Alameda city officials were put on notice that a water rescue program was necessary for public safety more than two years before a despondent man drowned himself off Crown Beach while firefighters watched because they said department policy prevented a rescue attempt, public records show.
The warning came in a Feb. 4, 2009 grievance letter filed by a leader of the firefighters union who said the department's fire boat and water rescue programs were first implemented "due to the inherent risk that comes with providing service for an island community" and that an estimated 2,000 private boats are docked in Alameda.
"While water rescue calls are not a frequent response, they do occur several times a year," union Trustee Matt Nielsen said in the letter, which also noted that more than 12 square miles of water surround the city.
The union maintained that the city's decision to shelve the rescue programs in 2008 to save money violated their contract because it changed working conditions. But both former interim fire Chief Dave Kapler and former interim City Manager Ann Marie Gallant rejected the claim, according to documents obtained by the Bay Area News Group under a freedom-of-information request.
The city is currently conducting an independent investigation into the death of 52-year-old Raymond Zack, who took his life on Memorial Day by wading fully-clothed into the water off Robert Crown Memorial State Beach as dozens of witnesses looked
A passer-by pulled Zack's body to shore about an hour after he entered the water near Shoreline Drive and Willow Street.
Police and firefighters -- who were dispatched after a 911 caller reported that Zack was suicidal -- did not communicate with Zack and remained on the beach, even after he began floating face down, witnesses said.
The city's investigation by Ruben Grijalva, a former state fire marshal, is expected to include a chronology of what took place in May, as well as the actions by the various public safety agencies involved. Grijalva also is expected to review the city's current water rescue policies and make recommendations.
His findings will be presented to the City Council after his report is completed by late September.
Meanwhile, Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch said Wednesday that a toxicology report showed Zack did not have alcohol or narcotics in his system when he died. The official cause of death was drowning.
In the wake of the drowning, interim fire Chief Mike D'Orazi instituted an immediate policy change that allows a senior firefighter at an emergency scene discretion on whether to carry out a water rescue. Alameda firefighters are being trained now as rescue swimmers and the department has secured a 14-foot rescue boat.
According to public records, the city told Alameda firefighters Local 689 that it was taking the department's inflatable boat out of service in May 2008. The fire boat was pulled from service the following November.
Gallant told the union that its grievance claim was rejected during a May 20, 2009 hearing, saying that under its contract "the city has no bargaining obligation over the decisions to take the fire boat and water rescue boat out of service."
It was "a financial decision within fire management's purview," Gallant said in the May 28, 2009 memo. "During the hearing, Chief Kapler noted that the fire boat and water rescue boats are beneficial to the department but not required," Gallant said.