedics aboard, are sent to aquatic incidents that could be handled by lifeguards, they are taken out of service; and responses to other emergencies, be they medical, fire, or traffic accidents, are delayed.

Before considering whether further “integration” is actually needed, one must consider what the lifeguards do. A former city manager rightly compared the lifeguard service to the marines, and the fire department to the army. One works with small, specially trained forces; the other with much larger numbers. Each has its place and justification for response methods, but there is no point in sending massive numbers when a smaller force can do the job more efficiently.

The current fire chief has shown a serious disrespect for the lifeguards and the lifeguard chief. Publicly he speaks otherwise, but his actions — and his emails — betray his real views. No wonder this weakens morale and causes lifeguards to respond with such unanimity. They simply want to do their jobs. Instead, they are faced with a Lord of the Flies-type work environment.

It seems clear to me that a highly motivated cadre of civil servants are being obstructed at every turn.

San Diegans should be proud of their lifeguards and their firefighters. They should respect and laud them for their respective talents. Each should be allowed to do their jobs, which they do well.

B. Chris Brewster, a San Diego resident, is president of the Americas Region of the International Life Saving Federation and editor of American Lifeguard Magazine. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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