Duty to Act: Needless Drowning in Alameda

A tragic drowning in Alameda California has left the public stunned and the media smelling blood in the water – all because police officers and firefighters stood by and watched.

The incident occurred yesterday, and here is the news footage.

The headline could just have easily read:

  • Firefighters blame lawyers for downing death – liability concerns too great or
  • Dammed if you do dammed if you don’t – sued by deceased’s family or cited by OSHA, pick your poison
  • How far do we go in the name of safety?

One thing is for sure, the government bean counters and tax control fanatics were no where to be found for an interview, and will likely remain in hiding on this one. Left standing to take the brunt of the political backlash are the first responders.

Regardless of how you feel you would have personally acted under the circumstances, the reality is that some policy maker in government made a decision not to provide funding for this kind of eventuality. Like bean counters everywhere they made a conscious decision to roll to proverbial dice. Usually, first responders (particularly firefighters) get them off the hook by risking their lives to overcome the obstacles, be it fighting fires despite being dangerously understaffed, using outdated equipment, or 1970s style safety practices. This time the first responders didn’t take up the slack. Part of me wants to say shame on them… but there’s a bigger story.

I am interested to see if the blame will reach the bean counters this time, or will it stop with the first responders.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Jason

    Cant seem to find it online but didnt a similar occurance happen in Pittsburg Several years ago. Suicidal, allegedly mentally unstable individual on bridge jumps into river. Person unbale to swim. PD and FD who are on scene opt not to attempt rescue. An “off duty” lifeguard swam out and brought him to shore sparking controversy. From what I recall PD stated that they were not going to risk themselves for an individual who clearly didnt want to be rescued. Interested to see what fallout/litigation arose from this incident.

  • Jason – I am not familair with the Pittsburgh case but would like to add it to my database if we can get the details.

  • John

    I will maintain that the firefighters acted appropriately, although I’m sure they didn’t like what was happening.

    A suicidal subject goes into the water of his own volition and stays there while Fire/Police ask him to come back to shore. Say a firefighter goes into the water in a survival suit to the man and gets stabbed. Isn’t this a police situation until he is confirmed to be non-threatening? If EMS responds to a suicidal person they wait for PD to make sure the scene is safe. Does that change just because he is standing in 5 feet of water?

    Attempting rescues like this without the proper training and equipment usually results in the death of the rescuer. Are the firefighters trained lifeguards? Can those who were on scene even swim? Maybe not. Even if the guy doesn’t have a weapon, what if he panics and tries to drown the rescuer? 90% of lifeguard training is learning to protect yourself from a panicked swimmer.

    Is there a written agreement with the USCG to provide this service? Isn’t that what the taxpayers want, less duplication of services? I seem to remember articles complaining about lifeguards making $200K in California. Where were they?

    This is a failure by the City management and the USCG. The City chose not to pay for lifeguards or water rescue training. USCG was on scene promptly and their functions were those in demand. They did not act or brought the wrong equipment. Would anyone feel better if a cop or firefighter had died attempting the rescue?

    • Interesting John. How about the fact the person who ended up going after the victim was a civilian? Should they have prevented her from attempting the rescue if it was so dangerous?

  • mike prescott

    I am embarrassed and ashamed for the peace officers and firefighters. “Protect and Serve”?. How about just being human? Don’t blame bean counters and regulations; have some guts. They should quit so they don’t get fired, sue the county and collect big awards.

    I was in the Coast Guard (search and rescue), many years ago, so I am ashamed for them, as well.

    • Ben Waller

      So, when your taxpayers and city management intentionally strip the public safety departments of the ability to train and equip their people to do water rescues, that somehow makes the firefighters and cops obligated to join in a suicide attempt?

      The cops and firefighters in question were not lifeguards or Coasties. It is unreasonable to expect them to have that background since their taxpayers and their city intentionally limited their water rescue capabilities. Contrary to public belief, public safety personnel do not have an obligation to die to appease unrealistic public perceptions.

      • Action Jackson

        So a female passerby/citizen can muster up the courage and bravery to take action and effect a rescue but a fully equipped group of professionals couldn’t figure out a solution or muster up the courage to just do the right thing? I call bullshit.

        • Action Jackson

          This is not about courage or bravery. Where do you come up with that? Are you saying the personnel did not enter the water out of fear? Do you have any basis what so ever for that conclusion, or is it just to be condescending?

          This is about what level of services elected officials have chosen to provide, not about the bravery of the firefighters. I understand this is an emotional issue for many but to imply that the personnel acted out of fear is just baseless. Say they made a bad decision, say you disagree with their decision, but its just absurd to suggest they failed to act out of fear.

          • Tiffany

            Though they are not allowed to enter the water, their regs state they are allowed to provide a 75 foot rope. They didn’t do that.

            With the false security of their presence, no one took any action until Raymond started floating. I believe that a human chain or even a rope for security if things went awry while trying to ask Raymond, who was mentally ill – NOT SUICIDAL, what he was doing in the water could have had an impact. He was showing no signs of violence nor struggle.

            He was also still alive when he came out of the water. Rumor has it that AFD didn’t follow protocol there either for the situation. A trauma such as this should be dispatched to Highland trauma unit as they have the proper equipment to handle such a situation, Alameda Hospital does not.

            They may not have failed out of fear, but as I see it – they failed. Failed BIG.

        • Ben Waller

          Action Jackson,

          You made several statements with no evidence to back your assumptions.

          As Curt already said, this isn’t about courage/bravery.

          The rescuers were NOT equipped for water rescue. Your claim that they were is specious.

          They did figure out a solution – they followed their standard practice and called the Coast Guard. The Coasties didn’t put their boat crew in the water to attempt a rescue, despite the fact that they had more water rescue training and equipment than the firefighters and police. That doesn’t add up.

          The firefighters and cops absolutely did the right thing. They kept the fatility count to a single suicidal person who wanted to die.

          Your position is not supportable by the facts. The only one of your statements that’s accurate is that the civilian was a female.

          • Tiffany

            No one “knows” if he wanted to die. This is way premature right now. He was, mentally ill…perhaps not suicidal.

  • Mike

    I think we all feel that way – but at the same time how can you just blame them? Some bean counter that has never had to carry a body bag, never worn turnout gear, never had to make a life and death decision – put them in that position. Why shouldn’t he/she be called to task? Why do just the first responders take the hit, and someone who is just as responsible, if not more so, get’s a free pass?

  • ltfd seattle

    This incident was not a failure on the part of the USCG; they are mandated to COORDINATE maritime rescue efforts in navigable waterways. They MAY perform rescue activities if they have appropriate resources and properly trained personnel available.

    In this instance they responded with personnel trained in boat-based surface water rescue (not certified to enter the water for rescue). However, they were unable to access the patient due to the draft limitations of the USCG vessel on scene- the patient was in shallow water (obviously).

    A USCG Rescue Swimmer (trained/certified to enter the water for rescue) was en route, via helicopter, but did not arrive in time to intervene.

    NFPA 1670 & 1006 address the program and training requirements for Fire Department Technical Rescue Programs, including boat-based & dive-based rescue activities.

    • ltfdseattle

      I agree – I do not see how its the Coast Guard’s problem unless there was some sort of special agreement with the local community.

    • Ben Waller

      Excusing the Coast Guard for not making a water entry rescue because they are trained to rescue from a boat while blaming the firefighters and cops who had NO training or equipment with which to make a water entry rescue is invoking an extreme double standard.

    • Ben Waller

      NFPA 1006 and NFPA 1670 do not require any fire department to perform any kind of technical rescue, anywhere, at any time.

      Each department must evaluate the local personnel abilities and training and equipment costs before deciding whether or not to provide a given service.

      The simple existance of a voluntary standard doesn’t obligate anyone to follow it, much less to provide a given service type. Those things are local decisions for local public safety services.

      • Action Jackson

        Standing up and doing the right thing doesn’t have a code, that’s why it took a private citizen to get the job done. It is people and mentality like yours that we’re even discussing this in the first place. This is not a treacherous beach, it was not a rough day, you could walk most of the way out there.

        • Action Jackson

          Listen, if what you are saying is true (and I have no reason to doubt it) then it should be dealt with on the facts. If the firefighters and police were derelict in their duties then they deserve what ever is coming to them.

          However, it seems to me you are arguing two contradictory points. Up above you accused the firefighters of cowardice – of being afraid of the dangerous conditions and here you say there was no danger. Evidently you think this sitation is 100% their fault and you will spin the facts as it suits you to make your point.

          Fine – let’s say the firefighters in this case were 100% are at fault.

          So leave things the way they are. The community can save the $20,000 they were going to spend to restart the water rescue progam and all is well again in Alameda.

          And next week it might be two kids on a raft that float out under truly treacherous conditions… the Coast Guard can’t get there in time and guess what – ALAMEDA FIRE WOULD STILL NOT BE ABLE TO RESCUE THEM.

          My point – a policy change was needed and in my opinion the person or persons who eliminated the program need to answer some questions.

          I agree – people should stand up and do the right thing. That includes admitting when you are wrong and someone in Alameda government has not stood up yet and said “What were we thinking when we eliminated that program”.

          • Ben Waller

            Well said, again, Curt.

        • Ben Waller

          What mentality is that? The mentality that firefighters and police officers don’t have an obligation to join in a mentally disturbed person’s suicide attempt?

          The mentality that people that are not trained and equipped for water rescue shouldn’t enter the water?

          The mentality that knows enough to read the Coast Guard statistics that tell us that the most common cause of drowning is not wearing a life jacket – life jackets that the responders at the scene reportedly did not have?

          The mentality that tells me that ANY time rescuers enter a body of water, the risks are escalated? Doing it without a life jacket is potentially suicidal. Not a treacherous beach? I call B.S. on that one. ANY beach in a large bay connected to the open ocean is “treacherous”.

          Were you there? Can you tell me the tide state? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that there were no undertows or rip current hazards? Can you tell me with absolute certainty that the responders were even swimmers?

          I can walk most of the way through a lot of life-threatening situations, including some involving moving water. That doesn’t make it smart, appropriate, or necessary.

  • Tyler

    I think the hardest part of this for the firefighters is doing nothing but watching. They don’t have any water rescue training due to their budget and do not have the right equipment, and now the public wants to blame first responders. I am glad that no first responders died while trying to perform a rescue without the proper training. If a firefighter had been drowned by the unstable victim, then someone would have said, the firefighters shouldn’t have been in there without proper training. Apparently the guy had some mental issues. The responders didn’t make him go out there. I think it sucks for all parties involved but this shouldn’t relfect on any of the responders. Time to have all the bean counters explain why they cut programs. I am sure the lawsuit will cost more than the training.

    • Tyler

      I see elected and appointed officials make decisions every day that impact public and firefighter safety – but I have yet to see one step forward after a disaster like this and take responsibility for their part in the outcome. They expect firefighters to accept responsibility for their decisions and conduct – but when it comes to themselves they run and hide, or point fingers elsewhere.

  • cc

    The police arrived while the man was still standing in the water and watched for over an hour as he drowned. He then “bobbed” in the water for at least 30 minutes while they watched with binoculars. They did nothing. There was no boat and the helicopter did not arrive until after he had been pulled from the water. He was only 100 yards off the shoreline and the water was not choppy. Because there were no attempts made by the police, an off-duty nurse dove in and dragged the man to the shoreline. It was sickening and absolutely unacceptable. In my opinion, the Alameda police and fire departments are responsible for this mans death.

  • John

    I’d like to say as the incident commander, if a civilian with exactly the skill set we need shows up at the command post offering to do something we can’t do then let em go for it. But they would need to know the hazards involved, and even then I’m sure their family and lawyers would have a field day dissecting that decision if something goes wrong. You’re the lawyer;) what kind of liability would the City assume by allowing the civilian to make the attempt?

    • John

      In theory that sounds plausible – but think it through a bit more. How would you as an IC evaluate a person’s skill set in the context of an actual incident? How would you defend yourself in the event she is killed trying to make a rescue that you have already concluded is too dangerous for your own personnel to make? My cross examination of the IC in such a case would start with “So let me get this straight chief, you made a decision that the conditions were too dangerous for your firefighters to enter the water, isn’t that correct? And this women who you never met before came up and volunteered to help, right? – So of course you warned the young woman who offered to go out there into those dangerous conditions that in your expertice it was too dangerous for your personnel to enter the water, right? You warned her? And you checked her credentials, right? Because that is what the reasonably prudent IC would have done? Now tell us exactly how you evaluated her skill set?”

      This is a loser from the start.

      • John

        Yep, all that went through my mind. Even if someone carries their certs in their car, how would you know they are not forged?

        On the other hand, she went and did it anyway without the approval of the authorities-how far can you go to stop someone from doing what the nurse did?

        • John

          That is a great point! Should the IC have prevented anyone (civilian) from trying to effect a rescue? If it was a building fire and the IC believed it was too dangerous for his/her men to enter…..

          Believe it or not, that raises another issue: the special duty rule….. Any legal eagles out there want to take a crack at that? Remember Stata v. Village of Waterford?


    • Action Jackson

      By the time you discuss this in a committee and cross the “t’s” and dot the “i’s” on the CYA form, someone has taken action and already effected a ‘rescue’. Do you folks even know the conditions in this area? People used to walk way out and clam for hours, the water is shallow, the conditions were calm. This is not open ocean. Too shallow for USCG boat. You’re fighting a losing battle, NO ONE except your peers and gov’t weenies will defend their actions.

      • Action Jackson

        The truth is we do not know the conditions in Alameda. But here is what we do know: The FD used to have responsibility to perform water rescues. They used to train and equip their personnel to perform water rescues. Proper equipment and training are required by OSHA, NFPA and common sense (to be distinguished from the person on here calling him/herself “Common Sense”).

        At some point the community made a decision to eliminate the program and the firefighters were no longer trained and equipped to respond to water rescues. Firefighters were instructed by their superiors not to perform these kinds of activities. 5 feet of water, or 30 feet of water, 25 yards from shore or 1 mile from shore, the program was eliminated.

        And now everyone is up in arms that in the aftermath of what turns out to be in hind sight a low risk operation – the firefighters did what they had been instructed to do. And no one is asking “Gee, was it a smart idea to have eliminated that program seeing that we are close to such a large body of water”. No, they would rather jump aboard the emotional bandwagon and beat up on the firefighters who incidentally complained about the elimination of the program as it was being axed – but were marginalized as self-serving pigs feeding at the public trough.

        As for me fighting a losing battle? I am on the sidelines watching the battle play out from 3000 miles away. I have no stake it in what so ever.

        • Tiffany

          The fire dpt needed to throw out the 75 feet of rope they are alotted to throw out.
          No one asked Raymond if he wanted to die.

        • Ben Waller

          Tiffany, the person who drowned was reportedly from 150 to 300 feet away from shore. Throwing 75 feet of rope would have been futile.

          • Tiffany

            You don’t know if it would’ve been futile. I can see that you’d be one of the ones standing in the sand, if not with your head in it.

          • Ben Waller

            Tiffany, that’s balderdash, to put it politely.

            If I’m wrong, please explain how throwing a 75-foot rope is going to help a victim 300 feet away who is very, very unlikely to grab it.

            Feel free to explain how reaching less than 1/3 of the way to the victim is anything but a waste of time and effort.

        • Order in the court!!!!!!

          Now now now…. no need to get nasty.

      • Ben Waller

        Action Jackson,

        Actually there are people other than public safety and government personnel who are defending the responders’ actions.

        Read the news – there are comments supporting the responders from a lot of people who have taken the time to education themselves on all of the facts instead of having a knee-jerk reaction and claiming that firefighters and cops have an obligation to attempt rescue, no matter what the situation, training or equipment.

        That doesn’t pass the basic risk-benefit test. Too many firefighters die doing things for which they ARE equipped and trained. A San Fransisco firefighter died and another one is fighting for his life since the Alameda drowning occurred – and that occured at a fire – one of the FD’s core missions. A lot of fire departments don’t provide water rescue services.

        Just because someone calls the fire department doesn’t mean that the fire department is the agency responsible for handling the problem.

  • Ben Waller

    Mike Prescott,

    The responders did the correct thing. If they are not trained and equipped for water rescue, then entering the water would likely have been nothing but a tag-team suicide. That’s not what public safety personnel are supposed to do.

    Having a Coast Guard background might make a water-entry rescue attempt the right thing to do for YOU, but that doesn’t make it right for the responders in question.

    There are far too many tag-team deaths in public safety. This event falls into the “You do NOT have a responsiblity to die for your job” catagory.

  • acreccsucks

    Alameda County Fire Dept’s dispatch center (which also dispatches for the city of Alameda) causes response delays on a daily basis – not sending units out in a timely manner, sending them to the wrong address and so on. The role of dispatch in this needless death must be investigated too.

  • rmg

    Earning their pay by “putting their lives on the line.” Shameful. Especially when we (I live here) are asked to fund their retirement pensions. This is disgraceful. The excuses are completely out of touch.

    • rmg

      Maybe I am missing something. Please explain it to me: their employer has told them not to go in the water. Why are you angry with them and not their employer?

      Help me to understand why you blame them? Should they have ignored their employers instructions?

  • Brian Brady

    Well Curt, I’m one of those taxpayer advocates and, while I understand the legal arguments you frame here, it merely reinforces what so many of us in California are coming to realize; the public safety officers are figuratively holding a gun to our head to get more money.

    This is not a failure of accreditation nor certification, it’s an abdication of duty. Such a noble profession, which sprung hope in humanity’s breast on September 11, 2001, has been tarnished by this (among other) incident(s) in California.

    We’ll survive with volunteers. I’d much prefer it was with professional first responders but it’s becoming more apparent, that unless we cave into their union bosses’ demands, we’re on our own.

    • Well Brian

      I think its a bit more complicated than you suggest. First of all, virtually every organization that relies on volunteers in the US is struggling to find help: little league, scouts, and volunteer fire departments. Most people are not interested in volunteering for anything that does not give them a direct and immediate payback. The amount of training required for volunteer firefighters to safely do their job makes recruiting an even bigger challenge. Don’t take my word for it. Go join a volunteer fire department and see for yourself.

      As for unions holding the taxpaying public hostage – in my 39 years in the fire service that is not the reality I see. Not by a long shot. I see firefighters forced to choose between safe working conditions and a pay raise. Today, unions are under constant attack to compromise their safety just to maintain what benefits they have.

      People wonder why all the manufacturing jobs have left and gone overseas, but shop at Walmart and insist on paying the rockbottom price for everything…. and don’t realize there is a direct connection.

      Taxpayers want to say enough is enough, we have to hold the line, and then are shocked when something like this happens…. and don’t see the connection.

      Its more complicated than conventional wisdom and our 20 second attention span news coverage can cover…

    • Ben Waller

      Brian Brady,

      With public safety, as with private sector business, you get exactly what you pay for. That occurred in the case in question.

      This is NOT an abdication of duty. The fire and police chiefs have the duty to ensure that their personnel are not sent on suicide missions when they no longer have the funding to train or equip their people to be all things to all people.

      When Deion Sanders played for two Atlanta sports teams – the Braves and the Falcons – the Braves didn’t refuse to equip him to play baseball just because he had a set of football pads from the Falcons. Expecting the cops and firefighters in question to participate in a water rescue just because they’re trained and equipped to perform land-based rescues is a more extreme version of that disconnect.

    • Ben Waller

      Brian, the public safety people in this case were not asking for more salary and benefits.

      They were simply asking for the equipment and training it takes to help them survive in a dangerous environment – equipment and training that was intentionally denied to them.

      With public safety, just as with any other business, you get what you pay for. In this case, Alameda made a choice to de-fund water rescue training and equipment, and they got exactly what they paid for.

  • Simon

    Firefighters in Alameda spend more time campaigning for candidates who support their union agenda than they do saving peoples lives or property. It is very difficult to explain that to my 10 year old nephew who used to look up to them.

    • Simon

      I assume they do their campaigning during their off duty time? You do give them time off. I mean, I know they are lowly public employees…

      Maybe if we could find a way to force them to work for us for free and not disagree with our ideas… Its really bothersome when they exercise their constitutional rights, isn’t it? Maybe we could get them to pay us to serve as firefighters?

      Seriously???? Simon – why aren’t you upset with the politicians who asked for your vote, promised they’d do a good job for you, and without telling you made a conscious decision that the fire department would no longer do water rescues? Don’t ya think they should have to answer some tough questions?

      Or can they escape scrutiny by pointing the finger at the evil unions?????

      Let me tell you something. If I was going to die and I had to select someone to watch over my property and raise my kids – and I had 2 jars with names in them – one with the name of every firefighter in the US and one with every politician in the US, I know there is one jar I would have no hesitation to pick from. How about you?

  • tougher by the minute

    Mr. Varone,
    It is not a binary problem. This octopus has more than two tentacles. Is it a story of abdication, legislation, obligation, failure or is it simply the end result of a wish fullfiulled? Does it matter that he wanted to die? Does my sworn obligation to protect life end when the person who holds the life decides it is a life not worth living? Can a “bean counter” be blamed for an individual decision? Can it not be argued that a boat would represent one life saved for that a health clinic kept instead of the boat could represent multiple lives saved everyday? (not that I have intimate knowledge of whether the end of teh boat program meant more funding for a health clinic)
    This is simply too complicated for blog posts but is rather the domain of some cogent public policy thought….When dollars are slashed anywhere there are effects, sometimes, like this time, revenge effects. Do you now buy a boat? if so at what costs? What is the money for that boat comes from increased taxes-what then? what if the money causes a senior center to be closed-what then?

    They are called tough choices for a reason.

  • Tougher By The Minute

    Now we are getting somehwere!! I agree 100%. So let the bean counter make that explanation. I mean you expect a firefighter to have to explain his decisionmaking – whether in court or during an investigation. Let the person who made the decision to cut the water rescue capabilities of the Alameda Fire Department explain why it was more important to – buy new books for the library, put in a new sidewalk in front of the senior center, pay lawyers to fight a case… or what ever else was considered to be more important. But hold the person accountable – to the same extent you hold those firefighters and police officers accountable for that death.

    And while the present case involved a person who intentionally chose to commit suicide, would the outcome have been any different if it had been two young children on a raft, or any number of other scenarios? The issue is someone made a decision to eliminate a service. Let them answer for that decision. Don’t let them shift the blame elsewhere to others who may have other things to answer for.

  • tougher by the minute

    Given our political system who is the “bean counter?” When the time comes for answering the only ones left are the Mayor/County Executive/City Manager and the Legislature (whatevver form that takes). They, collectively made the final decision. So which one answers and if they do answer what does that look like? Is the obligation to answer the same aas culpability? If the mayor is the one that needs to answer is he then directly responsible for the death? If he is responsible should he go to jail or suffer some consequence for negligence? If he does what stops the next Mayor from going to jail because the money to fix potholes was re-allocated and Mrs. Smith hit a pothole, lost control of her car, crashed into a tree and died (and would it matter that she was drunk?)

    Perhaps there are many layers to this issue of culpabiliity, maybe once someone is dead the explanations don’t matter.

    This one is hard, very hard.

    I think if the firemen and police were wet and this guy died we have no story. The story is a story because they were dry and he was dead. Walk out get wet stay far enough away to be safe and close enough to look like you were at least trying.

    I was in this situation once before as a family was being swept away by flood waters. It was a dark and stormy night. I can’t swim but in raging flood waters what does that matter? People were screaming at us to do something…so we put on life jackets and helmets and waded out into the darkness…never getting in over our waists….we walked and we knew in our hearts that what was lost was lost…it never made the paper because we did “somethiing, we got wet.

    Public confidence is a fickle thing. They won’t remember this at next year’s budget hearing.

    Allocation of public resources is a fickle thing…buy a boat because one guy drown and you will have to two in case two people die at once.

    The use of the term hero, especially in what was the post 9-11 heyday of firemanship has created this sense that public safety is limitless when what it is is severely limmited…

    I am tired of typing thanks….

    • Tougher by the minute

      I appreciate the thoughts you brought to the table. All important aspects of a complex case. For the record – I am not suggesting that a mayor, council person or bean counter should face criminal charges or even civil liability. Only that they face the microphone – show some political courage and say “You know, I made that decision, it was a hard one, here is why… and now in hind sight I was wrong”.

      But they won’t. They will hide, they will point fingers, blame the unions, the firefighters, even their political opponents.

      Again – thank you for joining this fascinating discussion.

  • Christopher Rowe

    Having served as a Fire Fighter for over thirty years, I have been subject to many absurd rules and regulations stipulated by the ignorant “Governing Councils”. I have experienced frustration and anger on several occasions whereby Municipal and County “Codes” have denied my participation in emergency situations. And then again, there comes a time to “Act” even with the idea of disciplinary action looming over ones head. For instance…, In the high desert of Southern California, an automobile carrying adults and children careened off the road into and irrigation aqueduct. The local County Fire Department was called to affect the rescue. One of the responding personnel was a certified SCUBA diver. He took it upon himself to use one of our SCBA’s (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) that are used for structural fire fighting, and dove into the channel. Several occupants were rescued, but unfortunately there were fatalities. As the official report of the rescue made it’s way up through the Chain of Command, this rescuer was facing disciplinary action for improper use of equipment. The “SCBA’s” were not designed for underwater use and thereby presented a hazard to not only himself, but to those individuals in need of rescuing. This was an example of “damn the regulations, it’s time to act”!
    I am sympathetic to the Law Enforcement and Fire Dept. employees, but at the same time, ashamed and embarrassed for their lack of response in this fatal situation.

    • Christopher

      Thank you for your perspective and I cannot disagree with you about the failure of the responders to have done something – the failure to act leaves me with a pit in my stomach as well. But those responders (police and fire) were put in the situation by people who are not being called to task.

      How can a governmental official (elected or appointed) make a decision to eliminate a program like water rescue – and then sit back and let the first responders take the fall for following it? That is political cowardice.

      Tougher by the minute suggested that perhaps there were legitimate reasons for the cutback – and maybe there were. Let’s hear them. Let’s hear it from the official who had the “political courage” to stand up to the evil unions to cut the funding in the first place… or was it just political grandstanding. Let’s hear it from the official who – when the firefighter’s union said these cuts could cost lives – said “don’t listen to those greedy firefighters”.

      I would like to know if that person expected the firefighters to continue to respond and perform water rescues despite the funding cut? It certainly sounds it.

      If a community cuts funding for firearms training for its police officers, knowing that the officers would no longer be allowed to carry weapons – and the department comes out with an order prohibiting officers from carrying guns on duty – will they blame the individual officers who fail to stop an armed robbery? Come on, get real. Who made the decision to put the officers in that spot.

  • Common Sense

    You keep using the term “water rescue” and “water rescue capabilities” in your posts like a mantra. Water Rescue implies complicated logistics, procedures and infrastructure. A person in 5 feet of water is hardly a “water rescue” and more like a simple lifeguard event.

    Didn’t a 5foot something nurse dive in and pull the body out? There is no special procedural playbook needed – and any one who has gone through lifeguard training can attest, its not that complicated. You can complicate it all you wish with what ifs, and fantasy scenarios but it doesn’t change the facts here. People watched a person die and they will need to justify it with whatever morality they possess.

    No amount of imaginary funding would have prevented this outcome (whether or not it (re)created a Water Rescue Service). Sorry to disappoint you.

    • Common sense

      I guess one of us has a disconnect on this issue. A “mantra”? Look – that is what we call it… a water rescue. The person was in the bay, not in his bathtub nor in a 5 foot deep swimming pool. I am not sure what you want me to do about that.

      The firefighters and police officers involved in the incident have to live with the decisions they made yesterday. I doubt they are doing very well right now but they did exactly what their employer expected them to do. They did not go in the water because their policy said not to.

      Someone higher up the foodchain made a decision that the fire department would not provide that type of service any longer (call it what ever you want if you don’t like water rescue). The ones who made the decision had to understand there were consequences to that decision.

      Why aren’t you demanding an explanation from that person or persons?

      Imaginary funding??? That is the kind of fuzzy logic that created this problem in the first place. When you eliminate a program – how can you somehow expect that the program can still be carried out?

      If your point is that there really was no risk to the responders based on these specific facts… that a civilan “nurse” was able to safely carry out the assignment – I get that. There were risks, but they were minimal based on what I know. That doesn’t change anything. The department no longer provided that service.

      Again – and here is my mantra – let’s hear from the bean counter who made the decision to eliminate the program. You want to make the firefighters and police officers accountable for their decision – fine. Let’s hear from the person or persons who decided to eliminate the program.

      And lastly, trust me – I am not disappointed. Not in the least. You know why arguing with a lawyer is alot like wresting with a pig?

    • Ben Waller

      It’s simple. The responders at the scene were NOT lifeguards. They were not properly equipped or trained to do water rescues.

      “Imaginary” funding does not exist. Funding either exists or it doesn’t.
      Providing the funding to train and equip the firefighters to do water rescues might have prevented this fatality – or it might not, given that the person was suicidal.

      If this was not a “water rescue”, then why are you and others castigating the fire department and police department for not making a…rescue from a large body of open water?

  • Joe

    The inability to perform a water rescue isn’t about logistics and procedures, it’s about legality. They were legally prohibited from doing so. That is the controversy. This is not the fault of the rescuers. This is the fault of the lawmakers.

  • Compassionate First Responder

    I have lost all respect for these individuals who we call first responders. I have been an EMS provider for 20 years and I would rather lose my job than stand ideally and watch that happened.
    I just hope you or your family is not in need of care and the responder refuses to provide care because of lack of trying. It seems that the departments on scene were trying to make a point to follow the rules to the letter as opposed to doing what we hoped they would do.
    As I said, I just hope that you or your family is not in that same situation.

  • Shane

    I brought this discussion up with my friends on Facebook to see what their feelings about it were. I received a mix of feelings as I expected but by and large most people understood my point about not risking a life without the proper training and equipment.

    I can’t speak for the people on scene and won’t try to. What I can say is that without equipment and training I’m not making an effort to save the life of someone that, lest we forget, had the ability and opportunity (1 hour) to make an effort to save himself.

    As I said to my friends, I would have tried to track down a boat or other piece of equipment but I would much rather justify why I chose to keep my colleague alive than explain why he died doing something he was neither trained or equipped to do or do.

    I guess my point is don’t lay this at the feet of the responders alone. There were plenty of people standing around for an hour, and let’s try to remember that even the nurse waited until it was too late. She recovered a body, not a person. Big difference there, a body isn’t going to fight to take you with it as it tries to fulfill a wish to die.

    • Ben Waller

      They did track down a boat. It was crewed and operated by the United States Coast Guard. They couldn’t get close enough to do a boat-based rescue, and their personnel were not allowed to entery the water, either, despite being better equipped and trained for water rescuers than the firefighters and cops.

      Double standard there?

  • Common Sense

    Hide behind the “legality” all you want. When I was a kid, firemen, police, EMTs etc had a mandate to protect and serve. The images I had of firemen being noble and jumping into a burning building or pool or bay to save someone are now replaced with people in uniform watching people die. I am disgusted and will make sure that I steer my sons away from any Police of Fire job, unless they want the money. (They are paid exceptionally well to perform apparently less and less)

    BTW – for all you who keep talking certifications etc. – what exactly is your certification going to produce that would change this outcome? A tiny female nurse executed the recovery WITH NO CERT OR TRAINING. Should she be arrested? According to these “legal” arguments, she should be held accountable too, especially since she has precisely zero certification in land-based water rescue and had no equipment.

    But as long as we don’t hold them (the men and women standing and watching) accountable and keep talking about who’s budget cuts caused what certifications to lapse, we’re good – right? And the fact that the Fire District has no accountability in prioritizing the areas impacted by the cuts is totally unbelievable and I don’t buy it. They made the determination that water rescue was on the chopping block IN AN AREA BORDERED ON 3 SIDES BY WATER. This has the feel of another shake down and it caused someone to lose their life.

    Anyway – I agree that there needs to be an understanding that is presented to ALL when there are fiscal troubles and the community needs to know what impact their budgetary decisions will have. But we are bordering on ridiculous. I can’t believe that we have reduced once amazing and noble professions to pathetic bystanders who have no mandate to act to save people (and according to the Fire chief in Alameda), kids, unless there is a policy in place to do so.

    There will be no changing of your mind or mine – so we are left where we started. Have a good life and I hope you don’t drown in Alameda county.

    • Just noticed that we did not respond to some of the comments here.

      First, OSHA laws do not apply to non-employees. So the woman who went out to recover the body was under no obligation to be trained and properly equipped before she acted. She was not an employee!

      On the other hand, firefighters and police officers are employees and their employers are under a legal obligation to properly train and equip them for forseeable occupational hazards. Their employer – the city of Alameda made a choice NOT TO train and equip them for water rescues (I know there is a factual dispute over this – but from all I have read the firefighters had written policies that prohibited them from engaging in such activities), and therefore had an obligation to ensure they did not engage in such activities. That was the city’s choice not the firefighters.

      Second – if something happened to the woman rescuer during the rescue effort, the fire and police department could have been held liable. They allowed her to engage in a dangerous activty while they were in charge (who ever was the IC). I am not saying there would be clear liability – it would be fact based – perhaps there would be some immunity protection, etc. – but they did run a liability risk by allowing her to engage in the rescue/recovery.

      Lastly – the law does not require fire and police officers to stand by pathetically and watch people die – but they have to be properly trained and equipped. It is the employers’ responsibility to provide that training and equipment. It is my understanding that the Alameda firefighters objected to the elimination of the water rescue program (elimination of training and equipment) – but their concerns were dismissed as union whining…..

  • To all who have posted

    This has been a most interesting discussion and while it is emotional and some seem to have closed minds about what happened – if you are truly keeping an open mind – there’s a lot to be learned.

    In the end, I don’t believe the lessons learned here are not about legalities, or safety, or the evil of unions and public employees. Its about decisions, and responsibility for decisions.

    If a community opts not to equip its police officers with firearms, and orders them not to attempt to apprehend armed suspects, how can the community be upset with the officers who do not stop an armed robbery?

    Does it matter if the victim knowingly put himself at risk somehow? What if it is later determined that the robbers used fake guns, does that change anything? Sure, ask if the officers should have recognized that the guns were fake, argue the officers should have taken their off duty piece with them against department regulations, argue what ever factual issues you like. Charge the police officers with dereliction of duty even and let a jury sort it all out. Maybe the officers were wrong and were maliciously trying to prove a point. If so, let the chips fall where they may.

    However, hold the people who took the police officers firearms responsible for their decision. And God forbid if those decision makers hid their decision from the public… or worse claimed the officers were making a big deal out of nothing when they objected to losing their firearms… let the chips fall where they may.

    That’s all. No need to get nasty, upset, rant, or rave. Let the chips fall where they may.

    • Juliet

      Hi Curt, as you rightly say, this is an important and interesting discussion. You can read the Alameda community having a similarly emotional discussion at :-

      Personally I think it’s hard to know whether the politics of compensation and budgets were a factor in holding back any rescue attempt. But I don’t think you can assume they weren’t any more than I assume they were.

      Anyway, they certainly are a factor in coloring people’s responses. Check google and you’ll see there was a stormy debate a few months back, when Alameda residents learned through a leaked spreadsheet that about half the firefighters were earning 150-250K in benefits, ie a lot more than most of the rest of us (who have funded the services through taxation).

      And of course city budgets are a national hot button just now.

      You also probably have seen a “defense” of compensation on many Union and Department sites, that (quitelegitimately) cite risk factors as one justification.

      So though it may be unfair, the compensation discussion becomes tangled with an analysis of FD results. People rage at the image of ‘rich’ firefighters not acting to save one of their “paying customers”.

      You rightly point at the city budget cuts as a causal factor in the tragedy, and I agree. However many people do not – in this mood of recession, we (the public) are kind of sympathetic to people who cut budgets because we’re all having to do it. We earn less, but must still feed the kids. We must do more with less.

      I think the people who represent the FD’s and fire unions have to do some smart marketing or we’ll see this kind of criticism being thrown at other city FD’s.



      • Juliet

        Thank you for that thoughtful – and I think – accurate – assessment of what is going on.

        I am less concerned about the specifics of whether the firefighters should have or shouldn’t have done more. That is a fact-intensive question that is best left to a full investigation.

        I am more concerned with knowing about the person or persons who made the decision to cut the program (whether it was a factor in this case or not) – and whether the public will be asking that person the hard questions.

        It sure seems like the public is giving that decisionmaker a free pass.

        As I said below – most fire departments are having to cut programs and to think the public is going to focus their wrath on us rather than the politicians who cut the programs is pretty disheartening. It may also embolden politicians to push cuts well beyond what is necessary or prudent.

  • JM

    The fire department failed abysmally. The community is an island and they have no water rescue capability. That is in itself pathetic and inexcusable. Excuse me for being blunt but these “professionals” are paid quite well even though most of them do not even have a four year college degree. You want to find the funds to finance the so-called training they need to do the job of a passerby 20 something woman? How about taking the money out of the chief’s salary.

    • JM

      Someone failed abysmally, that much we agree on. Maybe it was the FD, maybe it was not. I take it you have not read all the above comments.

      I agree 100% it is pathetic and inexcusable that the FD lacks water rescue capabilities. Who made that decision – and why are so many people blaming the firefighters themselves? They did not choose to eliminate the program – they sought to keep the program back when it was eliminated in 2009?

      I do not understand how the firefighters compensation factors into this case. Whether they receive $25k, $250k or are volunteers – they are expected to do what their leaders tell them. If the are told to do a, b and c, then they should be trained and equipped to do a, b and c. If their bosses make a decision that they will no longer do c, and that they will no longer be trained and equipped to do c, and are ordered not to do c, then how can they be faulted for not doing c. Whether they receive $0, $25k or $250k a year – that does not change the fact they were told to do a and b but not c.

      As for taking money out of the chief’s salary – that fine. Negotiate a give back from the firefighters, run a bake sale, take it out of the mayor’s salary, ask for donations – you name it. But the city fathers/mothers did not do that. They eliminated the program. Your beef is with the person who failed to choose one of those other options.

      • Tiffany

        Perhaps our town is different than your town. We have for the past 4 years watch our so called government run amuk, along with our APD shooting their own dogs, and our fire dept loafing around this town. All at the cost of our tax dollars. It’s ludicriss. We all know, and at times witness first hand, our AFD/APD turn the volume up and down on regs when it fits them. Unfortunately, they “chose” to follow this one by the book…even though there is written straight up in their oaths to do the opposite if it is fitting. This was fitting my friend. We all fear now what else they are “not allowed” to do to protect the public.

    • Ben Waller

      Do you even know if the firefighters in question could swim? Some firefighters are non-swimmers.

      Firefighters are typically hired for their core missions of EMS and firefighting. Swimming isn’t even part of the candidate testing for many fire departments that border on large bodies of water.

  • Keith

    Training, funding, and equipment will NOT correct the lack of leadership, the lack of courage or the lack of compassion seen here.

    This event is a disgrace to the nation.

    • Ben Waller

      What “lack of leadership”? The lack of leadership by the elected officials that chose to cut the water rescue program’s funding, then to ambigously restore some of it?

      What “lack of courage”? The lack of courage on the part of elected officials to tell the public that you can’t possibly have reductions in budget without corresponding reductions in services?

      What “lack of compassion”? The lack of compassion on the part of partially-informed commenters who castigate the responders based on incomplete information?

      I dispute your claim of “…disgrace to the nation.” If there’s any disgrace, none has been shown on the part of the fire department or police department. Even if there was a disgrace, it doesn’t extend to any agency or locality that was not involved in the incident. Sorry, that generality is simply to large to apply here.

  • Keith

    You are absolutely correct no amount of training, funding and equipment will correct lack of leadership. I am still amazed when good, qualified candidates for fire chief are passed over for minimally qualified political appointees. You would think the media and public could see through the smoke screeen – but it doesn’t seem to happen.

    On the other hand I know guys and gals who would make outstanding fire chiefs that want no part of the nasty politics that go along with such a job. Its too bad politics can’t be left out of it, and the public’s interest taken to heart. Keith – find a way to fix that problem – take politics out of the fire service, and you’ll find these sorts of things don’t happen.

    For those who are not aware, Alameda’s last chief left under a cloud. Here is the link. http://firelawblog.com/2011/04/another-california-fire-chief-sues-city/

    You have to wonder whether the last chief made it clear to the mayor exactly what the impact of the cuts to the water rescue program would be. That was one thing I hoped people like Common Sense, or tougher by the minute, or Action Jackson might bring up – but they were all content to blame the responders.

    Also – while what happened in Alameda involved a water rescue program, there are numerous other programs that have been cut from fire departments all across the country that could create the exact same fact pattern: firefighters stand by while someone dies under circumstances where they should be able to do something, but can’t due to lack of funding. These include (1) hazardous materials teams being closed, (2) dive rescue teams eliminated, (3) confined space rescue programs eliminated, (4) high angle rescue capabilities eliminated, and (5) ice rescue teams eliminated.

    Add to that fire companies being closed and browned out – and it is inevitable that rescues that firefighters used to be able to effect, can no longer be done.

    A really nasty lesson learned is that in the aftermath of a tragedy, the public wants to blame someone and we are the easy target. Those of us in Rhode Island saw it in the aftermath of the Station Night Club fire.

    Politicians who play political games, withhold funding, and make decisions behind closed doors that cost lives are viewed by the public as too remote to be held accountable. Need proof? Just read this thread. The hatred and contempt of the public is palpable.

    • Juliet

      But… it’s not necessarily a political game to withhold funding. Most often its just a reality of managing a city with a reduced budget. Property taxes aren’t being collected, cities are hurting from investment losses – so they really do have less money.

      And in this case I believe it was the FD that decided to cut services based on a required budget cut.

      Quoting Steve Floyd, a Alameda firefighter writing in the July 2009 Alameda Sun Newspaper :-
      “Last year, the City Council approved a budget presented by former City Manager Debra Kurita and current Fire Chief Dave Kapler that has dismantled the Fire Department Surface Water Rescue capability.

      Due to the budget reductions, the necessary recertification of our water rescue swimmers for OSHA compliance was not funded.

      As of March 16, 2009, the Fire Department administration issued an operational status change, placing the surface water rescue swimmer program on hold. According to the status change, “all previously qualified Rescue Swimmers shall not enter the water for an active incident until further notice.”

      The comment that “previously qualified swimmers were ordered not to utilize their skills” scares me.

      Can you confirm if recertification is really a OSHA legal requirement, and if so, what are the implications of an FD ignoring it?

      In the end, the issue is the #1 challenge for every government official and not an easy one to solve: How to manage costs without cutting services?

      Do we increase taxes for poorer taxpayers? Do we cut more deeply into education? Do we renogotiate pensions and compensation for city employees? Do we privatize FD’s or turn to volunteer only models?

      I’d like to think those well paid fire chiefs might be able to think up some “efficiencies” that allow cuts, but don’t undermine their service.

  • Juliet

    I think everyone understands the economic situation. Virtually every fire department has been living with the reality of that for years. We cut back in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010… at some point the fat is gone and you are cutting bone. On top of that cities like Providence have had economic woes for decades and had chronically underfunded fire departments going into the recession.

    In large measure, unionized firefighters across the country have stepped forward to do their part through concessions – I can’t recite them all – I can’t even recite all the ones that firefighters in Providence have agreed to – yet as inconceivable as it is to me people ignore or dismiss the concessions that have been made as not enough. No matter what is given up, its not enough. Be that as it is – the neighbor’s grass is always greener and in this case everyone thinks the firefighters’ grass is greener and they are paying for it.

    Do we increase taxes for poorer taxpayers? That opens another can of worms – but there are reasonable solutions and compromises that could alieviate alot of the problems. I would offer my suggestions but it would distract us from this discussion – The solutions will take courage to embrace and frankly – I don’t see that kind of leadership coming from elected officials. Its so much easier to point the finger at public employees and demand that the financial line be held.

    I can tell you that over 50% of the property in the city of Providence is tax exempt – and that is just not right. No one can stay in business if they have to give away +50% of their goods/services. There are too many freeloaders on the public dole – and I am not talking about the poor. These freeloaders are large outfits with people who make 6 and 7 figure salaries but the businesses pay no property taxes. The root cause of the problem??? Its easier to blame the greedy firefighters….

    Does OSHA require recertification? Great question. OSHA requires that employers provide a workplace that is free from recognized hazards. That obligation is called an employer’s “General Duty” and the provision in the Occupational Safety and Health Act that requires it is called the “General Duty Clause”.

    The question then becomes, do water rescues expose personnel to recognized hazards? I have heard varying reports on how dangerous or safe conditions are in Alameda – but if that bay is anything like Narragansett Bay, there is a clear risk to personnel.

    The next aspect is – how can the employer mitigate that risk. Most fire departments that have responsiblity for water rescues address that risk by providing employees with equipment and training. How much training and how much equipment would be a local decision – but at some point personnel who are expected to perform water rescues need equipment and training.

    Besides OSHA, NFPA requires that personnel who will be performing technical rescues (rescues that require certain technical skills) meet the training requirements of NFPA 1006 and 1670. Failure to do this could result in an OSHA citation (yes, the failure of a fire department to comply with an NFPA requirement could be the basis for an OSHA violation through the General Duty Clause).

    Soooooo……. is recertification an OSHA requirement? If OSHA or the FD believes that recertification is necessary to meet it’s general duty obligation then yes. To some extent the need to recertify is a function of the equipment and tactics that personnel will use to effect the rescue.

    At a minimum some sort of periodic refresher training would be required – but a formal program offering certification is certainly the preferred way – and may be required – again depending on equipment and tactics. I do not know if Cal OSHA would cite the FD if it provided refresher training that did not lead to recertification.

    In terms of the ramifications of not providing water rescue training to personnel but expecting them to perform water rescues – it would be a violation of the employer’s duty to employees to provide a safe workplace, would likely be an OSHA violation, and certainly would be a liability risk to the employer in terms of a potential suit by an employee who is killed/injured, as well as citizens who are killed and injured because personnel are not properly trained.

    Again, to emphasize something that seems to be getting lost in the emotion of the moment: the very same scenario can arise at a hazardous materials incident, a confined space rescue incident, a dive rescue (SCUBA), or any number of other programs that are being cut. I go back to my police department analogy – if a police department cannot afford to pay its officers to go for firearms recertification and orders then not to use firearms any longer – there are going to be situations where those officers have to stand by and watch armed criminal do things. It is totally unfair to blame the police officers or say that because they make too much it is somehow their fault.

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  • Liz

    This just surfaced in this case: the firefighters are lying about funding cuts being the problem. funding was reinstated for water rescue training in 2009; Alameda firefighters simply refused to get re-certified, meaning that they could not enter to water to rescue Raymond Zack. Here’s the proof:http://www.action-alameda-news.com/2011/06/03/alameda-fire-department-memo-contradicts-department-claims/

    I reiterate: it is the firefighters who chose to not be prepared to help Raymond Zack, not the bean counters.

    In addition the county press release makes clear that county had all necessary equipment (shallow-draft boats, swimmers) and personnel ready for deployment, but were never asked to deploy those boats or personnel. http://www.action-alameda-news.com/2011/06/03/rescue-boats-stood-ready-but-alameda-never-requested-them/comment-page-1/#comment-11642

    Something stinks here, and I think it’s the AFD.

    • Ben Waller

      Re-read that story a little more carefully, and you’ll discover that your claim doesn’t hold up.

      Some of the water rescue capability for “land based” rescues was restored, but in the situation in question, a land-based rescue was too far away and a water-entry rescue was required.

      You have no idea if the firefighters and cops AT THE SCENE were certified for water-entry rescues. If they were not, then your claim once again does not hold up.

      What the county had may or may have not made a difference. Apparently, AFD counted on the Coast Guard to be able to make the rescue. The Coast Guard could not do so, due to their policy of not putting a swimmer into the water without a tether. The tether was too short, so despite the fact that the Coasties had a boat and a swimmer in the water, the rescue didn’t get made in time.

      I don’t understand the continued double standard from the people who castigate the fire department, but who give the Coasties a free pass.

      Something does stink here, and it’s not the firefighters who were at the scene.

  • DHL

    Ummmmm…the Alameda FD budget was not cut for water rescue. The f/f failed to renew their water rescue certification in 2009 and were supposed to within a month or two…. And in this case, this particular FD, has shown egregious substandard performance on a number of occasions, posturing like bureaucrats at events rather than doing their work properly. Each year for the past three years there has been a significant event for which protocol requires requesting mutual ai from engaging regional and state agencies—not once have they done so. It has led to horrible pollution to our public and environmental health from controlled substances—crude oil and asbestos. There’s a systemic problem at the AFD that has nothing to do with funding or pensions; both are at more than sufficient levels.

    • Ben Waller

      The document clearly states that the intent was to re-implement LAND-BASED water rescue. When the victim is out of reach of a 75-foot rope, that pretty much takes land-based rescue out of the picture.

    • DHL

      Ben: the 2009 Memo says 1. Water rescue program is temporarily suspended, 2. it will be reinstated in 30-45 days, 3. there is funding for water rescue swimming training. The city budget for 2009 and 2010 allocate funds for 8 to 10 water rescues per year. Funding was anything BUT cut.

      • Between what the memo said and what really happened with the funding – remains the question. If the memo was accurate, the rescue would have been made.

      • Ben Waller

        The memo did NOT say that the funds for the 8 to 10 water rescues included “water entry” rescues.

        It’s obvious that Alameda was equipped for “shore-based” rescues. When your best shore-based rescue tool is a 75-foot rope and the victim is unwilling and 300 feet away, that makes the memo content pretty meaningless.

        Further, no evidence has been shown that the specific firefighters present at the scene had ever had ANY “water entry” rescue training or qualification, much less if they had any equipment for it.

        Whether or not the rescue swimming training was ever instituted is unknown.
        Whether ANY of the firefighters present on the call were even able to swim or not is also unknown.

        Once again, there are a lot of assumptions about that memo that don’t withstand basic scrutiny when applied to the specifics of the incident in question.

    • DHL

      The rescue could have been made anyway. The AFD requested the wrong mutual aid, aid from the USCG who did not have the right equipment for the job available. And too, there’s absolutely zero reason that they could not walk into that water and talk to the man. The Battalion Chief Zombeck is trained and can do this. He even said so. If he were not on duty. What kind of inhumanity is this?! The AFD refuses to do their job is a protocol is in the way, or if a protocol requires them to engage regional or state agencies…time and time again, they harm the public bc they don’t engage other agencies when and how they should. In this case, they simply could have deviated from protocol. Like the Oakland PD on 5/25 who ran into a burning building–no equipment, no protective gear, no fire training—to save lives. Why couldn’t the AFD go out and initiate communication? WHy couldn’t they use a bullhorn from the shore? They didn’t even try!

  • Alamedan

    It turns out that funding for the program was actually re-instated.

    The March 16th 2009 memo that the Alameda Fire Department produced as evidence of funding cuts also clearly said – for those that read all the way to the bottom – that funding was re-instated and re-certification was to begin within 30-45 days – two years before Raymond Zack waded into the water.

    Why didn’t Alameda FD proceed with re-certification?


    • Ben Waller

      Dunno, but that doesn’t change the fact that if the firefighters and cops in question were not certified in water-entry rescues when the incident occurred, then they’re being blamed for something that was clearly not within their control.

      • Ben

        I am not sure any amount of explaining is going to satisfy the public. Its like there’s a disconnect between eliminating a service and the service not getting done.

        Let me rephrase: it seems like folks understand that a service has been eliminated – and intellectually they understand that times are tough – but then they expect that we should somehow effect the rescue anyway; and if not the firefighters are dirty rotten scoundrels because we make too much, don’t do enough, are cowards… as best I can tell no amount of explaining seems to be making a difference in people’s opinions.

        Its sad – but it’s going to keep happening. We both know how deeply programs have been cut. Think about a confined space rescue program that is eliminated, and personnel have to stand by as workers (or even kids) in a manhole die. Dive rescue… high angle rescue… hazmat … somehow the decision is made to eliminate the program for lack of funding – and its the firefighters fault.

        And then there are the fire company closings and brownouts…… which must be our fault as well. If only we had more courage….

        • Ben Waller

          Curt, I know.

          One of the problems is that we keep hearing city administrators and even some fire chiefs claiming that public safety isn’t affected when fire companies are disbanded, EMS units are closed, and special operations services are de-funded…and we all know that just isn’t accurate.

          The really brave fire chiefs stand up and tell the public that they understand when the money just isn’t there, but that when funding for specific services is cut, the public can’t reasonably expect those services to be unaffected.

          The other thing is that I’ve heard the same complaints about firefighters supposedly making too much money and having cushy pensions when they are unpaid volunteers and have NO pensions.

          The bottom line is that I’ve buried way to many of my friends from LODDs, and I’m truly glad that Alameda didn’t have anyone join that list – particularly with what happened across the bay a couple of days later.

          I don’t mind serving a public that’s often unappreciative, but I’m heartily sick of burying my friends who have paid for it with their lives.

  • Thank you Liz, DHL, and Alamedan

    This adds another wrinkle to an already unbelievably complex story. You can’t make this stuff up!!!!


    The memo seems to be pretty clear, and clearly anticipates funding being restored – but what is not clear is whether the funding actually did or did not come.

    Also, how exactly did the firefighters “choose” not to undergo the training? Was it a job requirement or was it strictly voluntary? If it was a job requirement then why didn’t the fire chief order them to under go the training. If it was voluntary, then some other option (whether an incentive or perhaps through collective bargaining making it mandatory) should have been implemented.

    Also, rescue swimming is not the only way to effect a water rescue. Many departments utilize zodiacs or low draft boats to perform water rescues. Why wasn’t that option explored if the city could not force the firefighters to undergo the training?

    Seems like we are getting more questions than answers at this point.

  • Liz

    What we’re getting here is more denial from Ben and others. It seems impossible to break through your “firefighters always get blamed” mantra or. So be it. I’ve heard the dispatch tape. Have you.? I’ve talked to county fire (who runs dispatch). Did you? I’ve been on that beach in all conditions. What about you? I know what equipment was available and that extremely bad decisions were made. Calling the Coast Guard, who have also failed us on many occasions, was one of them. But the Coast Guard wasn’t in charge, the AFD was.

    I can see the money allocated in the budget, right after the water rescue training was restored. You apparently can’t see the nose on your face. And are here to grind your same old axe. From now on, you’ll do that without me. I’m through here.

    • Ben Waller

      Your claim of denial is – flatly – bogus. It is also a straw man logical fallacy, as I’ve never said that or anything like it.

      Do you KNOW if the firefighters and police officers in question were certified to make water-entry rescues at the time of the incident? Do you even know if they could swim at all? If so, show us. If not, then feel free to admit that you don’t know all the facts of the case.

      Money allocated in the budget does not mean that money was spent for the training, or that the specific firefighters on scene had that training. I can clearly see where the budget specified that the priority was LAND-BASED water rescue training. Swimming 300 feet offshore isn’t a land-based rescue by any reasonable definition.

  • Liz

    I think we are talking about two entirely separate issues. You are focused on whether firefighters could have safely effected a rescue based on the facts in Alameda. You are right – those not from Alameda do not know the situation. However, unless you were there as the incident unfolded and debriefed the firefighters you too are speculating as to why they did what they did. Ultimately an investigation will uncover the truth. If the firefighters were derelict in their duties they will have to face the consequences. No dispute from me – and I doubt any firefighter will dispute that. If after a fair and impartial investigation – it is determined that the firefighters were derelict they should be punished – definitely employment wise and possibly even criminally.

    What we are talking about is slightly different. When a fire department chooses to have a program that requires additional skills, training and equipment – and that program is eliminated for budgetary reasons, who is responsible when someone forseeably dies? Are the firefighters to blame because the public views them as lazy and overpaid? Is the fire chief responsible? Are the elected officials responsible?

    This issue is not isolated to Alameda. Maybe the facts in Alameda do not align with the concerns that firefighters have about the cutbacks that are occuring – and maybe that is your point. I’ll concede that point to you.

    But don’t you think it is unfair to blame firefighters when budgetary decisions eliminate programs such as water rescue, hazardous materials, confined space rescue, high angle rescue or any of a multitude of programs that require special skill and equipment? AGAIN -I KNOW YOU DO NOT BELIEVE THAT THAT PLAYED A ROLE IN ALAMEDA. I have conceded that point.

    But do you see our concern here?

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  • To everyone who has posted here

    I just posted a story about a lawsuit out of Gwinnette County where 2 young boys drowned – as firefighters stood by safely on shore. Here is the link: http://firelawblog.com/2011/06/alameda-to-gwinnett-county-can-we-be-everything-to-everyone/

    I would ask the folks like Action Jackson, Tiffany, Liz, common sense, Juliet, rmg and tougher by the minute to review what I said in that post – and please – take the time to read the stories about the NY and Indiana incidents – and give us your feedback.

    This web site is for firefighters – but at the same time we need to hear what the public is saying as well. These are very challenging issues for us. It is easy for us to buy-into our own way of looking at the world, and I am no different in that regard. But I am genuinely interested in your feedback to the larger problem that the fire service faces, beyond Alameda. How do we move forward from these types of events?

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  • The Badger

    I do know this bay and I do know some AFD firefighters. I really think a lot of people still believe that firefighters and cops are expendable public servants.

    You have people trying to distinguish between was this a suicide attempt or a mentally unstable individual. Really what is the difference, he put himself in the situation. As professional firefighters/EMTs we know not to try and field diagnose.

    My FD policy regarding water rescue is no one enters the water. I watched a 13 y/o drown in a spring runoff while trained S&R personnel were washed away trying to reach him. Our FD performed rescue the rescuers for over an hour. I was the 1st officer on scene and I would not allow FD personnel to enter the water. By what some have said I guess I am just as guilty of being a pussy as the AFD personnel are.

    So by following this thread I guess it boils down to follow the rules all the time except when it may become a news story then screw the rules. Oh and by the way who cares if a cop or firefighter dies.

    I do agree with Curt that no one from City Hall will have the huevos to stand-up and take the hit on this

    Most of the negative comments are most likely from non-professional firefighters that believe “my time, my gas to save your ass” really applies in real life.

  • Thanks Badger

    You know, we face this dilemna in other areas as well – confined space, hazmat, etc. The day following a hazmat incident where responders wait for a hazmat team to arrive to effect a rescue will people be second guessing the responders, claiming they lacked courage or had a union mentality or some other non-sense? Will there be internet trained experts proclaiming that normal PPE and SCBA would have been adequate protection to effect a rescue, etc. etc. etc. Maybe when the hazmat team arrives it will be learned that the actual level of the product was low enough that an entry could have been safely made without PPE and SCBA….

  • acreccsucks

    Alameda City is an Island. Surrounded by water.
    Forget for a minute that City Govt gutted their Fire Department’s capability to perform water rescues. The fact is, Alameda County Fire, Oakland Fire and the Coast Guard (based in Alameda no less) had water rescue capability. Alameda County Fire Dispatch (which handled Alameda City Fire’s Dispatch responsibilities) botched this call, plain and simple. And Mr. Zack’s death wasn’t the first death due to dispatcher or hardware performance deficiencies. Dispatch Management was aware of this problem for years but chose to do nothing (except terminate an employee who tried to raise concern internally regarding these issues). So the real tradgedy here is that…Mr. Zack’s death was preventable.

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