San Diego Fire Chief and Lifeguard Sergeant in war of words over Hurricane Harvey rescue efforts

Chief says lifeguard is lying
Posted at 5:33 PM, Aug 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-08-29 21:09:12-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) -- A war of words pitted San Diego’s Fire Chief against one of his Lifeguard sergeants. The two disagreed over why the San Diego Lifeguard Swift Water Rescue team was not sent to Texas to help with Hurricane Harvey rescues before Tuesday.


“[The team] expected to get the call. No call. Friday came. No call,” said Lifeguard Sergeant Ed Harris.

Harris said the team is ready to go within an hour’s notice but sat in San Diego all weekend.

“I’m sickened by it. My guards are calling me and they’re saying, ‘What’s up? We wouldn’t watch people drown at the beach,’” said Harris, who is also the president of the lifeguard’s union.

Monday, Sgt. Harris wrote an open letter to the Texas Governor, Mayor of Houston, and citizens of Houston apologizing for not being there.  The letter pointed the blame at Fire Chief Brian Fennessy and California Chief of Special Operations Doug Nakama.  The letter said the two blocked the lifeguard rescue team from leaving San Diego.

“We’re listening to the Texas mayor saying, ‘If you have a boat come help us,” said Harris.

RELATED: San Diego Lifeguards apologize to Texas officials in letter

“The Governor did not ask for, nor did the Mayor ask for all comers,” countered Chief Fennessy. “In fact, self-deploying to emergencies like this is frowned upon. It’s discouraged.”

Fennessy hosted a news conference Tuesday afternoon to explain the department’s perspective.

“To represent that we or the system failed in sending him or lifeguards out is just a flat lie,” Fennessy said about Harris.

Fennessy explained assets in emergencies like Harvey cannot be activated by anyone but the Federal Emergency Management Agency or a state-to-state agreement called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact.

“The State of California has not received any requests through EMAC state-to-state for swift water rescue teams,” he declared.

“Sergeant Harris probably doesn’t understand the complexities [of the system],” said Lifeguard Chief Rick Wurts.

Harris said some members of the swift water rescue team petitioned to take emergency vacation time to go to Texas on their own.

“I can’t grant individuals leave if you’re at work,” said Fennessy. “‘Hey Chief, I’d like to take off today. Can you cover all my shifts? I’m going to load up all my stuff and go to Texas.’ No, it’s not the way it works.”

Fennessy added the city already sent roughly 24 firefighters with an Urban Search and Rescue team, which was in Katy, Texas Tuesday afternoon.  He said those firefighters are trained in water rescues but can also operate machinery lifeguard aren’t trained to use.

“You have to breach those buildings. You have to be trained in how to use some of the tools that are being carried there. That’s not a thing that lifeguards do day-to-day,” he said.

Harris also called out San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer to overrule the firefighter superiors.

“What we’re asking is for the mayor to say, ‘Go.’ For the mayor of San Diego to show leadership and say, ‘Go,’” said Harris.

In a statement issued to 10News, Mayor’s spokesman Craig Gustafson said,

“The leadership of the lifeguard union should be ashamed for using a national tragedy as a weapon in its current labor dispute with the City. The fact is that the City has deployed significant, appropriately-trained resources to help with recovery efforts and will continue to send additional personnel as we receive requests from agencies such as FEMA and Cal OES. We will not allow anyone trying to score cheap political points to take our focus away from what matters most – helping the victims of Hurricane Harvey.”

Late Tuesday afternoon, 10News learned the San Diego Lifeguard's Swift Water Rescue team received word to stand by.  

Their destination was not yet known as of broadcast Tuesday night.