San Diego Fire-Rescue officials defend new dispatch system, dispute lifeguard union's claims

SAN DIEGO (CNS) - San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Brian Fennessy and other city officials worked Wednesday to refute claims that changes to dispatching procedures that route inland water rescue calls to the fire department instead of directly to lifeguards delay responses and cause confusion.

Lifeguard union leader Ed Harris said the changes have caused responses to take longer, including in the case of a near-drowning of a child in Mission Bay over the weekend. He wrote in a recent op-ed in the OB Rag that costs increase when firefighters and fire engines are sent to calls historically handled by lifeguards, and fewer fire department resources are available for other emergencies.

"We cannot afford to have the Fire Department divert our trainers, personnel and budget," Harris wrote. "Teaching Fire Fighters how to swim and perform river rescue is not acceptable."

The lifeguard union, which is part of Teamsters Local 911, has filed a grievance in opposition to the changes.

Fire officials countered that forwarding inland water rescue calls to the fire department dispatch center was necessary because the lifeguards' system, which only allows for two calls to be answered at a time, is quickly overwhelmed. That leads to some 911 calls going unanswered during high-volume periods, such as in severe storm conditions.

Fennessy said emergency response times have actually improved since the dispatch change. The minor change has resulted in no calls going unanswered during extreme storm conditions this year, and provides firefighters and lifeguards with another chance to collaborate.

"Lifeguards and firefighters are dispatched to inland water rescues simultaneously and within seconds of 911 calls -- far faster than lifeguard dispatch is able to accomplish," Fennessy said at a mid-morning briefing at the department's Metro Zone Emergency Command & Data Center. "The decision to have inland water rescue calls forwarded from San Diego police to this center has resulted in significant public safety improvements."

Fennessy said called Harris' allegation that the change has been causing serious confusion "patently false."

"There's been no confusion on the part of the police and the fire-rescue department dispatchers and there have been no delays as a result of this change," Fennessy said. He added that Sunday's rescue call involving a child in Mission Bay was not delayed.

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