Read other opinions on this story by Bill Schumm at Firegeezer.com and Curt Varone at FireLawBlog.com
In the public's eyes this story is simple. A man stood fully clothed in the neck deep frigid surf for more than an hour on Memorial Day off Crown Beach in Alameda, California. On shore are police and firefighters from Alameda. They did nothing but watch the man drown.
Sounds cold, but this is what the public saw and it's the truth.
Both the fire department and police department told reporters, that despite being an Island community, the firefighters and police officers aren't equipped or trained to conduct land-based water rescues. They rely on the U.S. Coast Guard. In this case the water was too shallow for the Coast Guard boat and the chopper arrived too late.
Here's what the fire department said to KGO-TV:
The Alameda Fire Department says budget constraints are preventing it from recertifying its firefighters in land-based water rescues. Without it, the city would be open to liability.
" Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you're asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that's what's required by our department to do," Alameda Fire Div. Chief Ricci Zombeck said when asked by ABC7 if he would enter the water to save a drowning child.
First, most of us, in our hearts would say the right answer to this problem is you go in and get the guy or aynone else, including a child. It seems to be the overwhelming position of most comments I've read. If all works out well, it doesn't make the news (or you become heroes) and the chief officer gets a reprimand for violating policy.
But if things go wrong and a firefighter drowns, watch out. When it is learned the firefighter lost his life because of a lack of training and improper equipment, you have another big public relations problem on your hands and serious liability issues.
From an image standpoint, there are a lot of similarities to the Obion County, Tennessee story where the fire department arrived on the scene and refused to put out a fire in a home because the homeowner did not pay his subscription fee. Similar situations have happened for decades. So why did that one become such a big story? Because the fire department was actually on the scene and stood around doing nothing while a TV camera was rolling. The fire department also took the hit and failed to to tell the story of how it had been working with other departments to try and change the subscription system. Besides putting water on the fire they should have made their case, putting the blame where it belonged, on the political leaders. In addition, the Internet amplifies these stories in a way that didn't previously occur.
Alameda is also a case that is making its way around the world via the Internet because, once again, the firefighters were standing there doing nothing. The outrage is just beginning.
In my opinion, the solution to this problem in Alameda should have happened long ago. Without funding for training and equipment, the fire department (and police) should have made it known to the community they are not in the water rescue business. Period. And since that is not part of their duties they shouldn't have been dispatched to this call. At the most, a chief officer could have driven by and determined if this was something within the department's capabilities. If not, move on. Without proper training and gear the firefighters are no better than civilians. In fact, a civilian nurse, who is apparently a rescue swimmer retrieved the body. In this case, the public had the skills the fire department didn't.
Instead, the fire department was set up to fail by those who hold the purse strings.
What can the Alameda Fire Department do now from an image standpoint? This one will be tough to turn around, but here are my suggestions.
The division chief told the truth, which is a good start. But it should have been stronger. The fire chief should come out very clearly this is a situation we hate as much as the public and I am going to do everything in my power to change it (this should have happened immediately).
The only thing the fire department can hope for that might lessen this blow is that there is a long paper trail and concerted efforts by the chief to have firefighters trained and equipped to handle these hazards. This needs to get into the hands of reporters NOW so they can ask the questions of the people who made these decisions. If that paperwork doesn't exist, then the department and its chief are in for an even rougher ride. Good luck.