Lifeguards Deserve Presumptive Health Coverage
By Ed Harris / The OB Rag
When a San Diego Firefighter or Police officer is injured or contracts an illness while performing their job, the City provides them with presumptive health coverage. Presumptive coverage includes meningitis, tuberculosis and hepatitis, to name a few.
Since San Diego Lifeguards are part of the San Diego Fire Department, one would think they’d be provided that same presumptive coverage. They are not.
Lifeguards enforce laws, perform rescues and fight fires in marinas and on vessels. Last year, San Diego Lifeguards performed over 6,500 water rescues, over 50 cliff rescues and provided thousands of medical aids.
While on the job, Lifeguards are exposed to bodily fluids and pollutants. They perform river rescues in floodwaters filled with feces, fuel, oil and other chemicals. They perform rescues in polluted ocean water when beach-goers fail to heed beach advisories and warnings.
In many instances, Lifeguards are not able to don adequate personal protective equipment in the immediacy to save a person’s life. Lifeguards put their lives at risk by making dangerous rescues and by being exposed to toxic pollutants.
One such rescue involved two Lifeguards from La Jolla Cove who responded to a call of a person in distress. They arrived to find a large male who had slipped on the rocks, and was bleeding out in a large tide pool. The Lifeguards were unable to move the victim from the tide pool due to his size so they had to perform C.P.R. in the bloodied water. It was later determined the victim was HIV positive. The Lifeguards had cuts and abrasions on their hands and feet were deeply concerned for their own health after this incident. Other Lifeguards have contracted meningitis from performing their lifeguard duties.
The State law says members of a fire department are covered presumptively. San Diego Lifeguards are part of the San Diego Fire Department. They have the same Fire Chief; their red trucks and boats have the words, “San Diego Fire-Rescue” on them; and the City’s website names Lifeguards as part of the Fire Department. Even the Civil Service job description lists Marine Fire Fighting as a Lifeguard duty.
If a Lifeguard is on an incident with Police and Fire and they all contract a disease months later, the Lifeguard is the only one who Is not presumptively covered. He or she will likely have to hire a lawyer and fight the City while fighting the disease.
In 2013, Lifeguard Brian Zeller injured his hip during a cliff rescue. He required surgery that would take him off duty for several months. The City placed Brian on state disability and denied his claim. He lost his family’s health benefits and was unable to cover his bills. Only by making an appeal before the City Council and the public was Brian finally covered.
So one has to ask why Mayor Faulconer has chosen to interpret the State’s language differently than it is written. Why would he now deny presumptive coverage to Lifeguards when he previously supported it when he voted to adopt the Lifeguard’s Five Year Plan in 2013?
According to a recent report commissioned by the City, there is no identifiable cost to provide the 100 permanent Lifeguards the same coverage as the other 3,000 Police and Fire safety members. Why are Lifeguards being denied this coverage?
Lifeguards, like me, have always assumed the City would look after our families and treat our injuries if we were killed or injured in the line of duty. Such is not the case. Additionally, newer Lifeguards no longer have retiree health care benefits and there is no death benefit for new Lifeguards who might die in the line of duty.
There cannot be any hesitation in the minds of Lifeguards when they are engaged in life saving rescues, medical aids or enforcement. Lifeguards save lives and risk their own in the line of duty.
Contact the Council City and Mayor Faulconer and let them know Lifeguards deserve the same presumptive coverage as Firefighters and Police officers.
Ed Harris has been a San Diego Lifeguard for 26 years. He is the former Councilmember for District Two and currently serves as sergeant of the Lifeguard Boating Safety Unit in Mission Bay.