Is a journalist ever off-duty? I tend to think not — and yesterday I feel like I neglected my duty. It’s bugging me.
It was Memorial Day, I decided to go for a long bike ride to see the beach at Alameda. I needed the exercise, and the weather was perfect. I was enjoying myself greatly — but as I was biking back along Crown Beach in Alameda, I saw police, firefighters, and onlookers gathered. I asked what was happening, and they told me that a man was stranded offshore. A firefighter pointed out into the water, and I could see a head bobbing above the waves, about 150 feet out.
“It’s shallow out there, he’s standing,” said the firefighter. And indeed, the man didn’t seem to be struggling. But he wasn’t waving or shouting for help, either.
More onlookers gathered, and I snapped some pictures. I couldn’t get a good photo of the man in the water, but I photographed the gathering crowd, and tweeted it both on @agahran and @oaklandlocal, a local news/community site where I’m a senior editor.
I heard locals talking, and asked them if they knew the man. “He was depressed, off his meds, lost his job,” said one neighbor. “He just walked out into the water with all his clothes on. He’s trying to kill himself.”
In that moment, I froze. I couldn’t be a journalist just then. It felt too personal.
About a year ago, a good friend fromÂ Boulder, who’d grown distant, took hisÂ own life. Max was a few years younger than me, a doting father, an artist, sociable and often grinning.
But a few years ago, his life fell apart, I’m not sure why. It happened when my own life was in major transition, and I was feeling the stress of that change. While I never considered suicide, I could relate to feeling overwhelmed and rootless.
I’ve been haunted by Max’s death — and really spooked by suicide ever since.
Back on the beach, a kiteboarder zipped out to the drowning man and circled him several times, coming back to report to emergency personnel on the beach. It seemed like it was taking a long time to mount a rescue so close to shore
So yesterday I rationalized: “This isn’t Oakland. I’m off duty. I don’t need to cover this. I don’t want to cover this. I’ve tweeted my pictures, that’s enough for now.”
So I left. I biked across to Bay Farm Island, where I saw an orange emergency helicopter fly in across the water, hover over the man’s location, then leave. And I continued my bike ride, and went home, trying to shake the spooked feeling.
Last night I got a call from the Bay Area ABC station, KGO7, asking for permission to use my photos in their story about the incident. I said yes, as long as their web story linked to Oakland Local. Here is the KGO story. (Getting them to add that link took some further prodding, but they did it — legacy news orgs often overlook/downplay local news startups, and I get tired of that.)
Reading and watching KGO’s story, I realized how I’d messed up yesterday. They got the story right: Why were so many emergency personnel there on the beach, just watching a man drown 150 feet away?
I was grappling with my own complex connection to suicide. When I considered what I’d cover, if I did cover it, I could only envision a typical story focused on the guy who was killing himself. I didn’t want to do that — I’d have felt like that would be gratuitously pimping out his misery. It was yet another reason to turn away.
But KGO got the story right, the story my own pictures told: Where was the rescue?
As it turned out, Alameda police and firefighters are not currently certified to mount a land-based water rescue. They had to cut back on that training due to budget problems. To attempt such a rescue without certification apparently meant the city could get sued. So they just stood there and watched.
Which is horrible. And I should have asked about that.
According to KGO:
The Alameda Fire Department says budget constraints are preventing it from recertifying its firefighters in land-based water rescues. Without it, the city would be open to liability.
“Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do,” Alameda Fire Div. Chief Ricci Zombeck said when asked by ABC7 if he would enter the water to save a drowning child.
Alameda firefighters could not even go into the water to get the body, so they waited until a woman in her 20s volunteered to bring the body back to the beach.
On duty, off duty.
I’d told myself this incident was out of my journalistic jurisdiction, and I was not on the clock for Oakland Local right then. All a rationalization because I was having an emotional response that made me feel helpless, depressed, out of place.
Meanwhile, those Alameda cops and firefighters were on duty — but said that status was precisely why they couldn’t act.
We all failed that day, And Ray Zack, 53, of Alameda, drowned while we stood by.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, my good friends Randy and Kit Cassingham told of a rescue that did happen. Everyone was on duty. But knowing Randy and Kit, if they were off duty, it wouldn’t have mattered. They would have rescued the teenager who fell off a cliff during a post-graduation party in a remote rural mountain area.
I’m not sure what to do with this. But I know now, really know, that a journalist can’t ever truly be off-duty. Certainly not for life-or-death events. I could not have save this Alameda stranger, any more than I could have saved my friend Max. But I should have asked more questions, and not given in to how I was feeling. I don’t blame the Alameda emergency responders for their inaction, but that situation had a dreadful wrongness about it.
I’m trying to figure out what to do with this. Suggestions are welcome, please comment below.
UPDATE: This sad event gave me an idea for the upcoming Code for Oakland event I’m helping to organize. What if emergency response agencies/dispatch could coordinate with qualified local volunteers in all kinds of emergencies? Like, say, people with Red Cross lifeguard certification? Stay tuned…