As everyone in Alameda knows by now, a man drowned out by Crown Beach on Memorial Day while Alameda rescue units (police and fire) stood by and did nothing. Apparently, there was confusion over jurisdiction and policies in place that prevented them from attempting a land-to-water rescue.
What they did do was call the Coast Guard but their boat couldn't reach the area (water too shallow!) and their helicopter arrived nearly 90 minutes after the incident began. The body was eventually recovered by a volunteer swimmer. Attempts to revive the 53-year-old victim onshore were unsuccessful.
The tricky part was that the victim was suicidal. His mother reported this assessment to the police 30 minutes before the bayside incident began.
I wasn't there, but I can understand how this might have been confusing. He was standing in shoulder-high, chilly 60-degree water for over an hour until the hypothermia did him in -- then he drowned. He told a kite surfer who went out to check on him that he was "fine." All of this happened in front of somewhere between one and two-dozen public safety personnel watching from the beach.
I used to be a lifeguard so I understand the need for proper training because a panicking or uncooperative swimmer can take you down with them. I also used to do psychiatric admission assessments in a hospital emergency room. First step: ask some basic questions. Couldn't they have at least ventured out close enough to talk to him and assess his intentions?
ABC7 reported this afternoon that immediate policy changes are in store for Alameda public safety to undo the current policy which is: do not go in the water under any circumstances. This policy has been in place since 2009 when the water rescue certifications expired following budget cuts.
So what happens on Alameda's beaches if a swimmer gets into jeopardy unintentionally? If a child was out there drowning, would they still stand by and wait for the Coast Guard?
"We're not trained to go into the water, obviously the type of gear that we have on, we don't have the type of equipment that you would use to go into the water," Alameda Police Lt. Joe McNiff said.
Aquatics Fan's solution: remove your gear and you'll float better.
Let's rewind a little bit. A few months ago, Michele Ellson at The Island posted a spreadsheet of city employee salaries. Seventeen police made over $200,000 last year. Eighteen fire staff made over $200,000. Combined public safety salaries in Alameda take up 70% of our city's budget. The salaries of any two employees in this high-paying group would cover all of the operating expenses for both swim centers for a year serving literally thousands of swimmers.
From ABC news:
"I know that yesterday, those crews - it was killing them to stand on those shores and not be able to do anything. But under the circumstance and because of the policy, they really didn't have a choice," said (Alameda Firechief) D'Orazi.
The good samaritan who volunteered to recover the body was described as in her 20's and so thin that she probably didn't weigh more than 100 pounds. I will bet you that there were more people present who could and would have helped with a rescue (potentially ill-advised) but did nothing with the rescue crews already on the scene. Meanwhile, the largest Sea Scouts event in the country was happening at Alameda Point over the same weekend.
This raises some very tough questions for our city leaders. Alameda is an Island with miles of beaches and thousands of boats. We are surrounded by water (too bad I have to explicitly point out what an island **is**.) If our rescue personnel -- who we are paying most of our money to -- can't GO IN THE WATER then what good are they? Should Alameda be closing our pools instead of cutting some bloat (if you don't think there's bloat, please get your head examined) meaning that Alamedans won't have a place to learn to swim in the first place?
With pool closures, will we just have more open water swimmers? (I would venture to guess Yes.) If so, our rescue workers better get it together or we'll be known as the City of Homes and Drownings.
The bigger issue though is that, while firefighters and policemen are sometimes expected to risk their lives while performing their jobs, they are forbidden to risk lawsuits to save lives. It is astonishing that our society has come to this.
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BTW, I made less than $8/hour in the ER and less than that as a lifeguard when I was a kid. ARPD's lifeguards make $10/hour.