Despite post-9/11 funding, public safety communication gaps hamper cooperation

When a suicidal man drowned in shallow waters off Alameda in May, a nation wondered why firefighters stood by and watched it happen. Hamstrung by an alleged lack of training, the Alameda Fire Department called on four other agencies for assistance. But none was able to help Raymond Zack during the two hours that the frigid waters slowly killed him.

Meanwhile, just across the Bay in San Francisco, new fireboats purchased with Homeland Security funding were capable of making it to Alameda in less than 10 minutes. They were never even requisitioned.

Click the picture for a graphic of security funding.

Despite years of increased spending on coordination and training in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the death of this one man highlighted gaps in the Bay Area’s costly emergency response system.

Between 2003 and 2006, The City received $93 million in various Homeland Security grants. Since grants began being dispersed regionally in 2006, the San Francisco Bay Area has received another $228.5 million.

That money has purchased new fireboats and armored vehicles in San Francisco, a jet dock in Oakland, hazardous material-removing robots in Sonoma and San Mateo counties and gang training in San Jose. Bay Area public safety workers have learned to drive boats, operate robots, conduct confined-space rescues and investigate blast sites. Large-scale training exercises are performed on a regular basis.

But have Bay Area first responders learned how to effectively communicate with one another?

One of the major remaining projects is a regional communications system known as BayRICS. The head of San Francisco’s Department of Emergency Management, Anne Kronenberg, recently conducted the first joint powers meeting to get counties and local agencies to start communicating on the same frequency.

One of the major problems during the Sept. 11 attacks was that New York City first responders couldn’t communicate with each other. The same situation existed here.

“We couldn’t talk to each other,” Kronenberg said. “That’s it in the most simplistic way.”

Citizen awareness is one major change over the past decade, Kronenberg said. While equipment, training and communication have been the focus of millions of dollars in funding, it’s ultimately disaster preparedness that truly will help save lives.

“My feeling is that the biggest thing that’s changed is the heightened awareness we have of the risk,” she said. “Unless you were in the field, you didn’t realize bad things could happen.”

Kronenberg described the death in Alameda as a failure specific to the department in charge and not a case of regional breakdown.

Interim Alameda Fire Chief Michael D’Orazi, who had been on the job just a week when the  drowning occurred, said his department has since updated its water rescue training. The department also is working with nearby agencies to improve regional cooperation. In an emergency, D’Orazi acknowledged, communication is the most important factor.

“Not just communication, but good communication,” D’Orazi said.

Daniel Lisker, a retired Oakland Fire Department lieutenant critical of the decisions made by police and fire commanders in Alameda that day, said the incident makes one wonder how safe any of us will be in a major emergency.

“I don’t think there would’ve been better response if it had been a more serious incident,” he said. “What if a jet taking off from Oakland had crashed in the same spot? Would there be the same confusion?”


9/11 profile

Local hero’s story still resonates

In the decade since United Flight 93 crashed into a Pennsylvania field, San Franciscan Mark Bingham has become an icon to many Americans. And his tragic death served to propel both his parents into advocacy for 9/11-related causes.

Bingham was lauded as a hero for his apparent role in preventing terrorists from crashing into their target. But Bingham, who came out as gay at age 21, also became a hero to the LGBT community.

In 2002, The Advocate named him its person of the year. Now he and his mother, Alice Hoagland, are subjects of the documentary “With You,” which debuted in June at the Frameline gay film festival.

Hoagland, who lives in Los Gatos, has advocated for tighter airline security while fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Bingham’s father, Jerry, lives in Tennessee and has worked on the Flight 93 National Memorial set to be unveiled this week in Pennsylvania. This weekend will mark the inauguration of the memorial and surrounding national park. President Obama will join families of the 40 passengers killed on Flight 93.

“I hope people just don’t ever forget,” Jerry Bingham said. “That’s the main thing. I think that this 10-year anniversary will be a good reminder of what happened.”

Crash accounts put Bingham among the people who rushed the plane’s cockpit, but his dad said it’s difficult to know what happened.

“We know there was a hell of a fight,” he said. “I know in my heart what my son would do, but there were 39 others on that plane and they all deserve to be recognized as heroes.”

— Brent Begin

Rise and fall of the threat-level system

Created in the wake of the terrorist attacks, the confusing system urged Americans to be constantly vigilant.

  • Six months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge put an already nerve-wracked nation on higher alert by introducing the Homeland Security Advisory System.
  • Composed of five color-coded alert levels, the system wavered between the third and fifth levels — elevated, high and severe — for its entire lifespan.
  • In January, concluding that the system provided no real information to the public and excluded the 8 percent of men who are colorblind, Homeland Security said it would scrap the system.
  • Director Janet Napolitano announced that the system would be replaced by a new National Terrorism Advisory System, which consists of just two threat levels, “imminent” and “elevated.”
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