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From the Archives: Handling a Line Of Duty Death - A Double Tragedy in Oakland, 1999

Author: Marc Liggin

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-11-26
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Originally published in our July/August, 1999 issue.

On Sunday, January 10th, 1999, tragedy struck the city of Oakland, California (population almost 400,000 and located across the Bay from San Francisco) when it lost two of its best emergency workers in one day. Police Officer James Williams Jr., 41, was shot and killed by a sniper subsequent to a high-speed freeway chase. Later that day, Firefighter Tracy Toomey, 52, died under a collapsed floor while fighting a six-alarm fire in a two-story Victorian-style building.

The last time Oakland lost two brave souls in one day, also on a Sunday, was during the Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm on October 20th, 1991. The fire consumed Police Officer James Grubensky and several citizens as he attempted to lead them to safety; Fire Battalion Chief James Riley and the citizen he was assisting were struck down by a fallen high voltage line. As it was then, the recent double tragedy blanketed family, friends, and co-workers in sorrow. The separate dispatch centers were again united by loss.

The Oakland Police dispatch and Fire dispatch are located in downtown Oakland less than a mile apart. Oakland is one of the few Bay Area cities which supports two separate dispatch centers. The Police dispatch, located on the ninth floor of the police administration building is the primary answering point for the city of Oakland.

They receive approximately 1.5 million calls for service per year and are authorized 64 communication dispatchers. An optimum shift supports six or seven call-takers, three radio operators, two service operators, a communications supervisor and a patrol sergeant.  Fire dispatch receives about 80 thousand calls for service per year and is authorized 15 dispatchers and four supervisors. An optimum shift supports four dispatchers and one supervisor

Oakland Police dispatcher Dorothea "Dot" Fynaut, who handled the Williams shooting, and Fire dispatcher Charlotte Fujii, who worked the Toomey fire, both affirmed that there is nothing a dispatcher can do to prepare for the emotional impact of losing a field unit.

By chance, Fujii and I were on duty at Fire Dispatch on both tragic Sundays. The pattern I've observed from that limited experience appears to be common to these types of critical incidents. These incidents appear to consist of three distinct components. More about these components will be discussed later.


Sunday – Police Under Fire

Williams and Toomey were cut from the same strong fabric. Both were devoted husband and father. Williams doted on his three young children and showed their pictures daily; Toomey was proud of his two grown children. Both were ex-military and dedicated to their job.

Toomey was a Marine veteran from the Viet Nam war and a 27-year veteran of the fire department. Williams was into his 11th week of an 18-week field training program after graduating from the Oakland Police Academy. Williams, however, was no rookie. He had already served five years as a police officer in his hometown of New Orleans.

Williams was the 44th Oakland Police Officer to die in the line of duty. His was the first homicide in Oakland this year. His last day began shortly after midnight Saturday when a fellow officer tried to stop a suspicious vehicle containing two males.

The suspects fled and were observed ditching a weapon near an overpass during the high-speed eastbound chase on Interstate 580. The pursuing officer called for backup to retrieve the weapon. The suspects were captured several minutes later after they crashed exiting the freeway.

Williams responded to search for the thrown weapon with officers John Oare, Randy Pope, evidence technician Regina Bucher, and California Highway Patrol Officers, Mark Locey and Chad Moran.

As Locey and Moran left their patrol car to light flares and divert traffic a sniper opened fire with an assault rifle from atop the overpass. One bullet penetrated Williams' protective vest and pierced his chest. A second bullet ricocheted off Oare's handcuff case. The officers were unable to return fire and the gunman fled the scene after firing 3 or 4 more shots.

Oare was treated for a severe bruise and released. Williams was immediately transported to the nearby Highland Hospital Trauma Center. Initial reports suggested that Williams would survive, however, those reports proved false. Williams died unexpectedly a few hours later.

"I felt a deep [the shooting] was so senseless", stated Communications Supervisor Corby Harvey, who was informed of Williams' death shortly before her shift ended.

Tips provided by citizens led to the arrest of 19 year old Chad Rhodes later that evening. Rhodes, who was on probation from a previous misdemeanor conviction for evading police, admitted to being the sniper. He has been linked to the two suspects who originally fled the police. Fifty police officers, including most of Williams' recruit classmates, appeared in court for Rhodes' arraignment.


Sunday – Fire Collapse

Upon hearing of Officer Williams' death on Sunday morning, Oakland Fire Battalion Chief Dennis Rainero ordered all fire department flags lowered to half-mast.

"It's only right that we show our solidarity", stated Rainero. "We all wear the same uniform."

A few hours later Toomey would become the 13th Oakland Firefighter to die in the line of duty. He died just nine days after his 52nd birthday. His last day began at 10:42 AM when he responded with engine 2552 to a structure fire. He was working on his day off.

The fire building was an 80 year old wood frame two-story building with a nightclub on the first floor and apartments on the second floor. It stood between an empty car dealership and an auto upholstery shop. According to Assistant Chief Carter, the building had limited access, no smoke detectors, and no sprinkler system.

Citizens working nearby rescued three of the building's occupants by throwing a ladder to the second floor rear window before the arrival of the first fire unit. The building was well-involved and the rear window was the only possible escape. The tenants were treated and released for smoke inhalation and one rescuer suffered a deep cut in his hand.

Three fire crews led by Captain William Jarrett, Captain William Salters, and Lt. Kenny Vangorder attacked the seat of the fire deep in the interior of the building. There was no access to the second floor as the stairs had burned away. Truck crews were venting the roof as the Incident Commander called for greater alarms.  The fire quickly reached six alarms utilizing 90 firefighters. City resources were depleted.

Dispatchers Ophelia Velasquez and Thea Mixon were busy answering medical calls and dealing with three separate reports of structure fires elsewhere in the city while dispatcher Fujii worked the fire tactical radio channel. Battalion Chief Jim Edwards took control of dispatch operations and ordered two strike teams (each team consisting of five engines) from the North County Coordinator for Mutual Aid at Livermore Laboratory Fire Department to provide coverage for our empty stations.

About 30 minutes into the fire the second floor collapsed without warning. Dispatcher Trainee, Barry Donelan, on the scene as a ride-along with Chief Rainero, stated that the collapse was practically noiseless. The first solid indication that anything went wrong was a radio transmission for help broadcast by Salters.

"We have a collapse with firefighters trapped."

The smoldering debris from the collapsed second floor buried Vangorder's crew, knocked Salter's crew to the ground, and barely missed Jarrett's crew. Firefighter Sheree Rodriguez was the easiest to reach. Her SCBA harness was cut off to allow her to escape.

Toomey and Vangorder were more difficult to reach. Vangorder was twisted and trapped under the debris and could move only one arm. Toomey could not move or talk. Toomey and Vangorder squeezed each other's hand while the rescue group struggled to free them both.

The rescue group consisted of truck 2571, whose crew specialized in heavy rescue, members of truck 2574 and engine 2553. Air bags, cribbing and chain saws were used to free Vangorder and, then, Toomey. Vangorder survived with a dislocated hip and second and third degree burns. CPR was initiated on Toomey while he was still trapped. He was transported to a nearby hospital immediately after he was freed. He never recovered.

Fire Chief John K. Baker was stunned when he received the news. Toomey's death hurt him deeply. The loss was all the more poignant as Baker was soon due to retire after serving 40 years with Oakland Fire. Baker gave the eulogy at Toomey's memorial service.



Funeral services for Williams and Toomey were the following Thursday and Friday. Both days produced a striking display of solidarity as hundreds of police officers and firefighters from all over came to Oakland to pay their respects. Citizens lined the funeral procession on both days to show their support.

Two hundred and fifty motorcycles led Williams to his final resting place. Meanwhile, on Friday, Toomey's memorial service was held at the Oakland Coliseum Arena; the only space big enough to hold the several hundred visiting fire apparatus. The last time there were that many rigs in Oakland was when they were here to fight the Oakland Hills firestorm, which consumed two of our brothers.

Chaplain Jeff Turkel from the North Star Volunteer Fire Department in Alaska faxed Oakland Fire Department a letter of condolence and a poem--one line of which remains painfully relevant for all emergency workers; "...the greatest gift a man can give, is to lay his life upon the line, so that someone else might live."

Lessons Learned

As stated earlier, there appears to be three major components that must be personally dealt with during a critical incident. For this purpose I define a critical incident as one in which an emergency field worker is seriously injured or killed during your tour of duty in the dispatch center.

First comes the initial shock when receiving the news. The depth of emotional pain depends upon how well the officer is known. The more personal your relationship with the officer the more effort is needed to emotionally disengage from the unfolding events. Emotional disengagement is important because the job of dispatching must continue.

Sadly, the world does not stop when someone you work with is killed or injured. In fact, your job as dispatcher demands even more concentration because the shooting or fire still needs to be handled; covering units need to be sent out, road blocks set up,  and essential personnel notified. As dispatchers we cannot afford to become paralyzed by events because there are other field personnel and citizens depending upon our performance.

The one saving grace is that, as a professional, you may barely remember what transpires while working a critical incident. Time disappears when all of your attention is concentrated on performing your job. There is little time for reflection. When asked what she was feeling while working the Toomey fire, Fujii replied, "I really didn't have time to think about it until after it was over."

The second major component of a critical incident is the accurate collection, recording and distribution of information. Dispatch centers are the nerve centers of any department. Many departments ignore the care and maintenance of their dispatch centers, however, just as a body cannot function without a nervous system, departments cannot exist without dispatch centers. The function of any nervous system is the transference of vital information that allows the main body to operate.

During a critical incident this means we must strive to double-check, confirm and record as much vital information as possible. Someone - dispatcher or supervisor - must recall essential management personnel during a critical incident. How they respond and what they do depends totally upon the information they receive from us. The accuracy of our information also has a direct bearing on the outcome of potential lawsuits and future court appearances.

Along with the notification process is the simultaneous tug-of-war with the news media's right-to-know. Follow your department's guidelines when talking with reporters and avoid the temptation to reveal any facts that may harm relatives or on-going investigations. Many news departments monitor fire and police airwaves so it is important not to repeat the names of the officers involved over the radio. Even the smallest department should attempt to have one cellular phone available on the scene to relay sensitive information. Don't let Joe or Susie Hair-do from the local news network make family notifications for your department.

The final component of any critical incident is the aftermath. The incident itself may last only minutes or hours but its effect on your life and emotional well-being can last a lifetime.

Immediately after working the firestorm in 1991 for 16 hours straight, I ran the entire three miles from dispatch to home in order to mentally wind down. Two years later I quit work, withdrew all of my pension money and traveled for a year. It proved to be the best remedy which allowed me to recover from that critical incident.

Another effective strategy for recovering from critical incidents is to seek and attend a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing. Many departments automatically offer it to their field workers, however, they may not recognize its importance to dispatchers.

If your department offers it, insist on attending. If it is not available, the next best option is to just talk about what happened. Listen to the incident tapes; critically examine how you handled the situation (but don't kick yourself); and, discuss your findings with fellow workers, family members and mental health-care professionals. The mechanism we use to handle the critical incident as it happens (emotional detachment) has no place in your subsequent emotional recovery.

There is no effective way to prepare yourself emotionally for the loss of a co-worker in the line of duty; however, the most important factor you do have control over is your training. Prepare yourself by knowing your departmental procedures. Maintain your skills by attending outside training classes; even if you must pay for them yourself. It's too late to look up procedures when you're in the middle of handling a critical incident.

When asked what she remembered most during the Officer Williams shooting, Dot replied, "All I can tell you about those moments is that I did my job."

Marc Liggin is a Fire Dispatch Supervisor for the Oakland (CA) Fire Services Agency. He is a former police officer and has been dispatching with Oakland since 1987. He was the on-duty supervisor during the Oakland-Berkeley Hills firestorm, which he wrote about in our Jan/Feb 1992 issue.

See also related story: Handing a Line-Of-Duty Death - Dispatch To Eternity


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