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Additional Training, More Rescue Equipment Following Alameda Drowning

ALAMEDA, Calif. -- Additional training for police and firefighters and putting more rescue equipment into service are among the steps that Alameda officials are pledging in the wake of an independent report that criticized their emergency response as Raymond Zack drowned himself off Crown Beach on Memorial Day.

But some residents maintain the report should have held first responders more responsible for Zack's death, and they say they now will campaign to have the Alameda County Fire Department take over local firefighting duties.

The 52-year-old Zack -- whose family said suffered from mental illness -- waded into San Francisco Bay before dozens of onlookers and drowned as police and firefighters stayed on the beach.

Firefighters said they did not enter the water because they were not certified in land-water rescue and did not have a boat that could maneuver in the shallow waters.

Police said they did not go in because Zack was suicidal and possibly violent.

A passer-by eventually pulled Zack back into shore after he began floating face down.

"I do want to take this opportunity to apologize to you, to apologize to the community," police Chief Mike Noonan told the City Council on Tuesday. "You expect better, deserve better, and from the police department, you will get better."

A lack of training and a communications breakdown led to a "disjointed emergency response effort" as Zack succumbed in the chilly bay waters, the report by former state Fire Marshal Ruben Grijalva found.

Grijalva also said the elimination of the fire department's rescue boat and rescue swimmer program caused a total reliance on mutual aid, which provided a "reduced likelihood of a successful outcome" at the scene.

"I am not here to blame the police or the fire department," Dolores Berry, 84, Zack's foster mother, told the council Tuesday. "They did what they had to do at the time, what they thought was right."

But Berry also said first-responders need to change their water rescue polices.

"They have to learn how to do things in a different way," she said.

While rescue policies contributed to Zack's death, City Manager John Russo said, "Whatever those failures were, there was a real person here, someone who those knew and cared about."

Among the 14 recommendations in Grijalva's report are additional training -- including with the U.S. Coast Guard and other agencies -- and better internal communication, especially at emergencies where mutual aid is requested.

While some of the recommendations have already been put in place, Russo said he will update the council in February on the progress toward making other changes.

Since Zack's death, 21 Alameda firefighters have undergone training as rescue swimmers and two shallow water rescue boats are in service.

The department has also successfully carried out four water-based rescues since the drowning, interim Fire Chief Mike D'Orazi said.

Noonan said police are boosting their harbor patrol program and officers are reviewing how they respond to critical incidents. Patrol cars also have been equipped with buoys attached to 100-foot rescue lines, he said.

Meanwhile, local activist Adam Gillitt and other residents announced Tuesday they will launch a petition to have Alameda County take over firefighting duties on the Island.

"We feel it is the only way to bring our community the first class safety we need within our city's financial means," Gillitt said.

He said Grijalva should have called for increased accountability within the fire department, instead of just for additional training and funding.

The fire department pulled its rescue boat out of service on May 1, 2008 due to budget constraints, Grijalva's report said.

It also showed that an internal bulletin from March 16, 2009 indicated that the rescue swimmer program was being put on hold until firefighters could undergo refresher training.

But the training was never resumed and the public and City Council were not told it was shelved, Grijalva said.

Mayor Marie Gilmore said it was important that the city support Grijalva's recommendations so that the public felt safe.

"We owe the community better and we will get better at this," Councilwoman Lena Tam said.
 



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