Contrary to what the interim fire chief told the Alameda City Council, his department had funding for water rescue training but apparently never used it, leaving a suicidal Alameda man to fend for himself and die May 30 in the shallow waters off the island, according to an internal Fire Department memo.
"We have been approved funding to recertify instructors and train new swimmers," Division Chief Dale Vogelsang wrote in the March 19, 2009, memo. "However, until this training is completed, per OSHA requirements, no members may be used as rescue swimmers."
A rescue swimmer needs 24 hours a year of training to remain certified.
"We anticipate training to commence within the next 30 to 45 days," Vogelsang wrote.
Fire officials declined to answer questions about why the training apparently never happened during the past two years, pending a citywide review. A call to the Alameda fire union president was not returned.
The day after Raymond Zack died off the Alameda shoreline, Mike D'Orazi, interim fire chief, told the Alameda City Council that budget constraints led to the loss of the department's water rescue ability: "We just did not have the money available to do what we would like to do."
But the 2009 memo indicates money was available -- and, in fact, $20,000 from the current budget is being used to do the training.
Capt. Richard Waggener, identified as the water operations manager in charge of restarting the program two years ago, was on the beach May 30 when Zack waded into the shallow waters off Crown Memorial State Beach. Eight other firefighters, a handful of police and onlookers also watched the mentally ill man stand in the chilly water a few hundred feet offshore and slowly lose his life.
Almost an hour after Zack waded into the water, glancing periodically back to shore, a young woman went in after him and pulled his body to shore, where firefighters attempted to resuscitate him, to no avail. An autopsy is pending.
Police released 911 and dispatch audio, as well as logs and a timeline of the event Wednesday, and the Fire Department released its audio, along with policy documents and its incident report Thursday after a Bay Area News Group public records request.
Although fire audio recordings are bare, the Alameda fire incident commander's report released Thursday describes the decision to stay dry:
"I was told by the Engine 1 captain that his crews were triangulating the subject's position and that he (Waggener) had informed the APD (police) commander that our crews were not able to enter the water," wrote division chief Ricci Zombeck in the June 6 incident report. "I was asked by the APD commander if we would enter the water and I confirmed that we would not."
Zombeck was asked by a television reporter hours after the incident if he would enter the water to save a drowning child.
"Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you're asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that's what's required by our department to do," he said at the time.
Their procedures are guided by a 2003 water rescue policy, drafted by the island agency's fire labor management team. Among other restrictions, only certified rescue swimmers could enter the water for a rescue, no matter how deep in the ocean. Each fire engine would have a rescue swimmer on board ready for deployment.
It's unclear why funding for rescue swimmers ceased, but Councilwoman Beverly Johnson said any cuts made were done at the discretion of the Fire Department based on internal decisions.
"I don't know anyone in the city who knew this protocol existed. I know no one on the City Council did," she said.
Johnson said former Chief Dave Kapler -- D'Orazi only started his job a few weeks before Zack's death -- should not have let the swimming certification lapse.
"Alameda is an island city and it just seems like a major shortfall and the chief may not have been paying close enough attention to what was happening," she said.
Sixteen firefighters will soon start swim certification training at a cost of $20,000, the interim chief has said. D'Orazi also made an immediate policy change that would allow a senior firefighter the discretion on how best to respond to a water emergency.
Since the suicide, Alameda police have said they did not enter the water because the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Zack was suicidal and possibly armed or dangerous.
According to the Fire Department incident report, however: "The (Alameda Police Department) commander stated that her crews were not trained to go in the water and that they would not pursue the subject."
A call to the police spokesman Thursday was not returned.
The city's Multi-Hazard Functional Plan for Emergency Operations identifies the Fire Department as the primary surface water rescuer.
The 2009 memo, however, warned, due to the certification lapse: "Under no circumstances shall any member enter the water to initiate a rescue or search."
In the two years since the city's water rescue program ceased, the memo instructed incident commanders to contact the Coast Guard and other surrounding agencies in the event of a water rescue.
- California Man Drowns While Fire and Police Watch; Bystander Pulls Man to Shore
- Questions Remain About Calls for Help in Alameda Drowning
- Experts: Authorities Right Not to Act in Alameda Drowning
- External Review Planned for Alameda Drowning Response; Audio of Communications Released