By Janine Zúñiga, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
IMPERIAL BEACH — After changing into their wet suits on a stormy Sunday in March, off-duty Imperial Beach lifeguards Aaron Quintanar and Hans Fernan joined a gathering of grieving surfers in a paddle-out paying homage to a fallen friend. Mourners atop surfboards joined hands. Several tearfully recounted old times and shared their deep sense of loss.
Two weeks later, Quintanar and Fernan were fired for violating an unwritten city rule prohibiting the use of a lifeguard tower to suit up before heading into contaminated water. Signs posted that March 7 morning noted that the beach was polluted with runoff from the rain that began falling the night before.
Now the surfing community is rallying behind the pair, saying the punishment went overboard.
“This just compounds the wounds,” said Imperial Beach resident and surfer Greg Hughes. “They fired two great guys that have spent a good portion of their lives training to save lives in Imperial Beach. Both lifeguards are great watermen and do their jobs because they love this community and want to help make it safe. These guys volunteer to train lifeguards in Mexico on their own time.”
Imperial Beach officials say the city has a long-standing directive aimed at making lifeguards role models for beachgoers.
“We want (lifeguards) to set a good example for the rest of the community to not go swimming in polluted water,” City Manager Gary Brown said. “We want to discourage people from doing that so our lifeguards don’t have to rescue people in polluted water.”
Beach closures immediately north of Mexico are routine. The city’s beach has been closed for 35 days this year due to runoff, mostly after heavy rains.
The former lifeguards understand what they did was wrong but say it is being taken out of context.
“We weren’t down here because the surf was 6 feet or to have fun,” said Quintanar, 45, as he sat near the Imperial Beach pier last week. “I was in a fog. I just showed up. It was a cold, rainy, ugly day. I didn’t think about contamination. Hans didn’t see the signs. I don’t recall seeing them.”
City officials would not comment further about the dismissals because they are a personnel matter.
The paddle-out was for Britt Clamp, who died in a motorcycle accident in February in the El Centro desert. Quintanar said he and Clamp became close friends after Clamp moved to Imperial Beach in 1980. Clamp was well-liked among surfers, about 50 of whom attended the memorial north of the pier.
Quintanar, who earned just under $20 an hour, has 600 rescues over 26 years as a seasonal lifeguard, most in Imperial Beach. Fernan, a 15-year veteran, was selected in 2001 as one of the country’s top five favorite lifeguards in a national contest.
Both say they weren’t treated fairly and would accept any appropriate disciplinary action if they could get their jobs back.
“I think it’s worth fighting,” said Fernan, 37, who earned about $2.50 more an hour than Quintanar because of a previously held supervisor position.
Keeping lifeguards from polluted waters is not unusual. Lt. Nick Lerma with San Diego Lifeguard Services said San Diego has a policy prohibiting lifeguards from going into polluted water while on duty, except for rescues.
But, Lerma said, “We don’t have anything that says they can’t go into the water on their time off.”
He also said that as far as changing in a city facility, “we haven’t spelled that out for anybody.”
Word of the firings has spread among surfers, some of whom are asking elected leaders to intercede. Many have been sharing the news via e-mail.
Brent Jex, an attorney with Keegan & Baker, a San Diego firm specializing in employment litigation, said California law “is really broad in terms of giving employers the right to fire for basically any situation.” He said there are exceptions, such as exercising one’s First Amendment rights.
“I’m not sure a lifeguard could fall into this,” Jex said. “Religious practice, freedom of speech, there might be some protection in there. I would need to research it more.”
Quintanar said he was contacted by city officials April 26 to see if he and Fernan wanted to discuss the matter, but the meeting was canceled.