Drowning prompts emergency response review in Calif.
Firefighters did not enter the water because they are not trained in land/water rescue
By Peter Hegarty
Contra Costa Times
ALAMEDA, Calif. — City officials are investigating why police and firefighters remained on a beach and watched as a 52-year-old man stood in the surf and apparently took his own life on Memorial Day.
The officers and firefighters — who later said they are not trained in land/water rescue — also remained on the beach as a passer-by waded into the water and pulled the man's body to shore after he drowned.
"We are absolutely going to do an investigation," Mayor Marie Gilmore said. "And we are planning to do it in as transparent a way as possible."
Raymond Zack paced back and forth along the shore for several minutes before he waded into the waves about 11:30 a.m. on a stretch of Robert Crown Memorial State Beach along Shoreline Drive near Willow Street, according to witnesses.
For nearly an hour, Zack stood in the neck-deep water — sometimes raising his arms above the surface — before he eventually floated away about 150 yards from shore.
Police and firefighters said they arrived within minutes of receiving the 911 call that Zack was attempting to commit suicide at the beach. But firefighters did not enter the water because they are not trained in land/water rescue, while police said they did not immediately step in because Zack was suicidal and possibly violent.
"It's a very tragic event," police Lt. Sean Lynch said. "But he was engaged in a deliberate act of taking his own life. We did not know whether he was violent, whether drugs were involved. It's not a situation of a typical rescue." On Tuesday, interim fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said he was instituting an immediate policy change that would allow a senior firefighter discretion on how best to respond to an emergency in the water.
Rescue program now on fast track
D'Orazi also said a rescue swimmer certification program for Alameda firefighters would be "on the fast track."
The death of Zack comes as city officials are considering axing up to nine police jobs and five positions at the fire department to make up a $7.4 million budget deficit.
"Obviously, we need to review any decisions that have been made in the past (about training) as we look at our current budget," Gilmore said.
D'Orazi said the fire department's water rescue program was shelved in March 2009 due to cuts. The loss of overtime also led to fewer training hours for firefighters, he said. As a result, department policy prevented firefighters from entering the water to help Zack, D'Orazi said.
Witness Sharon Brunetti said she was walking on Crown beach with her husband when Zack's stepmother stopped her and asked her to call 911, saying Zack was threatening to kill himself and had just waded into the water.
Zack stood with his back to the shore, sometimes glancing back over his shoulder at the beach, Brunetti said.
Brunetti said Zack "gradually inched out farther and farther" from the shore.
"The next thing he was floating face down," she said.
When the tide swept Zack's body back about 50 yards from shore, a passer-by swam out and pulled it into the beach, witnesses said. Zack was pronounced dead at Alameda Hospital. He was in the water about an hour. The water temperature was about 55 degrees, Lynch said.
The U.S. Coast Guard was notified at 11:34 a.m. — or three minutes after dispatchers received the 911 call saying Zack was in the water threatening suicide — and launched a 25-foot response boat from Yerba Buena Island and a helicopter from Air Station San Francisco, officials said.
The boat could not reach Zack because the water was too shallow, Coast Guard Petty Officer Erik Swanson said. The helicopter was initially delayed because it needed to refuel.
Lynch said it "couldn't be further from the truth" that emergency workers did nothing as Zack drowned.
"That's simply not the case," he said. "Every circumstance is different and there are protocols that need to be followed."
But Brunetti said witnesses were still shocked that no officer or firefighter went into the water to try and save Zack.
"It's like you are living in a different country that does not care about its citizens," she said.
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