Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | June 7, 2011

We all bear responsibility for preventing tragedies like Zack’s death

The Memorial Day suicide of Raymond Zack, 52, in the city of Alameda’s cold San Francisco Bay waters while a dozen first responders watched for an hour has created widely divergent reactions.

Crown Memorial State Beach, Alameda from the Flickr photostream of sfcityscape

Reports say that Zack suffered from depression and had been hospitalized in the past for psychiatric problems. His elderly adoptive mother arrived at the scene shortly after Zack did and expected first responders to rescue him. Instead, they watched from shore as he waded into neck-deep water; they watched as he began floating face down, motionless. First responders did not bring the unconscious man to shore. An anonymous woman swam out and pulled him to shore. At that point, first responders acted: Zack was taken to a hospital where he died. It’s not clear yet if he drowned or died of hypothermia.

Defenders of the police and firefighters’ inaction say that first responders did not have the proper equipment or current certifications to conduct water rescues due to budget cuts. They note the Alameda policy (since amended) that expressly forbade firefighters from conducting water rescues. Defenders claim that the six-foot-three-inch, 280-pound Zack might have struggled, injuring or killing rescuers in the process. Some defenders see different moral imperatives for rescuing an accident victim versus a suicidal person.

Critics of the police and firefighters’ inaction say that first responders had a moral duty to save Zack, regardless of city policy. They say that police and firefighters could have commandeered private equipment to get Zack to shore. Critics note that the circumstances of Zack’s entry into the water — “by choice” rather than by accident — are not relevant to their moral duty to try to save him.

They’re both right.

A person grappling with depression doesn’t choose to suffer from that disease any more than someone chooses to have physical illness or to participate in an accident. Excusing inaction by pointing to Zack’s “choice” to enter the water demonstrates either heartlessness or stunning ignorance about depression. It’s a disease that afflicts 6.7 percent of US adults in any twelve-month period, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, resulting in 35,000 suicides by Americans in 2007.

But it’s also unfair to expect first responders to risk their lives without providing them the equipment needed to do their jobs in a reasonably safe manner.

The first responders who watched Zack slowly kill himself while they were on duty will live with that for the rest of their lives. But so will Alameda’s policymakers who ended the island city’s water rescue program and instituted an absurdly shortsighted policy. So will anyone who affects public agency budgets, including public employee unions, voters, lobbyists, elected officials, bankers, speculators, deregulation advocates; everyone who helped get us to the place where we cannot afford to pay for basic services has to live with this tragedy.

In other words, we all must take responsibility.

It means that public employee unions and elected officials must negotiate reasonable contracts that pay salaries and provide pension and health care benefits that are in line with what’s available in the private sector, and that allow government agencies enough room in the budget to provide all necessary services. It means allowing voters to decide whether or not they want to raise taxes. It means properly regulating industries that can devastate our economy if they fail. It means being honest about the consequences of budget cuts. It means carefully weighing all expenditures of public funds. It means using reasonable fiscal predictions that do not rely on economic bubbles, growth charts that exclusively point up and to the right, or rose-colored crystal balls.

If we want well-educated citizens in charge of this country in the future, we must fund good public schools and universities. If we want plentiful, clean water, we must pay for the required infrastructure. If we want smooth, safe roads and bridges, we must pay for maintaining them. If we want warnings about tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis and other natural disasters, we must pay for alert systems. If we want a safety net that protects our families, our friends, and our neighbors when they experience hard times, we must pay for it. If we want first responders to be able to respond to predictable emergencies, we must purchase the necessary equipment. We must realize that when we make decisions that mean that we cannot or will not pay for these services, real consequences follow, sometimes life and death consequences.

There’s no free lunch. We must pay for the society that we want to be.

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