“We want to work with the new mayor [Bob Filner] and be in concert with his goals as much as we can,” said lifeguard union spokes-man Sgt. Ed Harris. “Part of that for us — and he’s talked about it — is doing infrastructure.”
Certain projects, like the Children’s Pool and La Jolla Cove lifeguard towers, are fully funded and are simply awaiting shovels to start digging.
“The Children’s Pool and Cove tower are big on our list,” said Harris. “We’ve been told for the last three to four years that the Children’s Pool and the Cove towers would get built starting next year. So our goal is to find out why that is not happening.”
Another objective for the lifeguard union is to secure funding for the North Pacific Beach lifeguard station, which is currently in its community-level design phase.
“We have mobile-minis and trailers on just about every beach, so you go down to your beautiful, world-class beach and you see our rusted mobile-minis. Ocean Beach has two of them. Mission Bay has several of them and South Mission Beach, North Pacific Beach and the Children’s Pool each have them, too,” he said. “We’ve really got to get out of the trailer, mobile-mini business and really try to make some progress on facilities.”
The lifeguard union’s next greatest concern is increasing staffing levels for the safety of beachgoers and baygoers along San Diego’s coastline.
“The public pays us for the guards that rescue them,” said Harris. “Our priority is there — lifeguards, not upper management. We want to prioritize guards in the field. In Mission Bay and the surrounding coastline, we want to get to a point where we can manage them again and be proactive, rather than reactive.”
He said the staffing level on the Boating Safety Unit (BSU) is inadequate to handle multiple emergencies, especially in the winter months or at night.
“The BSU hasn’t seen a staffing increase for its winter and night staffing in over 25 years,” he said. “We’re hoping to get two 24-hour positions — two more boating safety officers year-round, 24 hours a day.”
Harris said in the case of the Santa Clara yacht fire in Mission Bay last year, his guards were delayed 16 to 18 minutes in getting to the fire because multiple calls came in at once.
“They started on the rescue boat for the original call, then when the second call came in, which was the fire on Santa Clara, they had to come in and get the fire boat,” he said. “We have the only fire apparatus that doesn’t have dedicated staffing.”
Other staffing objectives include staffing Windansea with a permanent summer lifeguard and countering the attrition of seasoned lifeguards.
“We have a huge attrition problem in the next five years,” Harris said. “The majority of our boating safety officers will be retiring between now and the next six years. That’s a big deal. Historically, it takes seven to eight years to make a level-three [position], and we’ve only done a couple of years, so if we need 25 of them, we’re behind.”
Two years ago, the lifeguard union lobbied for a new fireboat to replace the existing boat that Harris said could break down permanently at any moment. Although the city secured funding for the fireboat, the boat has yet to be ordered.
“It wasn’t until we had a fire that we were taken seriously, especially when they had to tow the fireboat back,” he said. “We got funded for the fireboat in July, but the fireboat hasn’t been ordered yet, so we’re working with the mayor’s office to make them aware of that. It can take up to a year to build it and we’ve needed it the past two years, so it’s got to move forward.”
Harris said he is satisfied with the city’s promptness is getting new engines in the other fireboat, ensuring its use for another 10 years or more.
Another equipment need for lifeguards, Harris said, is a new $450,000 multipurpose cliff rig rated for human loads, also known as Rescue 44.
“It’s a multipurpose river rescue vehicle that we can stock with dive gear, take on cliff rescues and goes on most river calls,” he said. “Lifeguards have had a cliff rig for over 40 years with a crane. That vehicle is done.”
“We’re the only safety service that really doesn’t have an academy that focuses on all the aspects of the job. Ninety percent of what we do is on-the-job training,” Harris said.
Although new guards are trained upon arrival into the force, he said there is not a uniform standard modeled similar to the police and fire departments’ academies.
“One problem is that we don’t always have the numbers,” he said. “One year we might be hiring two, another year we might be hiring 10, so it’s hard for us to figure the structure out.”
Additional goals are recruiting the most adept guards for the safety of beachgoers and encouraging diversity in new recruits.
“The union believes we can make progress in the diversity challenge with proper recruiting. There are phenomenal athletes and swimmers out there, but they don’t know about us and we don’t know about them,” he said. “We have people who are very adept in the water; we just have to reach them.”
In addition to the launch of a wellness-monitoring program, which was funded by the city last year and slated to begin in the coming months, the lifeguard union is also looking to the city and state for clarification of assumed liabilities and coverages, including whether or not city lifeguards are included in the Peace Officer Bill of Rights like police, fire and county lifeguards, and seeking recognition of assumed coverages from exposure to chemicals in the water and other safety hazards inherent to the job.
“Lifeguards have the highest injury rate of any safety service, so we’re looking at these things not only for our own health and wellbeing, but also as our economic saving to the city to prolong our career and prolong our health,” Harris said.