Commentary by Ed Harris
On December 6th, San Diego Lifeguards voted on whether to pursue an independent department, or to stay within the Fire-Rescue Department. The fact that 95% of the guards cast a vote, and 80% voted to leave the Fire Department, was unprecedented and clearly shows that there are deep problems. The vote represents an indictment of Fire Department leadership, but also of the structure and history of the Department. It is a clear message to the Mayor and City Council from rank and file Lifeguards who love serving and saving lives.
For the last 40 years, there have been repeated attempts by Fire Department leadership to encroach on Lifeguard job responsibilities. This has not been a battle fought by the line personnel, who work well together, but rather by the Fire Union and Fire Chief’s determination to expand their Department. For this reason, there was considerable concern when the Lifeguards were placed in the Fire Department 18 years ago. Since then, the Lifeguards have been saving lives under 5 fire chiefs. While none of them had any lifeguarding experience, each attempted to significantly alter the successful and high performing system developed over our 100-year history. The attempted alterations have created turmoil every 3-4 years. The latest attack is the same, only disguised as “integration” with a new chief mandating that 22-30 Firefighters assist us on routine rescues.
This 18-year attack has demoralized the Guards. With 50% retiring over a 5-year period and the Fire Department continually usurping the Lifeguards’ decision-making and budget, Lifeguards are losing the ability to maintain reasonable standards of safety and professionalism. Fire Department leadership is compromising the Boating Safety Unit and other important positions because Lifeguards were not allowed to prepare for the current attrition. Limited Lifeguard staff used for operations and training is continually ordered to train FIRE personnel rather than focusing on the new generation of Lifeguards. Lifeguards are being sent on duty to parades, ball games and fire training courses, while beaches are left understaffed. Monthly supervisor meetings held to evaluate operations and employees are now prohibited. Money allocated for Lifeguard operations is instead being used to cover Fire Department overtime. Over $9 million dollars of hotel tax money intended for the Lifeguard budget to keep swimmers safe was instead shifted to cover the $22 million increase to last year’s Fire Department budget. The Lifeguard vessel replacement fund was similarly misappropriated.
The Fire Department’s latest attempts to expand into Lifeguard duties have been much more insidious and damaging. Fire Department leadership is now using your tax dollars to induce the loyalty of Lifeguard leadership. They have provided take-home vehicles and unlimited overtime to Lifeguard lieutenants to ensure their loyalty. They have also abandoned the City’s EEO policy to selectively train and promote those who are willing to go along with the Fire Department’s agenda. We now have sergeants and others in the Boating Safety Unit who are not qualified to operate the boats.
Keeping San Diego beaches safe requires constant training and mentoring. Skills are developed slowly to ensure there are no mistakes. Each year, Lifeguards make between 7,000 and 9,000 water rescues, 50 cliff rescues, thousands of medical aids and much more. Lifeguards have historically stayed within their budget, making them one of the best deals for taxpayers. San Diego is a beach city that must maintain safe beaches for its residents and visitors. Having an independent department led by a Lifeguard Chief who has the experience to understand what is needed to maintain a high functioning department has now become critical. The City and its residents will benefit because the Lifeguards will be able to continue prioritizing safe beaches, while operating on a reasonable budget. Leaving the Fire Department will once again allow Lifeguards to pursue an agenda that protects the coast, Marine Protected areas, residents and visitors. Imperial Beach took Lifeguards out of their Fire Department and created a stand-alone department 18 months ago. San Clemente and Laguna Beach have had stand-alone Lifeguard Departments for some time. Once independent, the Lifeguards will continue to work well with Fire just as we do with the Police. The Fire Department is a very important large organization. The Lifeguards are a very important small organization. They are completely different and need to operate independently.
Ed Harris is a San Diego Lifeguard Sergeant, a Marine veteran, and former Council Member representing the 2nd District.