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911 Dispatch Part of New Complaint Against City of San Diego

Author: Jeff Powers
Created: 17 May, 2018
Updated: 21 November, 2022
4 min read

The State of California's Public Employment Relations Board (PERB), has filed a complaint on behalf of the California Teamsters Local 911 who represents the San Diego Lifeguard Union.

The union claims the San Diego Fire-Rescue department in coordination with the City of San Diego, engaged in unfair labor practices relating to 911 response times and the reluctance to send the San Diego Lifeguard Swift Water Rescue team to Houston to assist with Hurricane Harvey emergency services.



PERB says the basis for the complaint is twofold:

  1. The Lifeguard union claims they were retaliated against by former San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Brian Fennessey, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department and City of San Diego for speaking out against protocol changes to 911 response times.
  2. The union also claims the changes were made in violation of the Meet and Confer policy as outlined in the Labor Relations manual.

Among the grievances in the complaint:

  1. In January 2017, the Lifeguard union filed a grievance alleging the department attempted to change emergency response protocol that had been in effect for over 30 years, namely, implementing a new 911 call routing procedure when there is inland flooding.
  2. On or after September 6, 2017, the Respondent (City of San Diego), acting through its agents (San Diego Fire-Rescue Department), took adverse action against Unit members by removing 40% of the Unit workforce which have been assigned to the California Office of Emergency Services (CalOES) emergency response team, previously designated by the Respondent to respond to Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in the State of Texas in late August 2017.


As to the first grievance, the decision to change 911 protocols became the subject of news headlines. Those headlines became more intense after a two year old died near Paradise Point at Mission Bay. Lifeguards contend the toddler died due to a delay in response time from the 911 changes made. According to news reports, then San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Fennessey said there was no delay in the response.

The second grievance is connected to the decision to not send the San Diego Lifeguard Swift Water Rescue team to Houston to assist in the emergency efforts related to Hurricane Harvey. That decision prompted an apology letter from Lifeguard to Texas officials. Fire-Rescue Chief Brian Fennessey decided to send the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department instead of the Lifeguard team.


The City of San Diego had 20 days to respond from the date the complaint was filed May 11.

Attorney Cheryl Nolan is the Assistant for Community Outreach in the City Attorney's Office. She issued IVN San Diego the following statement:

"Our office is reviewing the complaint and will defend the City in this action filed by the California Public Employment Relations Board." ~ City Attorney's Office


Attorney Neil Sholander represents the Lifeguard union. Sholander responded to our request for a statement with the following:

"The City’s emergency response to Hurricane Harvey relief in Texas initially failed to include any of the Lifeguards as part of the CalOES attachment.  That reduction in force was retaliation for the Lifeguards’ exercising their rights in seeking to return to the same emergency dispatch protocol successfully followed over 30 years prior to the City making a unilateral change.  PERB clearly understands the gravity of the City’s actions, and we are confident it will issue an order directing the City to cease and desist from its unfair practices and to take affirmative action towards negotiating these matters of public safety in good faith."

Lifeguard union leader and former interim San Diego City Council member Ed Harris sent IVN San Diego the following statement:

"The Lifeguards are passionate about saving lives.  We advised the city that changes to our dispatch policy would create delays to critical rescues. Unfortunately our concerns fell on deaf ears.  On March 12, 2017 Farhan Selehi drown on Mission bay, while lifeguards were less than two minutes away, the call was sent to Fire dispatch rather than Lifeguard dispatch. This can never happen again. Our guards were also kept from assisting those in Texas during Hurricane Harvey. We were packed and ready, but not allowed to go. We were then retaliated against for speaking out. Our state equipment and team positions were taken away and given to firefighters. It is our goal to ensure we continue to provide the best service possible."

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