The Alameda Fire Department (AFD) put its new dive rescue team through its paces in Seaplane Lagoon at Alameda Point on Wednesday. The department announced that it would make the team available for mutual-aid calls throughout Alameda County. AFD Chief Nick Luby thanked City Council for its support. Councilwoman Trish Herrera Spencer was on hand to represent the Council. Members of City staff were in attendance, as well as representatives from other local public safety departments and members of the public.
The training drill showed the team’s response to a call for a person submerged in water. The exercise involved coordinating divers, line tenders anchored to the divers for safety, rescuers on boards at the surface of the water, AFD’s rescue boat, and a Coast Guard helicopter.
Luby explained that AFD’s team complements Alameda County Fire’s all-volunteer program, which was previously the only rescue diving resource available to public safety departments in Alameda County. Luby thanked Alameda County Emergency Services for providing $70,000 to pay for a supplied air system for the divers. The device consists of air tanks kept on the water’s surface that supply divers below with air. The system allows divers to stay underwater indefinitely, with no worries of running out of air.
Each firefighter requires 200 hours of training to be qualified to be a rescue diver. Dive Program Manager Captain Mike DeWindt explained that training is so rigorous, of 13 applicants to the program, only six finished. Staff from the Stockton Fire Department helped train the team, using equipment borrowed from the Southern Marin FD.
The idea for the dive team stemmed from unfortunate events when vehicles entered the water with people in them, often leading to fatalities. A man died in November 2017 after driving through a guardrail at the Bridgeside Shopping Center along the Oakland Estuary. A cashier at nearby Nob Hill Foods dove into the Estuary in unsuccessful attempt to save the man. An Alameda firefighter pulled the victim out of the vehicle. Paramedics transported him to Highland Hospital, where doctors declared him dead.
Twelve years earlier Zehra Attari, M.D. lost her life after driving her car into the Oakland Estuary at the foot of Grand Street. Attari may have taken a wrong turn after getting lost on her way to a medical conference. She drove down the boat ramp at the foot of Grand Street and into the estuary. Her body was pulled from her car 43 days later. The incident brought a wrongful death claim against the city of Alameda.
Attari’s death marked the third such fatality in as many years. In 2002, two men died in their vehicle after driving it into the Estuary at the same Grand Street ramp. The City built the ramp in 1959 to accommodate boaters. A permanent barrier directing vehicle traffic there into a parking lot has prevented any more such accidents.
Fatalities like these inspired the formation of the county’s volunteer program and now the professional program with AFD. Chief Luby stated there are an average of more than 30 responses to water rescue incidents annually in Alameda. The dive team will be stationed at Station 3, with two divers and one line tender on duty.