This piece originally ran in The Orange County Register on June 3, 2011
SACRAMENTO – As a tragic San Francisco fire that claimed the life of at least one firefighter Thursday has shown, public safety jobs at times can be very dangerous. But an incident from earlier in the week across the bay in Alameda has also shown, public safety agencies also can be so mired in bureaucracy that safety officials fail to act decently, let alone heroically.
Not only did Alameda firefighters and police stand around, watch and do nothing as a suicidal man, Raymond Zack, spent an hour neck-deep in the waters of San Francisco Bay, they didn’t even go into the water to retrieve his body when he died. They left that work to a bystander. To make this incident on Memorial Day even more infuriating, police and fire officials defended the inactions of their employees and blamed budget cuts and city policy for this inhumane behavior by those who often claim to be selfless protectors of the public.
Public safety “first responders” play the hero card whenever they are negotiating for higher pay, better pensions and other bigger budget items and, again, sometimes they are. When it comes time to actually behave like heroes, they sometimes act like bureaucrats. The Alameda tragedy is by no means an unusual situation.
MSNBC reported: “Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said that due to 2009 budget cuts his crews did not have the training or cold-water gear to go into the water. ‘The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable,’ he said Tuesday. ‘But I can also see it from our firefighters’ perspective. They’re standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy at that point.'”
Blaming budget cuts is reprehensible especially given the large chunk of local budgets that firefighting services consume. Simple decency required some effort – rather than these highly paid professionals standing around and gawking – to save a troubled man. The bystander who fished out the body didn’t have cold-water gear (let alone a big pension from the fire department), but he jumped into the water anyway and acted like an actual human being. The water was chilly (54 degrees) but it’s not like they were in, say, Alaska.
A local resident was quoted in the story, and he made a sensible point: “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.”
The Alameda police showed an even deeper cultural problem. “Certainly this was tragic, but police officers are tasked with ensuring public safety, including the safety of personnel who are sent to try to resolve these kinds of situations,” Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch told the San Jose Mercury News. “He was engaged in a deliberate act of taking his own life. We did not know whether he was violent, whether drugs were involved. It’s not a situation of a typical rescue.”
Police agencies always say that officer safety is their first priority. But the job entails some risk to help the public. Helping troubled people is part of the job description. Blaming the victim is wrong.
The whole scenario seemed like something from the Three Stooges, except with tragic results. According to the MSNBC report, “The Coast Guard was called to the scene, but the water was too shallow for its boat. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived more than an hour later because it had been on another call and had to refuel.”
The firefighters, cops and Coast Guard, with all their personnel and top-of-the-line equipment, were incapable of even trying to save the life of a man who stood neck deep in water for an hour. Something definitely is wrong with this picture. It reminds me of an incident in Philadelphia I wrote about a few years ago:
“In a videotaped ‘rescue’ along the Schuylkill River last May [police and firefighters] did nothing other than watch for a half-hour or so as a troubled man clung to the side of a bridge, then jumped off and drowned. … [T]hey were joking around as the tragic event transpired. It took a roller-blading passerby and another bystander to attempt a rescue. … And the officials wouldn’t touch [the dying man] or try to resuscitate him until the rubber gloves and other safety equipment was on the scene. They left the dirty work for the brave volunteers. This infuriating response didn’t merit a rebuke from the police commissioner, who actually praised the assembled cops for their efforts after a public outcry ensued.”
Instead of getting punished, Alameda officials will get rewarded – with additional training dollars. But who really believes that, even if that money had been available and the policy been different, that these first responders would have done the right thing? The local resident quoted in the story was right. The problem is a deep cultural one, something I see to be endemic in the government agencies that always claim to protect and serve us.
Police and fire agencies are bureaucracies and, as such, they end up functioning in a similar manner to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the IRS and any other alphabet-soup agency you can name. As author and economist Thomas Sowell put it, “You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.”
And so normal people stand around wondering how we can end up with such a bad outcome – a preventable death – while the bureaucracies, stuck as they are on procedure, tell us they acted appropriately.
It’s about time the public starts rethinking our public safety policy and starts wondering whether the creation of big costly bureaucracies, encumbered by ridiculous rules and designed mainly around the convenience and safety of those working in the agencies, is the best way to protect the public’s safety.