They're well-practiced at water rescues — 9000 last year — and at handling boats. They practice swift-water rescues and perform them, most often in Mission Valley and the Tijuana River Valley. They've deployed to floods and worked the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But they are sitting in San Diego, despite asking to be sent to Houston for more than four days — and then being denied time off so they could go where their skills are badly needed now.
So, the San Diego Lifeguards sent a letter of apology to the people of Houston and Texas governor Gregg Abbott: "As professional lifeguards, we are saddened that there are moms, grandmas and children that we could rescue if we were only allowed to go help," the letter says. "It is with heavy hearts that we send this apology. We can only hope that if our families were in need, someone would come."
The Federal Emergency Management Administration continues to call for help, asking Houston and nearby boat owners to put their boats in service for rescues. But the lifeguards are sidelined while fire chief Brian Fennessy sent 45 firefighters to help.
"They ordered us to give our boats to the fire department, and we did," says lifeguard Sgt. Ed Harris. "We have a Cal [Office of Emergency Services] trailer full of floats and boats. Our guys loaded it and waited for the call, Thursday, Friday, Saturday... They called us and told us to unload the trailer and bring them to the fire department." As they waited, the lifeguards made their own plans, Harris said.
"We asked for time off. We can be there by tomorrow morning if we drive all night," he said. But they were told they couldn't have time off — if they went, it would be considered "job abandonment," grounds for firing them.
"Instead, my guys are sitting around while people die, feeling just sick to their stomachs," Harris said. Harris posted the letter to Facebook Monday night (August 28) and immediately got a response from Stephen Puetz, who left his position as mayor Kevin Faulconer's chief of staff in mid-July.
"Ed Harris is a disgusting hack for politicizing this. He knows damn well that the city of San Diego sent 35 personnel and 10 drivers to Houston," Puetz wrote. "This is a long-standing lifeguard union dispute with the city and the city's fire department — and Ed Harris is the union's rep. Absolutely shameful that he'd politicize this."
Harris, a former Marine, also ran for mayor against Faulconer in 2016 and scored 19 percent of the vote. He'd already served as city councilman in the District 2 seat Faulconer vacated to replace Bob Filner as mayor. Harris heads the lifeguard union, which has been at odds with the city, most recently over the decision to route lifeguard 911 calls to the fire department.
"A child died because of a four-minute delay with the fire department," Harris said. "That's the point. They sent our calls to the fire department and the delay cost a family their child." In March, fire chief Fennessy held a press conference where he blasted Harris and shamed the lifeguards for their anger over changes in the 911 dispatch policy.
But Harris is adamant that this is about people with the will, the skill, the gear, the experience, and the commitment to rescue people in water disasters, like the one unfolding in the wake of Hurricane Harvey in Houston.
"We're sidelined at a time that Houston and FEMA are asking for help from any able citizen," Harris said