Heroes and Cowards

San Francisco lost two firefighters in the line of duty last week, while Alamedans are wondering why theirs did nothing to help a despondent man.

Alameda and San Francisco are separated by only a few miles on the map. But last week their fire departments seemed as if they were on opposite ends of the earth. In San Francisco, firefighters were in deep mourning over the deaths of two of their brethren who perished while battling a super-hot blaze. In Alameda, the public was in shock over a seemingly callous decision by firefighters to stand by and watch for an hour as a despondent man drowned himself in shallow bay waters.

In San Francisco, fire Lieutenant Vincent Perez, 48, and paramedic Anthony “Tony” Valerio, 53, will be remembered as heroes. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted, it’s been sixty years since two firefighters died in a single blaze in the city. The two were killed apparently in a flashover — an explosion that occurs when a room becomes super-heated and everything incinerates.

In Alameda, the ten or so firefighters and police officers who stood onshore at Crown Beach and watched 52-year-old Raymond Zack slowly take his own life on Memorial Day likely will never be viewed as heroes. Indeed, they may never live down the incident. “This man died because of the negligence and incompetence of the Alameda Fire Department,” wrote retired Oakland Fire Department Lieutenant Daniel Lisker in a scathing Oakland Tribune op-ed.

Alameda police and fire have blamed budget cuts for their decision to do nothing. They said they were not trained to pull off a water rescue. The Tribune reported that police also said they didn’t know if Zack, at six-foot-three and weighing 280 pounds, was violent, armed, or on drugs.

It’s true that a potentially violent, suicidal man could have put firefighters in grave danger during a rescue, especially untrained ones. But by remaining onshore, the would-be rescuers never tried to accurately assess the situation. As Lisker noted, they could have at least talked to Zack from a safe distance, and attempted to convince him to not take his own life. “This was not a water rescue; this was a case of wading out to the man, communicating with him, and walking him back to the beach,” Lisker wrote. “This was not a man treading water in the Oakland-Alameda estuary, where danger to personnel is great. At Crown Beach you can wade out for 200 yards and still be knee-deep in water.”

“They did not go far enough to conclude that this was hopeless or dangerous,” Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute, which provides ethics training to police officers and other public officials, told the Trib. “There was no indication of danger, it was only pure speculation.”

The Trib noted that the only person who decided to assess the danger and go out and talk to Zack and as he stood in five-foot-deep water was a kite boarder, who circled him a few times and reported back that Zack wanted to stay in the water and pray. In other words, Zack apparently was unsure of whether to commit suicide. It took him an hour, after all, to finally do it. And the decision by firefighters to not even talk to him had to have sent a strong message to him that his life wasn’t worth saving.

So why did firefighters, people trained to put their lives on the line to save others, do nothing at all? Why were they apparently so uninterested in a man’s life to the point that they weren’t willing to talk to him, not even on a bullhorn? Only they know the answer to those questions.

But this much is true: The Alameda firefighters’ union wields substantial political power on the island, so criticism from elected officials may remain muted. Last year, Councilwoman Lena Tam was accused of ethics violations after she leaked what critics said was confidential city information to the firefighters’ union. The union also was instrumental in ousting the last fire chief, David Kapler. And the union helped sway the outcome of the 2010 election, throwing its full support, and cash, behind Councilwoman Marie Gilmore‘s successful mayoral bid.

Campaign finance records show that the firefighters union was Gilmore’s largest contributor, pumping $10,000 directly into her campaign, and then spending another $12,700 to help her win the mayor’s race and defeat Councilman Doug DeHaan. The union also donated $2,500 each to Tam and Rob Bonta, who now with Gilmore, have formed a ruling three-vote majority on the council. The firefighters’ union also was Tam and Bonta’s largest campaign donor.

In the coming weeks, it will be interesting to see whether this new council majority will go along with more proposed cuts to the fire department, particularly in light of what happened at Crown Beach. The Alameda Journal reported that Acting City Manager Lisa Goldman is recommending that the city lay off four firefighters and nine cops in an effort to help close Alameda’s $7.4 million budget deficit. That may not sound like a lot, but the Alameda police and fire departments are relatively small, and such layoffs, if they happen, will have a significant impact.

Which, in turn, raises several uncomfortable questions. Did firefighters and police officers let Zack kill himself out of protest or in an effort to send some kind of message? Or did they refuse to put their lives on the line because they’re disgruntled? Were they asking themselves: “Why should I risk my life when the city doesn’t have my back?” Again, they’re uncomfortable questions, but they need answers.

Three-Dot Roundup

Oakland Mayor Jean Quan told the Chronicle that she opposes putting public-employee pension-reform measures on the ballot, and prefers to obtain concessions from the unions at the bargaining table. The unions oppose such ballot measures, and Quan said it would be counterproductive to be fighting unions when she hopes to convince voters to approve a new parcel tax. … Quan’s administration, meanwhile, got a new radio system installed for the police department, replacing an outdated one that kept failing. … And state Democratic leaders are continuing to push a plan that would allow cities, counties, and school districts to raise taxes, including income taxes, without statewide approval. Senate leader Darrell Steinberg said he’ll drop the proposal, which does not need GOP support to pass, if Republicans agree to put Governor Jerry Brown tax measures on the ballot.


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