Alameda agrees to reinstate water rescue training


A man drowned off Crown Beach Monday while fire crews and police stood by watching helplessly as rules and regulations prevented them from getting into the water. Now, the city plans to recertify firefighters for water rescues.

Before, Alameda police and fire had to rely on the U.S. Coast Guard for water rescues. It was that way for two years, since budget cuts forced the city's fire boat out of the water and land-based water rescues along with it.

Mayor Marie Gilmore calls it an incredible tragedy and said, "I have so much empathy and sympathy for the victim and his family and obviously members of the public who witnessed this. They're rightfully upset, it was a difficult thing to watch."

Around noon Monday, first-responders and about 75 witnesses stood on shore as 53-year-old Raymond Zack lost consciousness and drowned about 150 yards out. The Coast Guard boat was stymied by shallow water and the helicopter was delayed by another call.

"Oh, I loved that boy so much," said Dee Berry.

After Berry called 911 to help her suicidal son Raymond Zack, firefighters told her they could only watch as he succumbed to the frigid waters off of Crown Beach and died.

"It's damn frustrating. That's how... " said Berry.

Firefighters followed department policy, staying out of the water. They even had to rely on a 20-year-old woman to volunteer and retrieve Zack's body from the ocean.

When asked if it makes sense, Alameda Fire Chief Michael D'Orazi said, "Well, it makes sense on one level because you have to make budgetary decisions based on what you have in front of you."

The budgetary constraint was apparently simple enough to change after the community complained from Tuesday morning until the night's city council meeting.

"What were they thinking when they did nothing?" said Alameda resident Rosemary McNally.

"This just strikes me as not just a problem with funding, but a problem with the culture of what's going on in our city, that no one would take the time and help this drowning man," said Alameda resident Adam Gillitt.

"Could we have done more when the gentleman became unconscious? Certainly, there's that opportunity for us to have gone out and do more. We're looking at that," said Alameda Police Chief Michael Noonan.

The mayor and fire chief now say the rescue program will be reinstated and the city will spend the $20,000 to $40,000 to certify 16 firefighters in land-based water rescue tactics.

Gilmore said the first responders are devastated about what happened Monday. Being forced to stand and do nothing was against their instincts.

"I just want to reassure the pubic that we are taking steps to address this," said Gilmore.

Fire officials say it will take several weeks to get its firefighters up to speed after two years of leaving its citizens unprotected on its beaches.

The San Francisco Fire Department is one of the few in the Bay Area that certifies some of its personnel for water rescues. The department's spokeswoman says about 300 firefighters are certified. They are needed about once a week to help someone in the bay or ocean. Water rescue crews are equipped with boats, wet suits, paddle boards and other gear.

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