A San Diego Lifeguard Swift Water Rescue team — at the center of a dispute over San Diego’s emergency response to Hurricane Harvey — will likely be sent Wednesday to aid the search and rescue efforts in the wake of the storm’s devastation, officials said.
Lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris, the head of the lifeguards union in San Diego and a former interim city councilman, had accused the fire chief of blocking the team’s deployment, but the chief said Tuesday that assistance from the lifeguards had not been requested.
That changed later Tuesday.
“President Trump visited Texas (Tuesday) afternoon, and shortly thereafter there was a call for the deployment of 100 swift water rescue teams from around the country to help with recovery efforts,” San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokeswoman Monica Munoz said Tuesday night. “(The California Office of Emergency Services) is still waiting for the formal request but expects to order its 13 swift water rescue teams, including one based in San Diego, to head to Texas.”
That team will be led by a SDFRD battalion chief and consist of two addition Fire-Rescue personnel and 11 lifeguards.
In an open letter to Texas Governor Gregg Abbott and in a news conference early Tuesday, Harris accused SDFRD chief Brian Fennessy of blocking the lifeguard team’s deployment after the lifeguards packed and readied several boats as Harvey approached the Gulf Coast.
“We are sickened that Chief Brian Fennessy has blocked our response,” Harris wrote in the letter also addressed to Houston’s mayor and residents.
Fennessy responded with a news conference of his own at which he explained that San Diego already sent rescuers — Urban Search and Rescue California Task Force 8, which specializes in large-scale urban disasters — and deployment decisions were being made by FEMA and state emergency services offices.
“There is a system that provides the resources during these types of disasters,” he said. “I can’t just send them down there because they want to go.”
Harvey, now a tropical storm, first made landfall Friday over Texas. Flooding from the rain has displaced thousands, caused at least 30 confirmed or suspected deaths and dropped more rain than any previous storm in U.S. history, with more than 50 inches in some areas. It moved back over the Gulf of Mexico before making landfall again Wednesday morning in Louisiana.
Harris said in his letter that even when asked to stand down Saturday, his team remained prepared.
“Our team stayed packed and readied more boats and asked to go,” Harris wrote in the letter he released Monday night. “We have plenty of staff to send, but we are blocked.”
Fennessy said he was “profoundly, profoundly disappointed in lifeguard Sgt. Harris,” who he accused of lying about the response and “politicizing his own agenda.”
The dispute was not the first time Harris has squared off publicly with the fire chief and 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 Harris filed a lawsuit against the city of San Diego accusing Fennessy of “purposefully and recklessly manipulating public-safety data and procedures in order to rationalize an expansion of the fire department’s personnel.”
City officials countered that reassigning calls to the SDFRD dispatch instead of lifeguard dispatch 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.
—City News Service
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