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Who's Guarding Our Lifeguards?

In this job, I see a lot of fundraisers. Political fundraisers, fundraisers for nonprofits that benefit children, women, violence victims, cancer survivors, animals, and schools. You name it, and someone, somewhere, needs money for the cause.

Yesterday, however, was different. They were raising money to cover expenses for a lifeguard who broke his neck while on duty.  A lifeguard who needed our help because the city refused to provide adequate coverage.

I was shocked.

The San Diego Lifesaving Association (SDLA) held an event to help pay the bills for Gareth “Chappy” Chapman, a lifeguard who broke his neck at Windandsea Beach in August during what should have been a routine beach rescue.

Chapman is a seasonal lifeguard. As such, city worker’s comp regulations require his summer’s worth of pay to be divided out over 12 months. While he heals, Chapman is struggling to make ends meet on $250 per week.

We wish Gareth Chapman the best as he continues to get better, and we can only hope he will soon be able to get back to work keeping the people of San Diego safe.

This event highlighted a larger issue for me: How are we treating the public servants who help keep us safe?

Most people don’t know that San Diego Lifeguards are actually part of Fire Department. They also have the authority to make arrests, and they often serve as peace officers. During a major weather event, San Diego City Lifeguards are given jurisdiction over the entire county.

There are about 100 full-time lifeguards and 200 part-time lifeguards working for the City of San Diego. They made 6,500 water rescues in 2014 and are on track to surpass that in 2015.

Lifeguards save lives.

This is San Diego County, after all. We have 70 miles of coastline. We are a beach destination for spring break, Labor Day, weddings, and family vacations. Sand and surf are a massive part of our culture and our economy. One would think that the guardians of such precious resources would be widely respected and treated with dignity.

History has shown this not to be the case.

Two years ago, Brian Zeller, a 24-year veteran of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, made a cliff rescue in Black’s Beach that resulted in torn ligaments, a hernia, and hip-replacement surgery.

The City of San Diego denied Zeller’s worker’s compensation claim, calling his injury a "preexisting condition," and put him on disability leave. Zeller was limited to collecting only 60 percent of his salary and losing all of his benefits. This is appalling. San Diego must face the discrepancy in protections for those who protect us.

Most public-service officers get a benefit called “presumptive coverage.” This means that when an injury is sustained on the job, the person doesn’t have to prove it was work-related to get worker’s compensation. It’s accepted that their jobs are dangerous and that they will get hurt. They serve the public; the public will cover their injuries. It’s the right thing to do.

Police officers have presumptive coverage. Firefighters do too. Lifeguards do not.

In 2013, the San Diego City Council (including Kevin Faulconer) approved a Five-Year Implementation Plan with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department that included extending presumptive coverage to lifeguards. Earlier this year, the mayor decided he is no longer supporting the proposal.


“We’ve been told the last vote about this was along party lines and we won’t get a single Republican vote next time either,” lifeguard spokesperson and former City Councilmember Ed Harris told me.

In order to get the issue out of closed session, the lifeguards need six votes in their favor, meaning one Republican needs to put the health and safety of public servants over partisan politics. If the Republicans do stick together at the next vote, this means that the mayor and the local Republican Party are holding members of the Fire Department ransom solely for the sake of partisan posturing.

In May, when the first storm in months caused flash floods throughout the county, lifeguards rescued people from their cars and homes as the storm water rushed in.  From San Ysidro to Ramona, residents of San Diego County depended on a strong lifeguard presence to protect us through extreme weather that not only brought flooding and destroyed property, but also increased pollution and released toxic chemicals.

After large storms, lifeguards warn the public to stay out of the water for 72 hours. They know first-hand how unsafe it is. They’ve spent their careers wading into a toxic mix of who-knows-what runoff from roads, homes, sewers, construction sites, and industrial leftovers -- to pull a woman from a sinking car, or a child from a flooding home. They’ve developed meningitis and cancer. They’ve risked their lives to save ours.

This issue is set to go to the City Council sometime soon. Please join me in urging the Mayor and Republican councilmembers Zapf, Kersey, and Sherman to support the men and women who put their lives on the line for us.

Lifeguards save lives. Isn’t it about time we stick up for theirs?