New Emergency Procedures for San Diego Lifeguards Are a Waste of Precious Time and a Waste of Money

by on March 2, 2017 · 7 comments

in Environment, History, Labor, Ocean Beach, San Diego

“Teaching Fire Fighters how to swim and perform river rescue is not acceptable.”

By Ed Harris

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 posses 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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

fstued March 2, 2017 at 4:42 pm

i agree completely. It always amazed me when I would see 3 police cars and 2 fire trucks show up to recuse a past out drunk on the corner. When all that was really needed was maybe a ambulance and a cop. I worked downtown and I saw that at least once a month, often the road would be blocked in some cases the trolley. The emergency response was usually way more than necessary. Precious time and money was certainly being wasted, maybe there is something I am missing and it is all just SOP but there as to be a better more efficient way.



Geoff Page March 2, 2017 at 5:23 pm

I second that, I agree completely with Mr. Harris.


Rufus March 2, 2017 at 6:22 pm

I ain’t got no dog in the hunt here, I’m too old and fat to go in the water in longer. That being said this argument comes down to the budget, not common sense.

To keep a lifeguard dispatcher on duty 24/7 is expensive. That’s 8,760 hour a year plus breaks which is another 304 hours for a total of 9,064 hours. If dispatchers make $25/hr that’s $226,000 a year plus benefits and taxes. That’s about three full time lifeguards if my math works.

You really can’t talk about cop cars and fire trucks sent to a river rescue, they’re already on duty. Yes, it’s a waste of time and it does take away from response time, but that’s a supervisory problem not a budget problem.

So the bottom line, what’s more important? Spending a quarter of a million a year of taxpayer money for a lifeguard-only dispatch and get faster response time to water emergencies, or save that money (I know, save and government don’t go together) and let the fire department answer the phone a few minutes later?

The answer for most of us in OB would be to leave the lifeguard dispatcher alone.

But as they say, your mileage may vary.


Ed Harris March 2, 2017 at 9:39 pm

They are not eliminating Lifeguard dispatch. We are needed there for a variety of reasons. We will still handle LG issues on the coast, medical aids, VHF etc. Boating Safety Unit Lifeguards are all trained dispatchers. They divide the duties throughout the day. 4 hours patrol, 2 hours maintenance, 2 hours dispatch. The duties vary on different days and shifts. We do this because it is very efficient and the model has worked for over 30 years. They are now sending inland water calls to fire dispatch, this is what is causing delays and confusion.


Rufus March 3, 2017 at 5:52 am

Ed, none of it makes sense except to government decision makers. Why would the FD make this change? It seems counterintuitive. You use lifeguards to make water rescues. You use firefighters to fight fires.


Ed Harris March 3, 2017 at 7:08 am

Budgets and growth are based on statistics. They use the number of responses and delays to responses to justify more money and staff. If you send one engine that is one response if you send three that is three responses. If they get cancelled it is still a response. If they have multiple units tied up on a scene it delays response to other calls because other stations are covering their area. This is the budget and political game. These decisions are not about safety. The changes make things less safe and will cost more money.


Louis Rodolico January 27, 2018 at 7:17 am

Decisions are being made by interested first parties, who appear to disagree. Is there any way to get third parties on board who could access the issue?


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