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A lifeguard tower in Pacific Beach / Image via Shutterstock

The novel coronavirus is exacerbating an old division at the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department between the lifeguards and the chiefs who oversee them.

Four lifeguards have tested positive in recent days for COVID-19, a department spokeswoman confirmed, a relatively high number among emergency responders. As of Wednesday, the firefighters had one positive test. The fire side of the department has about three times the number of employees throughout the year.

The lifeguards have long resented their inclusion under the city’s Fire-Rescue Department, and argue they have different skillsets and responsibilities that should warrant a standalone department. They’ve pushed back against talk in recent years of further integrating the lifeguards and firefighters — and unsuccessfully voted to separate themselves in 2017.

That same year, tensions between the union and the department erupted in the press over whether to send emergency responders to Texas following Hurricane Harvey. Then and now, management at the Fire-Rescue Department accused the lifeguard union of using a crisis to score political points.

As the coronavirus rages through communities and the city is preparing to take a massive hit to its budget, the lifeguards are also in the middle of negotiations for a new contract.

In a letter to the City Council on Monday, leaders at the California Teamsters Local 911, which represents the lifeguards in San Diego, argued that the Fire-Rescue Department wasn’t acting aggressively enough to stop the spread of disease within their ranks and asked that some of their workstations be professionally cleaned.

Last week, the Fire-Rescue Department cancelled its academy for returning summer lifeguards and quarantined the entire class of 15 after two cadets showed COVID-19 symptoms. Then the city reversed course two days later and decided to stop quarantining employees who did not show signs of COVID-19 but who had been exposed to known patients.

In a video with physicians and other officials, Fire Chief Colin Stowell explained that he was following instructions from state, county and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials and adopting the same guidelines used by other fire agencies throughout the region.

Chris Vanos, head of the San Diego lifeguard union, was supportive of those changes at the time and appeared in the video announcing the new quarantine protocols on March 25. Two days later, though, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among the lifeguards went from zero to four.

Vanos and Ed Harris, a veteran lifeguard and union steward, now argue that the CDC’s guidelines were just that — guidelines — and there’s nothing stopping the department from pulling more people out of rotation. By all accounts, the lifeguards and the firefighters have an adequate number of people to continue providing emergency services.

Beaches are closed, but lifeguards continue to observe and patrol the shoreline and help vessels in the water. They’ve been regularly cleaning up their own towers, which are fairly tight spaces.

Vanos said his intention by sending the letter wasn’t to point a finger in the middle of a public health emergency or put pressure on the city during labor negotiations, but to get some clarity on how officials were planning to protect the workforce and how they were keeping track of who might be sick. He wanted to request, he said, that the lifeguards scale back some of their responsibilities that might bring them into closer contact with one another.

Harris was blunt in his comments.

“It’s a money-saving move because they didn’t want to pay these people at home in quarantine,” he said.

He also noted that just because someone tests negative doesn’t mean they’re not infected or infectious.

Stowell told Voice of San Diego that he considers the lifeguard union’s letter and subsequent statements on the city’s handling of coronavirus among its own employees inappropriate. He said the lifeguard union is suggesting that it’s being treated differently than other public safety personnel but he’s simply following the advice of medical experts who say quarantining emergency responders based just on exposure is unnecessary.

He has, however, ordered that the North Pacific Beach workstation — where two lifeguards tested positive for COVID-19 — be professionally cleaned at the request of the union.

If he quarantined every lifeguard or firefighter who may have been exposed to a patient, he argued, the city’s emergency response system couldn’t function.

“I can’t put those people in quarantine for 14 days,” he said. “I won’t have enough people.”

The pandemic hit just as the city was preparing to train its seasonal employees. James Gartland, the lifeguard chief, couldn’t say for certain what the summer would look like, but the department is planning for staff shortages. It’s helped, he said, that people are mostly complying with the beach closures.

There is in the meantime, he said, an entire process and team in place at the city that can quickly pull sick or presumptively sick people out of rotation and get them connected remotely with physicians and other services. Public health officials can then trace back that person’s interactions to see if others are infected.

The policies of responding to the pandemic are being shaped and refined in real time, he said, so he understands the anxiety coming from the lifeguards.

“It’s all happening as we ramp up knowing we’re gonna have a peak at some point,” he said. “We know police, lifeguards, EMS, fire — we know there’s a percentage of people in those populations who are going to get sick. That’s what we’re planning for. That’s why we’re taking the advice of the CDC and physicians.”

The firefighters have remained supportive of the quarantine change.

Jesse Conner, president of the Firefighters Local 145, said he understands the worry about contracting the virus and unwittingly sharing it with members of the public, but he said the process in place — quarantining only those who test positive or show symptoms — was reasonable. The quarantining of large numbers of firefighters while a single person had tested positive was unsustainable, he said.

The department has deep-cleaned a couple of stations, he said, but the firefighters have otherwise taken it upon themselves, like the lifeguards, to continually clean their own work places as a precaution while trying to socially distance from one another and wear protective gear.

If a large number of firefighters becomes sick, he’ll revisit the strategy, he said. But in the meantime, he agreed with the chief.

“As firefighters we have a job to do and we want to be on the frontline, not the sideline,” he said.

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