San Diego lifeguards want to separate from Fire-Rescue Department

City of San Diego lifeguards voted this week in favor of separating from the Fire-Rescue Department, a move they say would save money, improve safety and boost staff morale.

The proposal to create a separate Marine Safety Department would need support from Mayor Kevin Faulconer and the City Council.

The lifeguards’ labor union voted in favor of the proposal with 80 percent support on Wednesday. Leaders of the union say they now plan to begin lobbying elected officials.

There has been increasing tension between the union and Faulconer since union president Ed Harris ran unsuccessfully against Faulconer for mayor in 2016.

“The Marine Safety Department is essential for San Diego lifeguards to do our jobs effectively and to keep the public safe,” Harris said in a news release. “What we’re asking is that the mayor and City Council consider the merits of our argument and act swiftly.”

Faulconer spokesman Craig Gustafson said the mayor doesn’t think creating another layer of bureaucracy will make beaches or neighborhoods safer.

“The mayor strongly believes that San Diegans are best served by the current structure and sees no compelling reason why that should change,” he said.

The union says the expertise of lifeguards is suffering as the city tries to integrate them into firefighting efforts.

“Being absorbed into the bureaucracy of the Fire Department has been terrible for morale among front-line lifeguards,” said Dana Nelson, one of the city’s 102 full-time guards. “What we see is that lifeguarding as a profession is set to disappear in San Diego.”

With tourism a key local economic engine, the union says it’s crucial to have the highest quality lifeguard service possible.

In its news release, the union says a separate Marine Safety Department would also save the city hundreds of thousands of dollars and increase public safety on the coastline, on cliffs and in waterways. They don’t explain how.

Lifeguards were part of the city’s Police Department and Parks and Recreation Department before becoming part of Fire-Rescue. In addition to 102 full-time guards, the city typically hires 200 seasonal guards to boost summer staffing.

City lifeguards are responsible for between 7,000 and 9,000 water and cliff rescues each year. (619) 269-8906 Twitter:@UTDavidGarrick

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