Ed Harris Slams Fire Chief Over Dispatch Changes at OB Town Council Forum

by on April 27, 2017 · 0 comments

in Ocean Beach

Ed Harris at OBTC meeting, April 26, 2017. All photos by Frank Gormlie

Ed Harris, union leader for San Diego lifeguards, slammed the city’s fire chief over water-rescue dispatch changes recently implemented, Wednesday night- April 26 – at the Ocean Beach Town Council meeting.

Billed as a “public forum on policy change to water 911 calls”, both Harris and Brian Fennessy, the new fire chief, had been invited by the council to debate the issue – but Fennessy had declined to attend, and OBTC president Gretchen Newsom read his email response instead.

The core issue is that after over 30 years of practice, Fennessy unilaterally changed the policy on water-rescue dispatches. Where once 911 calls regarding people in need in the water, whether at the beach, the bays or rivers, were immediately dispatched to the lifeguard dispatch center, they now are dispatched through the San Diego Police Department and then to the Fire Department and then to the lifeguards.

During his power-point presentation, Harris contended that this new policy change endangers lifeguard response time and ultimately people in need themselves. The union, Teamsters Local 911, has filed a grievance with the city over all of this. Harris once represented City Council District 2, after Faulconer moved to the mayor’s office.

Newsom read the pertinent part of Chief Fennessy’s email to the 50 or so members of the audience:

“As you may or may not be aware, the California Teamsters Local 911 represents members of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and Lifeguard Services Division. They have filed a grievance related to SDFD routing of 911 calls.

The grievance will be heard by San Diego’s city council in the near future. To ensure that the city and Local 911 receive a fair hearing before the city council, it is important that I refrain from discussing the issues related to the grievance until the council has heard and decided on the matter.”

Newsom also read that Fennessy invited members of the Town Council to tour the data center where calls are routed.

It was pointed out that despite Fennessy’s absence and claim he didn’t want to discuss a labor grievance publicly, he had had time back in March to hold a 45 minute press conference where he refuted the union’s charges, called the union’s response to his changes “politically motivated” and termed Harris’ acts “shameful” – extensively covered by the Peninsula Beacon.

Dave Rice, writing for the San Diego Reader, covered this part of the OBTC meeting in great detail. He quoted Harris as stating:

“This fire chief started about 15 months ago, he brought us down and we had a great meeting and said we should schedule out monthly meetings, so we got on his calendar and scheduled them for a year out. The next month, day of, he can’t make it. Next month, the day before, sorry guys can’t make it. Next month, can’t make it. He cancelled every meeting for 14 months. That is not working together.”

Rice continued:

Harris explained that the change in call routing was similar to more temporary changes that have long been implemented during heavy storms, when the possibility that water rescues will be needed inland rather than along the coast guards normally patrol and where the closest responders are more likely fire personnel. During these times the two emergency dispatch centers merge under the authority of the fire department, of which the lifeguards are themselves a part.

“We have made it quite clear that we embrace lifeguards going down to the fire communications center. – in certain extreme weather circumstances,” Harris explained. “We send our dispatchers down there and establish a joint command. But remember it only rains [heavily] maybe four or five days out of the year.”

The rest of the time, however, guards say they should get water emergency calls directly from police dispatch, who first handle all incoming 911 calls. Harris said that under the previous system, lifeguards could be en route to a potential rescue within 10-15 seconds of receiving a call.

“Their ‘minor change’ means that we’re not getting the calls for at least one to two minutes, sometimes more,” Harris said. “That’s not a minor change when you have potential drowning victims. There’s no reason people in distress should have to wait through three dispatch centers before someone can reach a lifeguard boat or truck that’s likely just minutes away.”

During the meeting, another lifeguard dispatcher got up before the crowd and made this poignant statement:

“Lifeguard dispatchers are veteran lifeguards. Police dispatchers are not cops. Firefighter dispatchers are not firefighters.”

He stressed that these veteran lifeguard dispatchers when handling distress calls, know the water-front geography so well that they usually can determine where the emergency is occurring if the caller is confused.

Both he and Harris pounded home the point that when dealing with swimmers in distress, seconds, minutes are crucial – that timing is very critical in water rescues. Harris stated:

“We have not had a drowning in a guarded area for 18 years, then we’ve had two recently [after the changes]. That has us concerned.”

At the end of their presentation, Harris iterated that lifeguards need the public’s support at a downtown City Council budget hearing, on May 15th at 6pm at City Hall; plus people were urged to call Councilwoman Zapf and the Mayor’s office.

Dave Rice captured one of the final comments of the evening:

One meeting attendee, who identified himself as a CalFire captain (the state’s firefighting service) with 15 years’ experience, voiced his agreement.

“Firemen are jacks of all trades, masters of none,” the captain said. “These guys [lifeguards] are in the water every day – keep up the fight, you guys are doing the right thing.”

For a much more complete accounting of the issue at last night’s meeting, read Rice’s entire piece.

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