Opinion: A 27-year veteran of the Berkeley Fire Department says Urban Shield training is critically important

During the 1990 hostage takeover of Henry’s bar, one gunshot victim lay 100 feet from police and his rescue was delayed. The armored car BPD now uses could have rescued him sooner.

The writer sent this letter to Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Berkeley City Council members June 29.

After watching the news about the shooting at the Capital Gazette where five people were killed I feel compelled to write to you. My name is Marc Mestrovich. I retired from the Berkeley Fire Department two years ago with PTSD, which still affects me today and will for the rest of my life, after working for the city for 27 years. I served the department as a Firefighter Paramedic for my first 10 years and retired as an Apparatus Operator. I also served on the Berkeley Firefighters Association executive board as president, secretary and as a shift director for most of my career.

During the course of my career, I witnessed and had been involved in many dangerous situations. I have been on countless medicals and fires and I have seen many tragic deaths and injuries due to acts of violence, disaster and other causes. For example, I worked the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake and spent time at the site of the Cypress Structure. I also worked for more than 48 hours during the Oakland / Berkeley Hills Fire. All of which I would never want you or anyone else to see or witness in their lifetime.

However, there is one call that I responded to that was probably the most dangerous situation I had been on in my 27 years as a first responder. This call occurred on Sept. 28, 1990. That was when a man named Mehrdad Dashti took over Henry’s Bar and held UC Berkeley students hostage. Mr. Mayor, I don’t expect you to remember this night as you were very young at the time. However, I remember this call like it was yesterday as it is in my dreams constantly as a result of my PTSD. Upon arrival, gunshots were being fired and the police, fire and the general public were running everywhere as the scene was very chaotic. My partner at the time, Ed Pennine and I arrived at the corner of Bowditch and Channing. Once there, Ed started communication with the local hospitals and I was in charge of triage and treatment of the wounded. We were barricaded behind a retaining wall on that corner as the shooting continued. I had seven shooting victims laying on the sidewalk in front of me with one victim lying in the sidewalk/street behind Henry’s bar some 100 feet away. One student I remember in particular had three gunshot wounds, one to the side and two to the upper torso. She was lucky, she survived. Seven of the eight shooting victims survived this night.

The one that did not survive was a male student from Lafayette, California. Now I do not know the reason why he died. Obviously, it was from the gunshot wound he sustained, however, how and what that bullet did to him I do not know. He was in the danger zone some 100 feet away from me where no one could get to him. He lay on the ground motionless for over 15 minutes. It took a rogue paramedic crew from a private agency to disobey orders and enter an “ACTIVE SHOOTING HOT ZONE” to retrieve the victim. That paramedic crew entered an area where they could have been shot and killed or injured. The victim was then transported to the trauma center at Highland Hospital where he died.

Berkeley at the time and did not have a “RESCUE VEHICLE” (many people call them armored vehicles) that could protect rescue personnel from bullets when retrieving victims during this type of situation. Now, he may or may not have survived this event if he had been recovered sooner, but I TRULY BELIEVE he would have had a better chance at survival had the police department had such a vehicle and the training to perform a rescue during the beginning stages of the event.

Mr. Mayor, when candidates are offered and accept the job to become firefighters or police officers to protect you, the City Council, city employees, and ALL members of the public within the city of Berkeley you ask them to risk their lives to save others. They all accept that offer knowing full well that they may never come back to their families. They, as your public safety servants, take the job hoping that you and the city council will continue to give them the tools, means and training to effectively handle ANY AND ALL situations that may arise within the city.

I am writing to ask you and the City Council to support letting your firefighters and police officers attend Urban Shield. To deny them the opportunity to attend this valuable training annually is like asking the fire department’s HAZMAT TEAM to control a chlorine gas release without proper HAZMAT training. Lives WILL BE lost, and serious injuries will occur as a result of no or lack of training.

As I wrote at the beginning of my letter to you, I would never want you or anyone to witness what I have seen in my career as a firefighter. However, what would you do if someone or some people were to violently take over a City Council meeting, an elementary school, or even an area where protestors are? Wouldn’t you want the responding personnel to have the highest amount of training available to them to safely and professionally end and control those types of situations and others, such as a major earthquake or other disasters?

In today’s environment where disasters, acts of terrorism and active shooter situations continue to happen, Urban Shield will give the city’s police and fire departments the level of training that is needed for those situations. Let’s be truthful, we all want peace upon us all, but these types of situations were happening before we were born, and they will continue after we leave this earth.

It is not a matter of “If it will happen, it is a matter of when it will happen”.

I loved my job, (I thank the City of Berkeley for allowing me to have a fantastic career) and I love the people I worked with, in my opinion, the city of Berkeley has the BEST fire and police departments. Unfortunately, PTSD led me to be suicidal and ended my career. It prevents me from working today. I was not asked to write this letter to you and the City Council because of my past experiences or my career ending PTSD injury, I write this letter for the love of my past co-workers who continue to work protecting a fantastic city. I would hate to have to attend the funeral of one of them because they died in the line of duty due to the lack of training they should have had saving others.

Marc Mestrovich is a retired 27-year-veteran of the Berkeley Fire Department. He served as an apparatus operator and firefighter paramedic over that time.