Rescuers stand by while man drowns?

No. Local agencies responded to an event they were untrained for.

I’m sure most of my readers have been in a pool before.  I’d go a touch farther and say that more have been in a lake or river.  A good bit even took a few swims in the ocean.

Does that make you a rescue swimmer?

I went skiing when I was a kid and in college.  Got pretty good at it too.  I can now serve as Ski Patrol.

As a Scout I learned how to tie knots and repel.  I am now a high angle rescuer.

Let’s change the headline:

“Ambulance crew stand nearby while man dies in fire.”  They don’t have the equipment or training to deal with the situation, let’s blame THEM.

Or how about:

“TSA agents do nothing as armed gang robs bank near airport.”  Again, no training, no equipment.

So why are so many so fast to jump in and say they would have gotten in the water and made the rescue in Alameda?  Likely because most of them have never been in the waters this event occured in.  This kind of event happens more often than you think.

What was the tide? Ebb?  Slack? Flood?  Why does it matter?  What has the weather been like the last few days? Why does that matter?

A bay rescue is not a simple jump in the water or into a swift water arena where your victim is always travelling in the same direction.  Depending on the distance from shore, the tides could create eddys which move water at high speed in different directions, meaning you could enter the water and be 20 yards south of your victim before you came up for air the first time.  Oh, and NEVER take your eyes off the victim, even when swimming.  Ever tried that?

Now, flotation.  Does your rig carry a Peterson Flotation device?  Something you can float to the victim, staying clear of their fight to stay afloat?  No? OK then.

Now, cold.  Your victim is experiencing hypothermia, how long until you feel the effects and become a victim as well?  Wetsuit, boots? No, OK then.

“But Justin, a bystander just swam out and got him just fine.”  Shall I link to countless stories of people going back into burning buildings to get something against the advice of firefighters on the scene?

Or should I begin linking to all the stories of would be rescuers drowning because they were unfamiliar with the waters they found themselves in and had no idea what a water based rescue requires or entails?

My point is this:

Had I been dispatched to this call without my swim gear, I would NOT have entered the water.  Period.

Keep in mind folks that there are no swimmers on the Coast Guard boats, only hooks and nets.  Only the helicopter can deploy a swimmer.  Them or the SFFD.  And now it looks like Alameda as well.  How many more people will die before public safety budget cuts are exposed as actually killing people?

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28 thoughts on “Rescuers stand by while man drowns?”

  1. Ambulance company near here lost a medic a few years back at a water rescue gone bad.  VERY sad story.
    A couple of days ago, there was another attempted rescue in very swift water, at the top of a large waterfall. I was relieved to see them with appropriate safety gear, and listened on the radio as careful plans were made at each step. The swimmer didn’t make it, and I’m sad for that. But I am also very grateful that none of my friends died trying to save him.
    Stay safe, my friend.
    I understand why it looks so frustrating to bystanders, but I ALSO totally understand what you are saying.
    And sadly, I think there are far more stories of the “would-be rescuer drowns” variety than there are of “bystander makes heroic save.”

  2. And those rescuers are all still alive to respond to a call they do have the training and equipment to respond to, saving more lives. I’ll take an alive rescuer over an alive civilian any day. It always amazes me how much reminding we get that there is no point in putting ourselves at unnecessary risk, and that every year there is still rescuers who die by putting themselves beyond their training.

  3. You bring up some great points. I’ve got a different perspective from the LEO side you didn’t mention. I’ll be posting it later and I’ll link to you.

    All I will say is we are in agreement.

  4. Thank you for adding your excellent points. 

    Most of us suffer from the problem of not knowing what we do not know, so we underestimate risks.

    When we get away with taking an unreasonable risk, we only reinforce our faith in our misguided judgment.

    As long as our actions are limited to an armchair, we do not face any real risk.

    When someone dies based on the same decision to underestimate an unknown risk, we come up with excuses as to why they did it wrong. That we would have done it differently – better – and survived as the hero.

    To quote the Black Knight – I’m invincible!

    1. Good point Happy. Only trained personnel should enter dangerous water. With no PFD or wet suit you only risk becoming a victim yourself, then who is going to attempt another rescue? Now you have two victims.

  5. I don’t disagree with any of your points, Justin, but I think you’re missing a big one here.

    In a city SURROUNDED BY WATER, why were there no qualified water rescue personnel available? Were other resources considered (for example, don’t other nearby agencies have zodiacs and other small watercraft close by)?

    I don’t think anyone questions the commitment of the on-scene personnel. But the command staff and city leadership dropped the ball on this one. This was a failure of planning and preparation and leadership. To use “budget cuts” as an explanation is a weak excuse and brings into question leadership’s commitment to safety. In the end, rescuers were forced to stand by as a man drowned.

    1. EBMedic,

      These are valid points. The chief has stated that the funding was cut. 

      Were there any other ways to keep enough equipment and training to be able to respond appropriately? I don’t know. 

      That will be something that should come out in the inevitable examination of what went wrong. 

      1. Alameda FD is having a hard enough time maintaining it’s Paramedics certifications with the county, let alone water rescue. Both the fireboat and rescue boat are out of service (and broken), but wouldn’t have been suitable in the surf anyway. They do have a zodiac type boat somewhere, but probably didn’t want to use it without trained personnel.

        Oakland, across the channel, isn’t in much better shape, their fireboat is also out of service, but at least maintained and available on several hours notice. The rescue boat is mostly in service (cross staffed), but also not something you’d want to use in the surf. I’m not sure if they have rescue swimmers or not, but given everything else that was cut I doubt it.

    2. AFD lists water rescues as a service provided. Bait n switch? No Plan B? The apparent lack of ANY real effort to help the guy really pisses off the public, and the rescuer safety first principle is only understood us in the business. Count the number of agencies involved, and ya gotta wonder. And the woman who did swim out was dealing with a body, so there was little risk of a combative suicidal patient. To think he may have been expressing his want for help, to see no reaction, that’s got to hurt BAD

    3. AFD lists water rescues as a service provided. Bait n switch? No Plan B? The apparent lack of ANY real effort to help the guy really pisses off the public, and the rescuer safety first principle is only understood us in the business. Count the number of agencies involved, and ya gotta wonder. And the woman who did swim out was dealing with a body, so there was little risk of a combative suicidal patient. To think he may have been expressing his want for help, to see no reaction, that’s got to hurt BAD

    4. In fact yes, the SFFD deploys a rigid hull inflatable and 2 rescue jet skis.  But only a handful of our personnel are trained as swimmers.  Engines 19, 18, 23, 34 and 16 can deploy swimmers, but not all personnel on those engines are qualified swimmers due to staffing issues.

  6. People frequently underestimate the danger of water and water rescues. Every year many people drown because they literally get in over their heads. Many others drown because they jump in to try to save them. Water rescue is no place for the untrained and unprepared.

    I think that the fault here lies with the FD management. It’s just plain inconceivable that a city or town on the edge of the ocean would have no one trained and no equipment to do this type of rescue.

  7. I find it hard to believe that none of the responding agencies carried PFD’s on their rigs, particularly in a maritime region. I would also imagine that most FD’s carry at least one 200″ bag of utility rope on their Engines, Ladders whatever.
    With those 2 things actions could have been taken that at the very least would have given the “appearance” of somebody trying to do something. There had to be at least one decent swimmer there who could have waded out waist deep, with a PFD on and a tag line attached and try to talk to the guy or at least get close enough so that when the guy went down from hypothermia they could have attempted to grab him……….no need for crazy heroics……just a half-assed attempt !
    DaveOC

    1. I wasn’t there, so I can’t speak for the responders’ actions inactions, but …

      Ever tried to swim out in open water with a rope attached to you?  The thin “ski ropes” the lifeguards use in competitions create plenty of drag.  Imagine trying to swim out 200′ of FD utility rope…it’ll suck up water like a sponge and you’ll be done by the time you get halfway to the vic.  PFDs are also a poor excuse for lack of swimming/rescue skills.     

      Half-assed attempts are crazy heroics.

    2. Clearly you have never attempted to aid a person attempting to drown themselves.  Tey seldom reach out for things thrown to them.  indeed it would have looked nice for the cameras, that is until the reporters point out the wrong rope was used, or too short, or thrown wrong.  this whole situation is lose lose so long as training budgets are cut.

  8. I thought it was the perfect combination to show these non-beliving city councils and county boards that public service is here for you. We don’t ask for money becasue we want to go to a lunch with a potential new candidate. We use the money we ask for to train and we train to aid the community in which we are sworn to protect. Take our money away from us and people will die. Now tell me you don’t believe me.

    1. Problem is, we all refuse to talk to the press.  When was the last time a paramedic emt or firefighter stepped up to the cameras and actually told the reporters how things are?  We’re all too afraid to “owe ice cream” or be a “media whore.”  They don’t know what we don’t tell them.  i would have paid money to see one of the Alameda folks step up and tell the reporter they had no ability to effect a rescue.  The media is not stupid if we refuse to tell them anything, in a vacuum, they will write whatever suits their angle.
      Step up to the mic and be heard.

      1. yes, we need to be heard, but they’ll get it all wrong anyway even if we dictate word for word to them what they should print. and that is assuming that they’re not going to spin whatever we tell them to their liking in the first place.

        hi media, i love you! =P

      2. Sounds good, but I have a hard time believing that major metro department don’t have very strictly-enforced rules about who gets to talk to the media and when.  I’m sure SFFD does. 

        1. When speaking on Department business, then yes, refer them to the PIO.  But recently when we escorted Bryan Stow from SFO to SFGH (a 20 minute drive) a group of reporters approached the group of EMTs and PAramedics gathering and they all refused to speak.  One of them began trying to talk to one of Bryan’s co-workers so I stepped forward.  everyone laughed at first.  the reporters used terms like “emergency workers” and “volunteer”.  I rephrased that for them to “Off duty Paramedics and EMTs taking time away from their families to be with a different kind of family.”  and she said that word fro word.  Contact reporters in your area and offer your comments on EMS issues as an expert, not an employee.  You can at least begin to get the proper terms out there.

  9. So you are going to defend the actions of public safety workers standing on shore and watching a man drown? If the question was one of re-certification doesn’t that mean there were probably firefighters there that had one time been certified? Does refusing to enter the water negate the option of throwing the guy a life-preserver attached to a rope? It is not uncommon for someone trying suicide to change their mind and reach out for help. I’ve worked in EMS and as a police officer, I know things are not always as they seem, but the first words out of officials had nothing to do with the safety of the situation – the first priority was THE BUDGET. This was a play for more money from a department whose Chief stated he would let a child drown due to the policies rather than save him or her.

    As far as the city budgets go, just allow this to happen a couple times, and a large chunk will be going to pay wrongful death suits.

    1. Absolutely I am going to defend the actions of public safety workers who made a calculated risk assessment and didn’t go in the water. regardless of whether they had at one time been trained to enter the water and make a rescue, how many of them WERE trained? One? maybe? Do they still have the gear on the rig? Wetsuits, fins and floats? Can they deploy at least 2 swimmers? Not all firefighters are trained in all disciplines, just as not all Police Officers are hostage negotiators, sharp shooters or, in this case, rescuers.
      I would not have entered the water either and, having been involved with “rescuing” attempted suicides, I can assure you it is not as simple as throwing something in the water. I have over simplified your answer, but let’s imagine they did throw a rope into the water and the victim does not reach for it? the “what if” game can go on for years, but yes, it was the decreased training that led to those agencies, fire, EMs and police to not be able to deploy swimmers in an area surrounded by water. Our own station on Treasure Island…AN ISLAND! does not have any rescue swimmers on it. Is my Dept perfect? No. Would everyone take the surf rescue class? not everyone can even pass the qualifying swim to get into the class.

      The Chief’s response was indeed quick and off kilter in my opinion as well, but it does boil down to the fact that none of the agencies can deploy swimmers but the streets still get swept, the grass at the ballpark mowed and the Mayor’s gas tank filled.
      Thanks for reading and even more for commenting.
      Justin

  10. As I read this post and comments, it got me thinking about Anne Arundel County MD Station 42, Deale MD. They have two fire boats and ZERO 0 people trained on how to operate them, and because volunteers provided them, the county refuses to recognize them or train anyone to use them. What a waste. Avalon Shores Co 41, just a few miles away is all paid and has a county boat. Fire boat 61, Cape St Claire seems to be MIA, however if it were there, unless it is flat calm they refuse to respond, so Annapolis City (separate from AACOFD) Fire Boat 35 always responds unless they’re out of service which is very rare. Usually the Eastern Shore Cunties or Calvert have to respond.

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