Rescue Teams Follow EMS Procedure; Watch Man Drown

(Excerpt from the book, Paramedic Heretic):

The water of San Francisco Bay never really warms up. And on Memorial Day 2011, the day 52-year-old Raymond Zack decided to end his life, the surface temperature was 22 degrees above freezing. So once his mind was made up, he simply waded out into the calm surf, stood quite still in water up to his chin and waited for the cold to stop his heart.

This particular drama played itself out at Crown State Beach in Alameda, a city-island tucked into a niche along the Oakland side of the Bay. Like most California beaches there were no lifeguards on duty, and the posted signs clearly stated, “Enter the water at your own risk.” There is never a shortage of joggers, bikers and water-sports folks however, so it wasn’t long before one of them, Sharon Brunetti, called 911 to report this fellow’s very strange behavior. The concerned caller knew that nobody in their right mind stands around in the San Francisco Bay.

The good news that day was that Alameda  City Fire and police got to the scene post haste. The great news was that they really did feel sorry for the poor fellow and wanted to help. The crappy news was that – like most all other first responders in the U.S. – they operate under strict orders to follow protocol. And the protocol in this case was that Alameda City firefighters did not enter the ocean. They were not – as their policy underscores – lifeguards. So they called the Coast Guard. Unfortunately the Coast Guard boat was far too big to access such shallow water. Worse, their helicopter was busy on another rescue.

Alameda police were in no position to help on a water rescue either. As department spokesman Sean Lynch would emphasize later, “Certainly this was tragic. But police officers are tasked with ensuring safety, and that includes their own safety, when they are sent to try to resolve these kinds of situations. We did not know whether he was violent; whether drugs were involved; whether he had a weapon. We are not ocean water rescuers.”

Alameda Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi, for his part, said, “This incident was deeply regrettable. But look at it from our firefighters’ perspective. They’re standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy.”

D’Orazi reminded the press that his department had recently undergone major budget cuts, so his teams had neither the training nor the cold-water gear to go into the ocean safely.

And so – if you can picture the scene – two full fire crews, six police officers, a medic unit and about 45 bystanders all on a beach, watching Raymond Zack shivering offshore, staring back at them. Alameda police estimate Zack stood silent in the water for 55 minutes before he simply fell over and died. An off-duty nurse in a wetsuit, who was also a trained lifeguard, swam out to the man on her surfboard and pulled him to shore. Resuscitation efforts were unsuccessful.

As you might imagine. plenty of witnesses were openly critical of – and at times hostile toward – rescue personnel that day. And they made their opinions known when the news cameras showed up:

“Hooray for the civilian with the guts to do something,” said Martin L. “This isn’t anything new. Last summer I saw cops and fire guys standing on a pier while civilians saved a fellow’s life with a jet ski.”

“You’d think at some point there would be real concern for him,” said witness Gary B. “Those so-called ‘rescuers’ are a complete fraud.”

Another witness, Adam G. said, “This isn’t just a problem with funding. It’s a problem with the culture, of what’s going on in our cities. No one would take the time and help this drowning man.”

“Just file this one under, nobody important got hurt. At least all the heroes got to go home. What a bunch of cowards.” (Tom R.)

“What’s happened to EMS today? Where are the dedicated individuals who were always there before?” (Erin D.)

Thus, the conundrum between what EMS is really like, and what the public thinks it is.

Immutable Law #2

Saving lives is not our priority.

Following our policies is our priority.

Protecting ourselves comes next. Avoiding

lawsuits comes third. You come somewhere

after that.

*          *          *

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