Firefighter safety, training improved in Calif. after suicide incident

Alameda firefighters say they have successfully responded to 16 possible emergencies on water since they were condemned for response

By Peter Hegarty
The Contra Costa Times

ALAMEDA, Calif. — Alameda police and firefighters say they have successfully responded to 16 possible emergencies on the water since they were roundly condemned for how they handled the suicidal drowning of a man in San Francisco Bay on Memorial Day.

At least 21 firefighters have also undergone training as lifeguards since the death of Raymond Zack, while police say they expect 10 officers will be certified to operate the department's patrol boat and two Jet Skis by this fall.

The changes are aimed at meeting 14 recommendations made by former state Fire Marshal Ruben Grijalva following an independent investigation into the drowning off Robert Crown Memorial State Beach.

As the 52-year-old Zack waded farther and farther from shore, police and firefighters remained on the beach until he slowly succumbed in the water, which was about 54 degrees Fahrenheit.

Police stayed on the beach because Zack was suicidal and possibly violent, while firefighters said they were not certified in land-water rescue and did not have a boat that could maneuver in the shallow water. Officers and firefighters, however, did attempt to secure rescue boats, including from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Crews quickly responded to the recent 16 possible emergencies on the bay or in the Oakland-Alameda Estuary partly as a result of the Zack case, fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said.

"There's definitely a heightened awareness after the tragedy," D'Orazi told the City Council Tuesday during an update on what has been done to meet the safety recommendations. The possible emergencies included a report that someone may have jumped into the Estuary and a kite surfer who appeared in difficulty on the bay. Both cases were unfounded.

"We wanted to make sure that they were not in dire circumstances or needed medical attention," D'Orazi said.

Other safety steps recently taken include outfitting every police car with a life-ring flotation device and a 100-foot rope, and the purchase of two rescue boats by the fire department.

Alameda firefighters also have carried out mutual aid drills with the Oakland and Alameda County Fire Departments since the drowning, plus 100 police department employees have now been trained in "acute suicide intervention."

The efforts have strengthened the working relationship between police and firefighters, Alameda police Chief Mike Noonan said.

"Things are going well and I am very confident that things will progress in a positive way," Noonan said.

The fire department earmarked $25,000 in its current budget exclusively for water rescue and the same amount has been set aside for the projected budget this fiscal year, which helps meet Grijalva's call for any changes to remain funded.

Among the recommendations in Grijalva's report was additional training — including with the U.S. Coast Guard and other local agencies — and better internal communication at an emergency scene when mutual aid is requested.

Police recently received a $13,000 state grant to maintain and outfit its 28-foot patrol boat. The department will continue funding the boat and training officers through its budget and future grants, Noonan said.

"I think your efforts will serve the public well," City Councilwoman Beverly Johnson said.

She was echoed by Councilman Doug deHaan, who said, "I am not sure if we have ever been at this readiness level."

The council will next review what has been done to improve safety and the funding as part of adopting a budget in June.

Copyright 2012 Contra Costa Newspapers
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