SAN DIEGO (NEWS 8/CNS) - A San Diego lifeguard sergeant who sued the city earlier in the year over water-rescue response times said Tuesday that the city's fire chief has blocked a lifeguard river rescue team from responding to the Hurricane Harvey disaster in Texas.
San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Chief Brian Fennessy responded Tuesday afternoon and brought up several reasons why no team of lifeguards has been sent to Houston, including lack of training and equipment resources.
In an open letter to Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and the mayor and citizens of Houston, lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, a former interim City Council member who finished third in the mayoral race last year, wrote that his team packed its bags last week and readied its boats as it watched Hurricane Harvey approaching the Gulf Coast.
"They waited for the call to go that would surely come quickly. It did not," wrote Harris. "On Saturday, our team was informed to unpack and take the boats over to the fire department ... We are sickened that Chief Brian Fennessey has blocked our response."
Chief Fennessy called Hariss' claim false and added, "It's absolutely inappropriate to politicize and personalize this disaster when Texans are suffering and this disaster isn't over yet."
He went on to describe Harvey response activities as "outside the scope of lifeguard aquatic duties."
"The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department responds quickly and professionally to all emergencies. The training and certification requirements to be a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue California Task Force 8 (CA-TF8) are very strict. Our lifeguards do not meet the minimum qualifications. No one is allowed on the team if they do not have the appropriate minimum qualifications. These are not our rules, these are FEMA rules, and they are meant to ensure standardization of responses in emergencies. The majority of the work performed by these teams is outside of the scope of lifeguard aquatic duties."
SDFRD spokeswoman Monica Munoz said Monday that 24 members of the SDFRD were on their way to Texas as part of the Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 8, a specialized team of rescuers from more than 21 agencies around the county. That task force specializes in large-scale urban disasters, and more specifically confined space search-and-rescue operations when structures have collapsed, according to the city of San Diego.
According to the Task Force 8 website, the team also has extensive experience responding to hurricane disasters after deploying to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in on the Gulf Coast in 2005; Hurricane Ernesto, which struck the east coast in 2006; and the busy hurricane season of 2008 that saw Gustav, Ike and Hanna all wreak havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
But Harris included in his statement that the lifeguard river rescue team is "nationally recognized" and it also "spent weeks rescuing people during Hurricane Katrina." He said even after the team was told Saturday to give its boats to SDFRD, the team members remained ready and willing to head to Texas.
"Our team stayed packed and readied more boats and asked to go," Harris wrote in the letter he released Monday night. "Sunday came and we listened to your pleas for help; still we (were) not sent. (Monday) some guards and I asked for time off so that we could drive our own boats and trucks on our own time. We planned to be there by 3 p.m. Tuesday. This was in response to your cries for anyone with a boat. We were denied vacation to come help you. The Coast Guard reports through CNN that there are thousands in need and the worst is yet to come, (but) still we sit here. We have plenty of staff to send, but we are blocked."
Fennessy acknowledged local lifeguard teams' role in providing aid during Hurricane Katrina, but cited an interstate agreement called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) as the reason for its allowance. He also pointed towards the allocation of state-provided boats to other response teams involving SDFRD firefighters as another reason for keeping lifeguards at bay here in San Diego.
"As it stands now, all eight Urban Search & Rescue teams in California are deployed to Texas and are required to take CalOES boats on deployment. This means our CalOES SWR team would not be called because they don't have the required equipment. Again, there are strict rules to follow with regard to the equipment used on these teams. They will not accept boats not provided by the state."
Harris said he and the members of the river rescue team are "saddened that there are moms, grandmas and children that we could rescue if we were only allowed to go help."
Harvey, which is now a tropical storm, made landfall in Texas on Friday night as a Category 4 hurricane before moving back over the Gulf of Mexico. It has already dropped close to 50 inches of rain in some areas near Houston and caused catastrophic flooding in Houston and the surrounding areas. The Houston police chief said Monday morning that authorities had already made at least 2,000 rescues in the city.
Harris, also the leader of the local lifeguard union, is no stranger to disputes with the fire department. Earlier this year the lifeguard union, which is part of Teamsters Local 911, filed a grievance in opposition to the change in dispatching procedure for inland water rescues. And last month he filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego accusing Fennessey of "purposefully and recklessly manipulating public-safety data and procedures in order to rationalize an expansion of the fire department's personnel."
In the lawsuit, he claimed funneling 911 calls for inland water-related emergencies to the city's fire department dispatch instead of lifeguard dispatch had caused confusion and delayed response, with one such incident involving a 2-year-old at Mission Bay Park.
But city officials countered that reassigning such calls to the SDFRD dispatch center was a necessary move because the lifeguards' system, which only allows for two calls to be answered at a time, tended to be quickly overwhelmed, forcing some 911 calls to go unanswered during high-volume periods, such as in severe storm conditions.
"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 told reporters in March.
According to Fennessy, emergency response times had improved as of March, not worsened, since the dispatch change went into effect in January. The procedural revision has resulted in no calls going unanswered during extreme storm conditions this year, the chief asserted
Here is Chief Fennessy's full statement:
"In short, Ed Harris' claim is false. It's absolutely inappropriate to politicize and personalize this disaster when Texans are suffering and this disaster isn't over yet.
The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department responds quickly and professionally to all emergencies. The training and certification requirements to be a member of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Urban Search & Rescue California Task Force 8 (CA-TF8) are very strict. Our lifeguards do not meet the minimum qualifications. No one is allowed on the team if they do not have the appropriate minimum qualifications. These are not our rules, these are FEMA rules, and they are meant to ensure standardization of responses in emergencies. The majority of the work performed by these teams is outside of the scope of lifeguard aquatic duties.The task force responds to all types of disasters. For example: CA-TF8 was deployed to New York City and Washington, DC after September 11, 2001 and Atlanta during the Olympic Games. The 210 members of CA-TF8 train year round and have done so for more than 20 years.
It is accurate that our lifeguards responded during Hurricane Katrina, but this was not because of a FEMA activation. It was through a state to state agreement called the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC). The lifeguards were part of the ten member swift water rescue (SWR) team for this event. This team was led by a San Diego Fire-Rescue battalion chief and included four firefighters who provided paramedic services, logistics and communications support.
As it stands now, all eight Urban Search & Rescue teams in California are deployed to Texas and are required to take CalOES boats on deployment. This means our CalOES SWR team would not be called because they don't have the required equipment. Again, there are strict rules to follow with regard to the equipment used on these teams. They will not accept boats not provided by the state. In addition, California must maintain capacity in the event SWR teams are needed in our state. There are 13 total swift water rescue teams in California. All teams are staffed by firefighters; even Los Angeles County's team which has a larger lifeguard division than ours.
On August 28, 2017, the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services Fire and Rescue Division shared a statement from the International Association of Fire Chiefs regarding self-dispatching to emergency response and recovery locations. The statement reads in part, "In major disasters, such as Hurricane Harvey, the fire service needs to be disciplined in its response, ready and available to the local community and, when requested, ready and available to respond to a major disaster, should a call for assistance be received from that jurisdiction." The statement also includes, "FEMA encourages those who wish to volunteer in response to Hurricane Harvey to visit National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (NVOAD) to find members taking volunteers."
SDFD is proud and honored to be members of the FEMA team and will continue to meet and maintain the high level of standards and training required so that we may continue to support cities in their time of need."