San Diego Lifeguards Vote Overwhelming to Leave Fire Department

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San Diego Lifeguard boat. Clairemont Times file photo.

“Lifeguard Union Membership Calls for an independent Maritime Safety Department within City of San Diego”

PR: On December 6th,  the full-time members of the San Diego Lifeguard Service took an overwhelming internal Union Vote, voting ­­80% to leave the embattled City of San Diego Fire Rescue Department and in favor of creating San Diego’s first Marine Safety Department.  The Lifeguards are calling on Mayor Kevin Falconer, and each San Diego City Councilmember, to consider and support the creation of this Department and the naming of an independent Lifeguard Chief.  In doing so, the Lifeguards assert that City of San Diego will save hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual operating budget expenses, and more importantly, increase public safety along San Diego’s coastlines, cliffs, and waterways.

Ms. Dana Nelson, a 29-year old career City of San Diego Lifeguard and Union Leader said this immediately after the vote, “I am proud we are moving in this direction.  Being absorbed into the bureaucracy of the Fire Department has been terrible for morale among front-line Lifeguards who tend to be around their thirties like me.  What we see is that Lifeguarding as a profession is set to disappear in San Diego.”  She went on to ask, “Given the huge importance of ocean tourism to San Diego’s economy, do we really want to be a Beach City without an expert Lifeguard Service?”

The Lifeguards argue that creation of the City of San Diego’s first Marine Safety Department will streamline essential departmental operations and trainings, save money, boost morale and expertise, and ultimately lead to safer beaches, both for San Diegans and visitors alike.  Highlighting this point, Mr. B. Chris Brewster, US President of the International Life Saving Federation and former San Diego Lifeguard Chief added, “San Diegans and our visitors deserve the best.  Nationally, and even internationally, I have observed that where lifeguards are led by their own Chief and their own Department they excel.  Our own Department has been a goal of the San Diego Lifeguards and Lifeguard leadership since the first day I started as a lifeguard in 1979.  Our unique skills and services are second to none.”

The Lifeguards also point out that an independent Department and Chief will also allow them to work more proactively with County, State, and Private Sector officials which will ultimately generate additional value for The City at large.  For example, the Marine Safety Department and Lifeguard Service will advocate for partnerships to include public funds and private grants to assist the State in implementing such policies as the California Marine Life Protection Act.  A lesser known fact about the Lifeguard Service is they are not only human and pet lifesavers, but also environmental first-responders – both in facing the immediate impacts of climate change, and in combatting illegal activity such as wildlife poaching and pollution along San Diego’s spectacular coastline.  The Lifeguards Service is currently unable to effectively engage in such partnerships while imbedded so deeply within the San Diego Fire Rescue Service due to expected staffing constraints, competing priorities, and constant leadership disputes.

“Listen, it’s this simple, Fire is a very important large department.  The Lifeguards are a very important small department.  We are experts, and should be led by experts.  This is a win-win for everyone,” said career Lifeguard Sergeant, current Union Head, and former San Diego City Councilmember Ed Harris.  “This is not about any one person, this is about our city, our economy, and our Lifeguards.  The Martine Safety Department is essential for San Diego Lifeguards to do our jobs effectively and to keep the public safe.  What we’re asking is that the Mayor and City Council consider the merits of our argument and act swiftly.  We are confident they will reach the same conclusion as us:  in order for San Diego’s beaches to stay safe, and in order to keep our tourism economy stable, we need an extremely high functioning, independent Lifeguard Department and Lifeguard Chief.”

By taking this vote, the San Diego Lifeguards will begin efforts in earnest to rally public and institutional support, educate policymakers and political candidates, and ultimately work with every relevant aspect of the City of San Diego toward establishing a Marine Safety Department, and the naming of an independent Lifeguard Chief.  This Chief will report to the City’s Chief Operating Officer, in the same fashion as the Fire and Police Chiefs.

San Diego Lifeguard 44 Cliff Rescue Rig. Clairemont Times file photo.

About the San Diego Lifeguards

The San Diego Lifeguards, members of Teamsters Local 911, represent the interest of the approximately 102 full-time career San Diego Lifeguards.  Lifeguards participate in 7,000-9,000 rescues a year in San Diego.  The San Diego Lifeguard Service is the only City of San Diego public safety organization that only “recruits from within.”  This is to say that as the Lifeguard Service workforce seasonally grows to up to 200 Lifeguards per year, seasonal guards are usually only hired as career guards after 5-7 years of front-line service and constant on-the-job training.  As such, the San Diego Lifeguards are a naturally elite service prepared to respond to any coastal emergency in San Diego.  All full-time Lifeguards are EMT level trained and have expertise in Cliff Rescue, River Rescue, SCUBA Rescue, Surf Rescue, and others.  Lifeguards are all public safety officers on behalf of the City of San Diego.  The Lifeguards’ special Boating Safety Unit employs Peace Officers with additional training and powers of arrest.  San Diego Lifeguards are also trained by, and carry out activities on behalf of, the US Department of Homeland Security, the San Diego Police Department, and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife.  In addition to their daily jobs keeping the public safe on San Diego’s beaches, the Lifeguard Service is also active in the community through the San Diego Junior Lifeguard Foundation, the City’s Bridges to the Beach program for low-beach access communities.  San Diego’s Lifeguards also facilitate Classroom-to-Tower Visits for San Diego schoolchildren where students learn about beach safety, the coastal environment, and what it takes to become a Lifeguard.  Learn more about us at www.facebook.com/SanDiegoLifeguards.

Background on San Diego Lifeguards’ Vote to Leave the Fire Department

The City of San Diego employs approximately 102 full-time professional Lifeguards, adding up 200 to highly trained seasonal Lifeguards annually.  These expert public safety professionals execute between 7,000-9,000 water and cliff rescues on an annual basis.  They provide a literal life support system to San Diego’s beach tourism economy, which makes up approximately one-third of our regional economic input.  Since their founding as a Service in 1914, the San Diego Lifeguards have argued the necessity of their own Department and Chief as a necessity for public safety and cost effectiveness with taxpayer dollars.  In earlier years the Lifeguard service has nested within both the Police and Parks and Recreation Departments, where they previously had the benefit of dedicated budgetary and administrative personnel.  Under the Fire Department, they have had significant budgetary challenges, including essential equipment acquisition.

Recently, a concerted effort has been made by the City of San Diego Fire Department, and the City of San Diego’s operating structure more broadly, to “integrate” the Lifeguard Service, their River Rescue, Cliff Rescue, elite Boating Safety Unit, and other Lifeguard specialties into one non-specialized “Fire Rescue” department.  This ill-informed Management policy has resulted in a decline of public safety at the beach, a massive and rapid decrease in Lifeguard service morale and recruitment, and seen a wildly inefficient increase and waste of taxpayer dollars.

To immediately solve this problem and improve the Lifeguard Service and its capabilities as the City of San Diego modernizes its human resources infrastructure, it essential the San Diego Lifeguards are led by their own Chief with their own Department.  To that end, between Thursday, October 26, 2017 and December 6, 2017 the San Diego Lifeguard Service held five meetings for all full-time Lifeguards.  Due notice was given for each meeting.  The meetings served to inform the Lifeguards and allowed for a wide-ranging discussion concerning the Lifeguards need to have their own dedicated Department and Chief within the City of San Diego operating structure.  Along with the San Diego Lifeguard Service union leadership, experts ranging from local town councilmembers, to government relations professionals, to regional union leaders and others were made available to share their perspectives and answer questions from the Lifeguards.

On December 6, 2017, in a formal Union Vote, the San Diego Lifeguard Service membership moved overwhelmingly to authorized their leadership to “Pursue the creation of a Stand Alone Marine Safety Department, Publicly and politically ask that the San Diego Lifeguards be removed from the San Diego Fire Rescue Department,” and to “Create the San Diego Marine Safety Department.”  Over the next several weeks and months, the San Diego Lifeguard Service will commence a coordinate effort to demonstrate community support, educate City of San Diego lawmakers and Civil Servants to the fiscal and public safety prudence of creating a Marine Safety Department and of appointing an independent Lifeguard Chief.  The Lifeguards will concurrently work to build coalitions with external parties such as the State of California, Community Leaders, and Civic Organizations in order to demonstrate, and increase, the value of a Marine Safety Department to the City of San Diego.

The San Diego Lifeguards are members of Teamsters Local 911 which represents Lifeguards and their specialized service to public safety throughout Southern California.

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