By Ed Harris / OB Rag
On December 15th, 2016 San Diego Lifeguard River Rescue team members were holding a deployment briefing prior to an imminent storm.
Fifteen minutes before they were to deploy, they were given a new standard operating procedure. The new SOP was part of an executive order mandated by the new Fire Chief.
There were several changes that have a negative operational effect on the Lifeguards as well as a negative budgetary effect for all of us.
A big change is that now San Diego Fire Dispatch will handle inland calls for water emergencies and that Firefighters will automatically dispatch multiple engines, trucks personnel and a helicopter to calls that have been successfully handled by a few Lifeguards for over 40 years.
Sending this excessive response means these units are not available for other calls, causing delays to vehicle accidents, fires, and medical aids.
Operationally, the Lifeguard supervisors group was not consulted as they are no longer allowed to hold monthly their meetings. There was no tabletop exercise to test for problems that may delay our response or cause confusion.
The new SOP routes calls from Police to a Fire call taker which takes 1-2 minutes or more. The call taker then sends it to a Fire dispatcher queue where it waits in line. This can take several more minutes.
Due to this change, we are adding precious time to our response.
The old procedure was simple; water calls were transferred from PD to Lifeguards. Lifeguards started units in fifteen seconds, then requested Fire units if needed.
This issue has been studied several times. Each time it was concluded that Lifeguards should continue dispatching water related emergencies. A 2007 BPR study stated:
There is a good argument for having trained lifeguards perform lifeguard dispatch functions over civilian dispatchers. Aquatic emergencies are very time critical and immediate rescue response is necessary.
We often hear the term “best practices” which means that this is how others do things. As a Marine and a 28-year Lifeguard, I can tell you that making changes to an emergency system that has been in place for over 35 years without discussion, training and proper testing Is not “best practice.” Since the change, there have been several delays to emergency calls.
One call occurred January 21st when a woman sustained traumatic injuries when she was washed off the rocks by large surf in La Jolla and Fire dispatchers did not transfer the call to Lifeguards for over five minutes. It is important to note that Lifeguards were only 4 blocks from the scene of the incident.
Lifeguards made over 9,000 water rescues this year and more than 300 cliff rescues in the last six years. Lifeguards perform numerous jobs and possess a wide range of skills. These skills are perishable and must be maintained.
The new change also means that citizens are paying fuel and maintenance for a helicopter, truck, rescue rig, engine, ambulance and supervisor (approximately 18 people). Fuel for the helicopter alone is $1,500 per hour, that is a lot of library staffing.
This also creates more risk due to multiple units traveling code three across our city, endangering the crew and other motorists The changes have and will take much-needed funding from the Lifeguards, Police, and other community priorities.
According to the Independent Budget Analyst’s mid-year report issued in January of 2017, the Fire Department is projected to be $14.6 million over budget. They are over budget because they have implemented programs without council approval or budgetary support.
$14.6 million divided into 9 Council districts is $1.6 million each. Imagine if Lori Zapf had $1.6 million to put towards the things we need such as design money for the OB library or Lifeguard tower, police hours to patrol local areas, landscape money, lighting or road repair.
The City must now cover the Fire Department expenses at the cost of other services. To top it off, the City is facing a $50 million budget shortfall and each department has been ordered to cut 3% off their operating budget. How can you create new programs not authorized by City Council and at the same time cut the things Council supports?
We cannot afford to have the Fire Department divert our trainers, personnel, and budget. Teaching Fire Fighters how to swim and perform river rescue is not acceptable.
Teamsters 911 represents Lifeguards. They have filed a grievance that will soon be heard by the Mayor.
Ed Harris is a former Council Member for District Two and a current Lifeguard Sergeant.