Three years ago, the City of Alameda Fire Department had a top notch water rescue program.
That changed in 2009 when funding for fire fighters water rescue and marine operations was chopped from the City of Alameda budget.
At the time, fire fighters spoke out about the dangers of the city not paying for the fireboats and water rescue training. However, city officials accused fire fighters of raising fear and anxiety among residents.
Two weeks ago, Alameda fire fighters' worst nightmare became a reality.
Public safety officials received reports of Raymond Zack, 52, being suicidal on Memorial Day weekend. The man walked off into the water from Crown Beach and stood for nearly an hour.
The city’s policy made the fire fighters powerless to rescue the man.
The situation is a sign of the times – a very troubling symbol of sacrificing public safety to reach the financial bottom line. As cities continue to make budget cuts to fire departments staffing and programs, stories like Alameda will continue. And what’s worst, the details are being lost on the general public (or in some cases glossed over by elected leaders) about what funding cuts really mean for service and how public safety officials perform their jobs.
After the budget cuts, it was left to the Coast Guard to provide water rescue service for Alameda. On the Memorial Day incident, there was a delay in the Coast Guard helicopter response and when the boat-based members arrived on the scene they determined that it was also too dangerous for them to attempt a rescue for Zack.
Bystanders told the local media they were outraged by the response.
However, there are several issues that get lost in the Alameda story.
Not being trained or having the proper gear is highly problematic for fire fighters and could cause more harm than good.
For fire fighters, going against city policy poses great risk not just to themselves, but to their families.
If a fire fighter is injured or killed attempting a rescue that they are not trained for, it makes them ineligible to receive benefits because they would be in violation of the city’s policy.
Everything runs in a cycle.
The Alameda water rescue program started because of a tragedy in the 1990s. Three teenagers drowned on the beach and it caused the city to implement the water rescue program.
Now it seems another tragedy has caused the City Council to act again.
The day after Memorial Day, the Interim Fire Chief and the Alameda City Council changed the policy that prevented first responders from intervening.
Fire fighters are discussing training and are putting together a list of materials they need like wetsuits, rescue boards and watercraft to be successful in future water rescues.