The two firefighters died when they tried to rescue a couple trapped in a burning house. Palo Alto firefighters asked to send one of the city's two back-up fire engines and off-duty firefighter volunteers to participate in the memorial services July 27. The firefighters' union offered to pay for the fuel.
One firefighter asked if fire station flags could be lowered to half staff, also a traditional response in police and fire departments around the nation.
Fire Chief Nick Marinaro, following the established line of command, asked City Manager Frank Benest for permission. Benest in turn referred the question to City Attorney Gary Baum. Baum responded that liability issues precluded use of the truck for ceremonial participation, and that only the U.S. president has the authority to order flags lowered.
While we believe some public-safety memorial observations are overdone in terms of numbers of participants, nevertheless such expressions of professional grief and solidarity have become a tradition of many decades.
Such observations also have a local healing effect for departments, families and communities -- as was the case in East Palo Alto last year in the gang-related shooting death of Officer Richard May. The procession of police cars and motorcycles was a valuable expression of sorrow and an inspiration for the community to rally against gangs and crime.
In Palo Alto, the attorney's ruling, while perhaps technically accurate on the liability question, ignored a provision of the U.S. flag law that allows lowered flags for traditional purposes not contrary to law. We also question whether the incremental increase in liability exposure for ceremonial use of a fire truck would be even a blip in overall city liability.
Marinaro quickly tried to patch things together, winning a point that participation would be all right if Palo Alto firefighters were filling in for Contra Costa firefighters so they could attend services. Marinaro went into surgery at Stanford Hospital thinking the participation issue was resolved, if not the flag question. But Palo Alto got bumped for back-up duties at the last minute, and it was days later that a recovering Marinaro discovered that things had completely fallen apart while he was incommunicado.
But the worst damage was yet to come: Benest was quoted July 31 in the Palo Alto Daily News and San Jose Mercury -- and soon in news stories and blogs nationally -- that with due respect for fallen firefighters "you don't lower the flags willy-nilly." Benest has been on vacation, and stand-in officials have declined to contact him for clarification or confirmation about the comment.
The "willy-nilly" outraged firefighters, and one contingent from the East Coast reportedly planned to fly to Palo Alto to voice their anger in person. Local union President Tony Spitaleri prevailed on them to express their feelings in writing.
But Spitaleri earlier had organized a showing at the July 30 City Council meeting, where a score of firefighters garbed in matching T-shirts showed up with young children and spouses to protest not being able to participate in the Contra Costa services.
In the aftermath, a badly shaken Marinaro spent many hours last week in meetings with angry firefighters, some of whom harshly criticized him for not representing them more forcefully. He and Spitaleri have agreed to try to rebuild the generally good relationship between the union and the department, including creating a written protocol to guide police and fire participation in memorial services.
If accurate, the "willy-nilly" comment -- while ill-advised, off-hand and clearly taken as an outrageous insult -- nevertheless is accurate to the extent that protocols and guidelines are important in such matters. We do not believe Benest meant it as demeaning.
On the other hand, the clearly orchestrated matching-T-shirt demonstration at the council meeting could be taken as an over-the-top bit of surface political theater. As such, such a tactic would also seem to minimize sincere feelings of hurt and anger.
Let's cool the rhetoric and get on with some real healing.