Debra J. Saunders

Weaver noted that a 2009 policy -- revoked this week -- prohibited firefighters from participating in water rescues. The policy was implemented after budget cuts ended water-rescue training. OK, I counter, but surely some first responders had been trained before 2009.

Weaver's answer: Yes, but they lacked the right equipment.

Weaver assured me that firefighters on the scene feel horrible about what happened.

"Every one of our members who was on that scene wishes that the policy would have allowed them to do something at some point," he explained.

Any firefighter who broke with policy could have landed in a world of bureaucratic payback. That's the problem. No government worker in America gets fired for following the rules.

As Russo put it, "We need an approach toward public service that is less rule-bound and more willing to take risk."

Russo also thinks that if a child were drowning, then some of the first responders would not have hesitated to flout the rules. (That's nice, if a bit unsettling. It's not their job to cherry-pick whom they protect.)

Do budget cuts have a role here? Well, cuts did lead to the no-water-rescue policy in 2009 -- not the shrewdest brainstorm for a city on an island. Said Weaver: "I'm not saying it's the public's fault at all. It's the unfortunate byproduct of diminishing resources."

Such comments only lead some taxpayers to feel like victims of extortion -- that if they don't pay more, they can't even count on basic protection.

On Thursday, San Francisco firefighter Vincent Perez gave his life in the line of duty. The spirit of 9/11 does live.

As for the Alameda firefighters and cops who just stood on the shore and didn't get their feet wet while a man drowned, they have to live with that call for the rest of their lives. They can blame policy, cutbacks or the thankless grind of rescuing unstable individuals who likely will never get their act together -- but in the end, they didn't care enough to do the right thing. Surely, they became firefighters because they wanted to be heroes. But somehow, in some sad way, they turned into bureaucrats.

Debra J. Saunders

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