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Go ahead, cut the fire department budget

...But be ready to not get what you need

"Firefighters watch man drown"
"Police and firefighters let man die"
Those are just a couple of the headlines in the mainstream media in response to a recent drowning in Alameda California.

Apparently a 52-year-old man had decided to commit suicide by walking into deep water. The area in which he did so was too shallow for the local Coast Guard to access by boat and the Coast Guard helicopter stationed there was on another mission.

The story by CNN here.
The story by MSNBC here.

Police and fire responders watched the man treading water for nearly an hour according to reports, without taking any action. Eventually, the man did drown and his body was recovered by a civilian swimmer.

This event has generated public outcry and media scrutiny of the actions of the fire department.  The focus of this attention is on the fact that the fire department is ill-prepared to conduct a water rescue. In fact, firefighters are under direct order not to enter the water. An order that resulted from cutting the budget of local emergency responders.

This is also a prime example of one of my biggest concerns -
Decreased local responder preparedness resulting from budget cuts. Emergency service budget cuts and lay-offs of emergency responders are the topic of a two-part series on Mitigation Journal Podcast. You can listen part one now (free) on MJ Podcast #209 here, part two now also available on Mitigation Journal Podcast.

It seems inconceivable that a fire department serving a “beach community” would be unprepared for water events and rescue. The cause of situation however, rests in budget cuts. Two years ago the fire departments budget was cut as was their water rescue program. These cuts resulted in their boat being put in dry dock and trained water rescue personnel being ordered not to enter the water for rescues or training.

That was two years ago. And no one in this “beach community” has taken notice...until now...until something happened...

According to mainstream media sources the budgetary cutting water rescue services to this "beach community" amounted to between 20,000 and $40,000 in savings.

While the mainstream media and the public assaults the fire department for their lack of preparedness in water rescue, I would politely ask a few questions…

Who cut the budget? Further, who decided that the water rescue component in this fire department should be the victim of that budget cut?

Who decided that a fire department serving this “beach community” should deem their water rescue program surplus.

Why didn't anyone in the community speak up two years ago when their fire departments budget was being cut. I'm sure when the budget proposals were being voted on and approved that many people thought cutting the fire department's budget was a good idea at the time. Now it seems that this community is seeing firsthand the results of public service cuts in the impact on local preparedness.

Reports in the mainstream media also display the outcry from the citizen population; all wanting to know “why didn't they do something?” Let's look at it this way; what would the response had been if this suicidal person have been standing atop a building or on the edge of a bridge? Would we expect firefighters or police officers to rush up and grab that person? In those types of situations some level of negotiation and communication takes place. Rushing up to grab a person standing on a bridge or in the edge of a building is likely to result in tragedy. Likewise, sending firefighters without proper equipment or training into open water to effect a rescue of a suicidal person could likely end with the death of the responders as well as the suicidal person.

There are certainly times when E. M. S. personnel, firefighters, and law enforcement officers have to take action that is dangerous. That's part of the job. And this is not the first time we've heard emergency responders criticized for not taking action. Let's look at a few other cases…

In January 1982,  Air Florida flight 90 crashed into the Potomac River. Fire and EMS personnel were ill-equipped to affect rescue in the icy water. In fact, civilians were the only ones to make attempts at water rescue. Other survivors were rescued by helicopter.

In January, 2008, Manatee EMS staff was criticized for not attempting a water rescue of two men who had driven into a retention pond. (Manatee EMS staff training criticized, MJ Blog 1/2008)

In May, 2006 two paramedics in British Columbia, Canada died while attempting to rescue of a man in a mine shaft. These responders entered an oxygen deficient, hydrogen sulfide contaminated atmosphere without respiratory protection. (Play Your Position, Please, MJ Blog 5/2008)

 These cases illustrate the difficult decisions that we often take for granted  in emergency response. The difference between these cases in the situation in Alameda, California, is this…

  • in Alameda, the fire department has trained personnel and had a water rescue program that apparently met the needs of the community prior to budget cuts
  • in Alameda, someone (either from in or outside of the fire department) decided that cutting the water rescue program was appropriate…
  • an Alameda, the public was either unaware or unconcerned that this “beach community” would be without a functional water rescue program as a result of these budget cuts…

This situation in Alameda, California, should give the public, politicians, responders, and agency leaders a moment of pause to reflect on what happens to your community when you cut local emergency responder budgets.