Bureaucracy can hobble public safety responses 

As Thursday’s tragic San Francisco fire that claimed the life of at least one truly heroic firefighter has shown, public safety jobs can at times be very dangerous. But a shocking incident across the Bay in Alameda earlier in the week also showed that some public safety agencies can be so mired in bureaucracy that their first-line responders fail to protect the public.

Not only did Alameda firefighters and police stand around, watch and do nothing as a suicidal man, Raymond Zack, spent an hour in San Francisco Bay, neck-deep in water, they didn’t even go into the water to retrieve his lifeless body after he died. That job was left to a bystander. To make this embarrassing failure even more grievous, police and fire officials then defended their employees by blaming the inaction on budget cuts and city policies.

What explains Alameda? Per the MSNBC report: “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 was deeply regrettable,’ he said. ‘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 absurd. Simple decency required some effort to save a troubled man. The bystander who fished out his body didn’t have cold-water gear or training, but he jumped into the water anyway. MSNBC quoted a local resident who made the 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 disconnect. Police agencies always say that officer safety is their first priority. But the job cannot avoid all the risk sometimes required for helping the public.

However, Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch told the San Jose Mercury News, “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. ... 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.”

The tragic fire in San Francisco shows how heroic public safety officers can be, and the tragedy in Alameda shows the pitfalls of excessive bureaucracy. It’s time to figure out the right policies that will bring out the best in agencies supposed to be there to protect the public.

Steven Greenhut is editor of www.calwatchdog.com; write to him at sgreenhut@calwatchdog.com.

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