Editorial: There's lots of heat, but where's the fire? | August 15, 2007 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - August 15, 2007

Editorial: There's lots of heat, but where's the fire?

Sincere desire to participate in memorial services for two Contra Costa County firefighters becomes a tragicomedy of errors in Palo Alto

Things couldn't possibly have gone more wrong in Palo Alto's response to a request from city firefighters to participate in memorial services for two Contra Costa County firefighters.

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.


Like this comment
Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2007 at 4:40 pm

In my own opinion Frank Benest knew exactly what he was saying. This man has a PhD, attended an Ivy League school and is a well known and respected City goverment leader. He of all people should know you don't say you don't want to lower flags "willy nilly" to a member of the press when speaking about two firefighters who were killed trying to rescue two elderly people who also were killed at a house fire.
I feel it was a payback for the firefighters union fighting against Benest's plan to shut down Station 8 this summer. Frank has been trying to shut that Station down for years. The potential for the loss of life and property in the Palo Alto Hills is a reality every summer. When the Union and the people who live in the hills area fought and won the fight to keep it open Frank was not happy.
His bad feelings towards the fire dept is clear to anyone who has ever attended or watched a City Council meeting.
Frank made his own bed and was tucked in by the City Attorney and the Fire Chief. If he gets a bad nights sleep he has nobody to blame but the person in the mirror.
When the firefighters and their families and supporters attend a City Council meeting in matching shirts to show their solidarity this newspaper slams them for it. It was a form of protest against a hurtfull act by the City Manager. It in no way shape or form "minimizes sincere feelings of hurt and anger" as your editorial implies. Does this paper also feel when people wear pink or other colored ribbions on their clothing to show support for the fight against disease their feelings and support are not real? How about the people who wore the "All Gave Some, Some Gave All" T-Shirts after the Sept 11 2001 attacks? did they "minimize sincere feelings of hurt and anger" too?
The City Manager owes the families and co-workers of the Contra Costa Firefighters a statement to his actions at the least.
Frank was away on his vacation having a great time with his children I'm sure, something those two dead firefighters and elderly couple will never do again. I guess this paper feels the Firefighters of Palo Alto were way out of line for showing their support for the fallen. I don't see it that way.

Like this comment
Posted by Fireman
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Jake; It is not only Frank, The present Fire chief and the last Fire chief have had much to do with the problem. The Palo Alto Firefighters union 1319 president have had just as much. I must stop now. I have just heard that 2 more firefighter in New York have been killed. Please give me sometime to get back to this..

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Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 18, 2007 at 6:09 pm

While I am not fond of combining union and civil service I do have enough experience with unions to know that you do not change a standard practice, even one not specificlly in the contract, without discussion.

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Posted by Jake
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2007 at 8:14 pm

According to news reports two FDNY Firefighters were killed today fighting a highrise fire near ground zero.
My thoughts are with their families and co-workers on this sad day. I am sure many flags across this country will be lowered to half staff to honor them for paying the ultimate price in the course of their duties.
I am hopeful that a certain City Manager will not consider this a "Willy Nilly" example in regards to the lowering of flags in Palo Alto.

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Posted by Fireman
a resident of another community
on Aug 18, 2007 at 8:38 pm

There is so very much more to this story and to the many problems that have plagued the City of Palo Alto for many years. One person can not generate the huge numbers of issues that are tearing this City apart and hurting so many people. Someone must stand up and stop the madness. It appears to me that maybe there is a stalemate. If one person trys to stop it by correcting another. The person needing to be corrected has dirt on the other. If you tell on me I will tell on you. Partners in crime.
There was a death of a retired Palo Alto Fire Captian just a short time ago.This person had 30 something years of service to the City and Citizens. He lived in Aptos. The City refused to allow a Palo Alto Fire Engine to be used in his service.The City of Aptos stepped up and offered one of there Engines.As for the Flag,I think this should be for deaths in the line of duty. For Police and Fire in there Citys.If other City due so also,this is a very great and kind showing of respect. Now the union did not make an issue of this.With the Contra Costa Firefighters ,Palo Alto Firefighters made the issue not the union.Then the union junped on the wagon. See this was a behind closed doors issue. The Blue wall. As a Palo Alto firefighter one gets a custom to this type of behavior from City leaders a long with Fire administration {The Fire Chief} doing nothing to support the line firefighting personal. The union will do nothing also. Things get side tracked by the union President. This trail leads back to the sandbag scandel.For one.Pay back. What happened with this issue, is that it was a public embarrassment and other Firefighters and Departments learned of this.Making it a public matter. Now you can see the Fire Chief did nothing. "No comment" and "I play by the rules". What rules would those be?. Sit down, shut up until the City manager tells him what to say and do rule?. Now I have written proof that the Chief does not play be the rules. I do not think he knows what the rules are.
The current Chief has been with the City for a long time. He had been skipped over several times. Skipped over for the assistent Chiefs job and the Chiefs job. Chief Wall skipped over him for Assistent Chief Van Dermatten.Then skipped over him again for assistent Chief Grijalva. Then when Chief Wall left to take the Chiefs job in Portland Oregon he was skipped over again and Assistent Chief Grijalva became the New Chief. He became Chief when the City did not take Chief Grijalva back [portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]
Now during this time a man named Bruce Martin showed up to work for Palo Alto fire. He had already been a chief for a differant Department. He started as a entry level Firefighter. Left a job as a Chief to start at the bottum in Palo Alto. He worked his way up to Battalion Chief in no time. He was and is a TRUE Fire Chief. A complete Fire Chief good for the City and good for the Firefighters. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] I did not coin the phrase Brain Drain I just saw it in action. Actions speak louder that words. [Portion removed by Palo Alto Online staff.] I could go on for a while. I did work here for 20 years? I would like to help make things better.I have tried and offerd to.I have thousands of pages of evidence. Get several more people together and find some people who care. Invite the public and be prepared to be shocked.