Long Beach Lifeguards oppose change to rescue boat staff

LONG BEACH—According to an official statement from the Long Beach Lifeguard Association, city officials are planning to remove all Lifeguard Marine Safety personnel from two of the city’s three rescue boats.

In a detailed release sent by the association, the lifeguards said they were told by the “City Human Resources office on [April 3] that all Lifeguard Marine Safety personnel are being removed from two of the three rescue boats that the lifeguards have used to provide public safety on the waterways in Long Beach for decades.”

The statement says Lifeguard Rescue Boat Operators and Deckhands will be removed from Rescue Boat 1, stationed in Alamitos Bay, and Rescue Boat 2, stationed in Long Beach Downtown Marina. The third rescue boat, which is housed at Marine Stadium, will have all firefighting equipment removed.

“We’ve been told by the city in an official meeting that they will not discuss with us the reason, the why for this change,” said Aaron Fletcher, a Marine Safety officer with the Long Beach Lifeguard Association.

Rich Brandt, the deputy chief of the Fire Department, called the Lifeguard Associations’ statement “a little bit premature.”

“The chief, the city and the association are in a meet and confer right now about the basic job duties of the lifeguards,” Brandt said. “I’m really not at liberty to violate the meet and confer by giving much information out. There are two more meetings set and once those are complete, we’ll have a better idea of exactly what, if any, changes may happen.”

The meetings are scheduled for April 24 and April 30.

The city of Long Beach, along with representatives from Human Resources, declined comment after multiple attempts. Brandt, however, was quick to stress that public safety will not be compromised.

“There were some duties that came to light that whether or not that classification should be doing those duties or not,” Brandt said. “That’s what prompted these meet and confer discussions.”

Randy Foster, the Marine Safety chief, said he would be open to talk about the situation following the meet and confer process.
“I think it’s a little bit too early to be jumping to conclusions as to what’s going to happen because it hasn’t been determined at this time,” he said.

The lifeguards claim they aren’t receiving any concrete answers from Human Resources as to what brought on the discussion.
“When we ask what the impetus is for this, we were told they would not discuss with us the why of this change,” Fletcher said. “I wish I could tell you why.”

Fletcher said a local media report, which suggested that the proposed restructuring was due to two lifeguards recently receiving full workers’ comp benefits from the city after an on-duty accident, may not be the entire reason for the change.

One week after the workers’ comp victory, the Lifeguard Association, according to Fletcher, received a letter from the city saying “they were going to reevaluate the lifeguards’ firefighting duties, either removing those duties entirely or requiring a Firefighter 1 Certificate.”

According to Foster, the plan will not result in staff reductions or demotions. The staffing changes have not been instituted as of yet and no date has been set for implementation.

The three rescue boats in question work in conjunction with the Coast Guard and other marine agencies to provide general boater and public safety. Each boat is staffed with two individuals, a rescue boat operator and deck hand, along with a treasure-trove of gear, including fire suppression equipment and a firefighting pump.

Fletcher said two of the three rescue boats operate at all hours of the day, while one nighttime boat has a rescue diver and the other has a Marine Safety captain. Fletcher added that the lifeguards, who are a part of the Marine Safety Division of the Long Beach Fire Department, respond to calls of water rescue, boats on the rocks, rigging problems, lost rudders, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) calls, sinking vessels and boat fires.

“We haven’t refused any training,” Fletcher said. “We just want to make sure that if we continue to do training, the level of ocean public safety remains high.”

Tom Mayes, the president of the Long Beach Marina Boat Owner’s Association, said he spoke with Rick DuRee, former Long Beach Fire chief, on April 15.

“He and another member of the Fire Department told me that the issue seems to be that the firefighters are required to have someone on one of the rescue boats and that the firemen have agreed to get training in sea rescue operation, which the lifeguards have in their training bag,” Mayes said. “The firemen also want the lifeguards to go through the full complement of firefighter training, which takes several weeks. They then would be qualified and required to take firefighting jobs anywhere they might be assigned in the city.”

Mayes added that DuRee said the firefighters are willing to be trained in water rescue and they want the lifeguards to be trained as fireman.

“My concern and the boat owners concerns right now is that this seems to be sort of a contest between the lifeguards and the firefighters,” Mayes said. “All us boat owners would like to say is that we’re in support of having safe waters and if we have trouble out there, we want people on those rescue boats that are well trained in marine rescue.”

Fletcher added that there are many misconceptions about the lifeguard training. He said to become a part of the Marine Safety Division, individuals have to have four years of lifeguard experience, along with 800 hours of training prior to receiving a Marine Firefighting Certificate through a POST program.

Lifeguards also participate in a week-long training program put on by Orange County Sheriff’s Harbor Patrol and the L.A. County Lifeguards, directed at fighting fires in marine environment, while focusing on such basics as the fire tetrahedron, fire extinguishers, boat construction and more.

“We have not refused any training,” Fletcher said. “The firefighters and us do not have a conflict in this. They have made statements. They are staying completely neutral on this. Obviously they know fire suppression is important…we want to make sure that the marine safety and the public service stays at a high level. We don’t want it diminished.”

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