RAYMOND ZACK: A year later, police and fire brass say they're ready

RAYMOND ZACK: A year later, police and fire brass say they're ready

Michele Ellson

On the afternoon of May 7, just a few weeks before the tragic anniversary of the drowning death of Raymond Zack, Alameda police and firefighters responded to a call of swimmers in distress less than a half mile from where the 53-year-old Alameda man died.

Within minutes, police were on the beach, and despite a lack of water rescue training, they stripped down and entered the shallow Bay water, buoys and bags in hand. Water-trained firefighters showed up shortly after that, rescuing the swimmers and transporting them to the local hospital.

Firefighters sent a rescue boat and the Coast Guard showed up with two boats and a helicopter. East Bay Regional Park District Police, whose jurisdiction includes Robert W. Crown Memorial Beach, were called in too.

“The irony of that call is, (we were told) to call in as many resources as we can, and a few days later we got a call (from someone saying) it was a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Alameda Police Chief Mike Noonan said.

Public safety brass hope the successful rescue – and others like it – will help to erase memories of Zack’s Memorial Day death, which shook this Island community and provoked an international outcry.

Zack drowned after a half hour immersion in the Bay, while more than a dozen police and firefighters and stunned bystanders watched. His body was retrieved by an off-duty psychiatric nurse who happened to be visiting a friend who lived nearby. She entered the water despite being told not to by fire and police officials on scene.

Police said they weren't trained to enter the water and couldn't assess how dangerous the 6'3", 280-pound Zack might be, police reports show, though a kite surfer had talked to him without incident and bystanders remained on the adjacent beach as the incident unfolded. The Coast Guard sent a rescue boat that couldn't enter the shallow waters Zack was standing in, documents released by the city show.

A review of the incident uncovered a host of issues that included a lack of proper training, a failure to call on available rescue resources, a critical miscommunication with the Coast Guard and the city’s decision in 2009 to eliminate its water rescue program, which resulted in a departmental directive barring firefighters from entering the water – a directive police on the scene were unaware of. And City Manager John Russo cited another issue – a cultural disconnect between the city’s police and fire departments – as a problem he wanted fixed.

Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said he had “some pretty emotional discussions with people on the scene” but that they are all still on the job (one has since relocated to another department).

“Getting that program up and running was the best medicine,” he said.

Noonan and D’Orazi said at a press briefing Monday that they’ve taken the review’s recommendations to heart, and that they’ve taken the necessary steps toward fixing those problems so that a tragedy like Zack’s death never occurs again.

“I can’t change what took place. But we can change what we do going forward,” D’Orazi said Monday, where he and Noonan took general questions but would not comment specifically on the review or Zack’s death.

An investigator for the attorney representing Zack’s siblings, Robert Zack and Bernice Jolliff, who attended the briefing said they would be filing a lawsuit against the city later this week. In a claim filed last November, they accused the city and county of negligence and wrongful death in Zack’s drowning.

D’Orazi became acting chief of the department about a week before Zack drowned, replacing David Kapler, with whom the department’s rank and file had a tumultuous relationship. D’Orazi’s earlier tenure at the department saw another tragic incident – one in which firefighters did effect rescue efforts, but which ended just as badly.

Three teenage boys decided to walk across the estuary from the main Island to Bay Farm Island, and two succumbed to the deep water and strong current. A firefighter donned SCBA equipment in an effort to rescue the boys, D’Orazi said, nearly losing his leg in the attempt.

The incident led to the creation of the department’s water rescue program in 2000, and D’Orazi was one of its first rescue swimmers. He took over as training director in 2002, and the program remained strong until he left in 2007, D’Orazi said.

But the department’s boats were taken out of service in 2008 and its swimmers ordered to stay out of the water in March 2009, documents show. A department memo signed by then-Division Chief Dale Vogelsang said funding for water rescue training that hadn’t occurred for more than a year had been approved and that training would start again in 30 to 45 days, but that training never occurred.

The day after Zack’s death, D’Orazi lifted the directive barring firefighters from entering the water. In the months since, two dozen members of the department have received water rescue training and 38 more, training to operate the new rescue boat and trailer the department purchased; nearly everyone has received land-based water rescue training. The department is seeking a federal port security grant to cover the half-million-dollar cost of a new fireboat.

Alameda Fire is one of the first signatories to a mutual aid agreement that D’Orazi said will provide a more integrated, regional approach to water emergencies. And fire leaders are being given more leeway to make on-the-spot decisions that don't necessarily track with department protocols.

Police have received crisis intervention and incident command training and increased staffing in their marine unit, in addition to purchasing rescue equipment. Both agencies have trained together to prepare for a similar incident and with other, outside agencies. And they have worked to improve communication with each other and outside agencies, Noonan and D’Orazi said.

The training is critical for handling the case-by-case challenges of suicide calls and for ensuring workers in each department can safely manage their roles and responsibilities during such incidents, the chiefs said.

In the past, Noonan said police and firefighters would squabble over how things should be done and then “everyone would run it up the chain” of command. Now, even if they don’t agree on what needs to be done, they have to work things out on scene, he said.

“I’m certain we won’t have this happen again,” Noonan said.

Police and fire documents associated with the Zack incident are available on the city's website at http://www.cityofalamedaca.gov/City-Hall/CrownBeach.

Comments

Submitted by Bill Cox (not verified) on Fri, Sep 27, 2013

This is excellent news. I was totally ashamed of our public safety officers in the Raymond Zack case. They have corrected their mistakes.
Thanks to all concerned.

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