Lifeguard union cites second incident, claiming dispatch routing puts lives at risk

SAN DIEGO (KUSI) — For the second week in a row, the union representing city lifeguards is complaining that a change in dispatch policy is putting lives at risk, citing a second incident.

Lifeguards, Union Chief Ed Harris and members of the Pacific Beach Town Council met Tuesday morning to discuss a growing issue, which might have to be mediated by Mayor Faulconer. 

Related Link: Lifeguard Union files grievance in change over 911 call routing

Last week, Chief Harris pointed to a January rescue issue in La Jolla, similar to what’s been happening at Sunset Cliffs, as an example of what the union says is a faulty policy change by City Fire Department Chief Brian Fennessy.

Chief Fennessy, Chief Harris said — in an effort to put more firefighters and equipment at a water rescue scene — now has most 911 calls routed to the fire department first, then to lifeguards, which is being seen as a waste of precious seconds.

Chief Harris cited a second incident this past Sunday involving a near child drowning in Mission Bay Park, an incident in which Harris said there was not only delay, but confusion. 

Following last week’s complaint, Chief Fennessy issued a statement which appeared to address an issue much broader than dispatch calls.

The chief, peppered with questioned about whether the dispute was an indication that lifeguards no longer want to be under the fire department said, "Creating a separate department would be unprecedented and would do nothing to improve public safety. We are not going to let politics get in the way of doing the right thing for the public."

" … We are going to continue to respond as one department and not let politics get in the way of doing the right thing for the public we are sworn to serve," Chief Fennessy said.

The San Diego Fire-Rescue Communications Department emailed KUSI, clarifying the reason for the change in dispatch routing. 

Chief Fennessy notified Local 911 President Chester Mordasini about the change to the dispatch procedure on Nov. 30, 2016 and training was performed to ensure dispatchers and safety personnel were fully prepared for the change.

The procedural change was made based on demonstrated history that 911 call volume quickly overwhelms Lifeguard Dispatch during severe storm conditions. That dispatch system only allows for two calls a time to be answered — resulting in 911 emergency calls for assistance to go unanswered during high-volume periods.

Because of this, the Fire-Rescue Department has directed SDPD to forward all 911 inland water rescue calls to the Fire Emergency Command & Data Center (ECDC). ECDC is a modern communications center that has the trained personnel and technology to handle large call volumes.

The change has resulted in no calls going unanswered during extreme storm conditions and lifeguards and firefighters being dispatched to inland water rescues simultaneously within seconds of a 911 call.

"In the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, we are in the business of saving lives and keeping our neighborhoods safe. That was never more evident than during the recent storms when lifeguards and firefighters worked together for the common good and saved lives," Chief Fennessy said. "It’s unfortunate that Local 911 leadership would suggest public safety has been compromised in some way to score political points. Nothing could be further from the truth as emergency response times have actually improved since the dispatch change. Using scare tactics like that as a public safety professional is irresponsible and dangerous. We are going to continue to respond as one department and not let politics get in the way of doing the right thing for the public we are sworn to serve."

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