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Local
December tragedy
Beyond the 'Golden Hour': Racine Fire Department questioned after lake suicide

RACINE — At 2:18 a.m. on Dec. 30, the Racine County Dispatch Center received a 911 phone call from a local man as a tragic series of events began to unfold.

The caller said his girlfriend, 40-year-old Valencia Days, was suicidal and had driven her vehicle into Lake Michigan.

The caller said Days told him her green SUV was floating somewhere along the city’s shore, naming the oasis or North Beach as potential locations. He then gave dispatchers her phone number, urging them to call her.

What happened and didn’t happen in the hour after that call came in has been closely scrutinized and debated, including the fact that the Racine Fire Department left the lakeshore before the county dive team responded and did not put its rescue boat in the water that night.

The Fire Department has since announced it is pulling out of the Racine County Water Response Team, also known as the county dive team, and some officials, including the sheriff, are saying the Fire Department should have done more when it responded to the call.

Filling with water

Less than a minute after receiving the call from the boyfriend, dispatchers called Days. As her car filled with water, she was audibly panicked as she told dispatch she was near Pershing Park and said she feared rescue crews would not get to her in time.

Then the call disconnected.

At 2:24 a.m., the Racine Police Department, Fire Department and Racine County Sheriff’s deputies were dispatched to Pershing Park to search for Days and her vehicle. At 2:27 a.m., the entire county dive team was called.

According to Racine County dispatch records, at 2:25, the RFD responded to the call. Between 2:28 and 2:31 a.m., RFD personnel arrived at Pershing Park, records show.

RFD:

  • “We are on scene at Pershing Park here and we are not seeing anything. Do you have anything further?”

Dispatch:

  • “Negative at this time. Her phone died. We are trying to ping the phone at this time.”

At 2:34 a.m., a RFD unit with the department’s boat reports that it is en route. That unit arrives at 2:38 a.m. Six minutes later, the RFD asks for a location update. None is available from dispatch.

Fire crews, as well as squads from the Racine Police Department and Sheriff’s Office search various locations along the lakefront for Days’ vehicle.

Then, at 2:51 a.m., the first RFD unit informs dispatch it is returning to quarters. At 2:53 a.m., records show that the on-duty Fire Department battalion chief calls for all RFD units to return to quarters.

By 3:04 a.m., all RFD units had returned to their respective stations — somewhere between 33 and 36 minutes after initially responding to the call.

“I can say without hesitation and with supreme confidence, if our rescue divers had a general area where the vehicle may have gone into the water, they would have deployed immediately to attempt a rescue,” said Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen, noting his personnel could find not any physical evidence that indicated where a vehicle may have entered the water.

At 3:33 a.m., county dive team members, one of whom was coming from Burlington, had picked up a boat and were en route to Pershing Park. At 3:50 a.m., other dive team members arrived on scene, and deployed a dive boat with sonar equipment to look for the submerged vehicle.

At about 6:49 a.m., Days’ vehicle was found in about 8 feet of water at the Fifth Street Boat Launch. As the sun rose that Sunday morning, the body of Days was brought to the lake’s surface.

The ‘Golden Hour’

Racine County Sheriff’s Office Captain Bradley Friend, co-captain of the dive team, was there when Days was pulled out of the water. Friend, who used a sonar machine on a boat to find Days and her vehicle, said the RFD’s actions on Dec. 30 were unacceptable.

“The Racine Fire Department elected to leave the scene and return to quarters after 36 minutes of land-based searching and did not wait to confer with any incoming Racine County Dive Team units,” Friend said. “If someone had spotted the submerged vehicle within this ‘Golden Hour,’ the Racine Fire Department would have had to be re-dispatched, wasting precious time that may have affected a rescue rather than a recovery.”

The “Golden Hour” refers to the time immediately following a traumatic injury or incident in which medical intervention may save a person.

Friend and other officials, including Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling, Kansasville Fire and Rescue Chief Scott Remer and South Shore Fire Department Chief Bob Stedman, argue that the RFD did not spend enough time searching and left prematurely without utilizing their resources.

“I’m angered and disappointed with the Racine Fire and Rescue’s decision to abort after just 34 minutes when it was abundantly clear a life was at stake,” Schmaling said. “This is completely unacceptable. The Days family and all citizens of Racine County expect and deserve better!”

Questions raised

The incident has left many questions for Friend, and others in the first-responder community.

“Why did they not launch their boat and deploy sonar assets to search for the vehicle?” asked Friend. “If they had taken the same information we did and acted on it, there is a chance that they too would have found the vehicle within the ‘Golden Hour’ of potential rescue. Instead, they chose to not utilize a vital piece of equipment they possessed.”

Hansen reiterated that the RFD was not given an exact location to search, making it difficult to determine where Days’ vehicle entered the water. He also noted that it was dark, and said his department looked at the water and shoreline for signs of where a vehicle may have entered the water and checked to see if they could see a vehicle in the water before leaving the scene.

“It is exceptionally easy in hindsight based on where the vehicle was actually found to say we should have started in the Fifth Street Boat ramp,” Hansen said. “Even when the sheriff’s boat started searching with their sonar, they did not immediately find the vehicle.”

Hansen also said that the safety of his department personnel was also a factor to consider in the incident.

“In a risk management scenario, after a certain period of time, as public safety officials, we must weigh the value of risking the lives of the living (firefighters, paramedics and divers) for a tragically deceased individual with no known location at night on a dark lakefront and in zero-visibility water,” Hansen said.

Dispatch issues

On Tuesday, The Journal Times received a copy of an email from South Shore Fire Chief Robert Stedman addressed to Hansen.

The email, which Stedman admits he wrote but did not provide to the newspaper, mentions the RFD withdrawing from the Racine County dive team as of July 1. The email implies that the events of Dec. 30 may have been a motivating factor.

Many local fire chiefs, as well as Racine County Executive Jonathan Delagrave, are copied on Stedman’s email, which alleges that Hansen blamed the recovery of Days on dispatchers and the county dive team.

“...instead of blasting dispatch and the RCWRRT (dive team), and even more importantly, dividing the paid departments from the volunteer fire departments, take some ownership from what the RFD did or did not do that night of the drowning,” Stedman writes in the email. “Make it a learning experience, as we all have and need them!”

Hansen argues that while he did question dispatch officials as to why the call came in as a life-support call and not a drowning, he denies blaming the incident on dispatch. While the RFD and Racine County Communications Center don’t always agree, he says, they have a “professional and appropriate relationship.”

Dispatch records do not indicate any argument between RFD officials and dispatch during the night in question.

“It should be stated emphatically that the Racine County Communications Center did an outstanding job under the most trying of conditions to help facilitate a rescue,” Hansen said. “This was a highly emotional situation the calls takers and dispatchers were under and their skill and training during the incident is a reflection of their exceptional professionalism.”

Friend says he was present during a January post-incident meeting and said that Hansen was critical of dispatch during that meeting.

Dive team withdrawal

The Racine Fire Department has been a member of the Racine County Dive Team since 2004, but that partnership will soon end. Hansen announced the withdrawal in a Jan. 30 letter to Remer, who co-chairs the county dive team with Friend.

“Unfortunately, we have reached a point in time where there are significant operational and philosophical differences between our agency and the RCWRRT (Racine County Water Response Team),” the letter states.

Friend and Remer both say that Hansen and the RFD have never fully participated in the dive team. “We don’t work as a one-man band, we work as a team. He (Hansen) criticizes, ridicules and constantly tries to change things,” Remer said.

Friend said the RFD does not take part in the Racine County dive team Board of Directors, monthly meetings and training exercises nor does it take interest in the dive team’s planning or policy-making.

“Chief Hansen’s team operates in isolation, unwilling to work as a unified team or admit that there may be a time that they do not have the personnel, training to equipment to conduct an operation,” Friend said.

In his letter, Hansen lays out differences with the dive team. Hansen takes issue with the fact that joint dispatch puts out a call for the entire dive team for all water-related emergencies in the county, something he views as unnecessary.

“The fire chief or incident commander in the jurisdiction where the water-related incident was occurring was, and is, in the best position to determine what additional resources, other than the Sheriff’s Office, should be called,” Hansen said.

Mutual aid

Secondly, Hansen believes the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System (MABAS), which allows first responders to call for assistance from other departments when they have exhausted all their own resources or are in need of specialized equipment or personnel, should be used when dealing with water-related emergencies.

MABAS is a multi-state mutual-aid system used in nearly every county in Wisconsin.

Without using the MABAS system, Hansen said, the city is liable for injuries of outside personnel who respond to assist on a call.

“One of my ongoing concerns as fire chief is the liability exposure for the city by responding to or receiving help from other fire departments without a formal intergovernmental agreement (like MABAS) in place.”

Friend contends that the Dive Team is a part of MABAS Division 102, which encompasses Racine County, and says that the team’s bylaws protect each jurisdiction’s liability.

“Chief Hansen feels his team can handle any incidents in his local jurisdiction and feels that additional support from incoming agencies who are part of the Racine County Dive Team are unmanageable and a waste of resources,” Friend said. “This call on Dec. 30 proved his justification wrong.”

After they withdraw, Hansen said the RFD would still respond to water calls throughout the county when requested.

“The Racine Fire Department, with all its significant water rescue response resources and 28-plus certified open water, ice rescue and swift water certified divers are more than happy and willing to continue responding to any community in the county and on any inter-divisional response at the MABAS Box Alarm level or greater (standardized-tiered response),” Hansen said. Inter-divisional refers to responses from outside the county.

Remer, Friend and Schmaling said that the rest of the dive team will continue to work well together, even after the RFD withdraws.

“As commander of the Sheriff’s Office Dive Team of 15 very competent individuals, I am reliant on the professionalism, skills and equipment of other agencies that make up our county-wide Dive Team,” Friend said. “We train as a team, we function as a team and we respond as a team.”

“I can say without hesitation and with supreme confidence, if our rescue divers had a general area where the vehicle may have gone into the water, they would have deployed immediately to attempt a rescue.” Racine Fire Chief Steve Hansen

“I’m angered and disappointed with the Racine Fire and Rescue’s decision to abort after just 34 minutes when it was abundantly clear a life was at stake.” Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling


Local
Computerized special effects
You've probably never heard of this Oscar-winner, an ex-Racine resident

KENOSHA — Perry Kivolowitz has never received a Christmas card from film director James Cameron.

And considering Kivolowitz’s contributions to Cameron’s films — including “Avatar” and “Titanic,” which combined to earn more than $4 billion in the worldwide box office — the computer science innovator probably deserves a thank you.

“He’s certainly benefited from the fruits of our labor. It would just be wonderful to get a card,” Kivolowitz said.

Kivolowitz is a New York native who has lived in Wisconsin since 1984. He used to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but is now the chair of Carthage College’s Computer Science Department. He lived along the lakefront in Racine for a while, but moved to Kenosha last year.

He’s also an Academy Award winner, but you’ve never seen him alongside Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks on the silver screen. In 1996, he won an Academy Award for Scientific and Technical Achievement. And his new program, SilhouetteFX, is slated to win another Oscar this year.

Another trophy

“In SilhouetteFX is bundled decades of effort and experience,” Kivolowitz said, remembering his early computer projects, trying to develop data acquisition software for researchers 40 years ago. “Most movies are touched by it.”

SilhouetteFX has been in development for 15 years and has been used behind the scenes in hundreds of films, from “The Hobbit” to “Where the Wild Things Are” to “Fifty Shades Freed.”

Unlike the hours-long suspense-filled spectacle that is the Academy Awards show (scheduled for 7 p.m. Feb. 24 on ABC), the Oscars’ Sci-Tech Awards have much less drama. They are announced weeks ahead of the main event — which is why Kivolowitz already knows about SilhouetteFX’s win.

There aren’t any “Best Animator” or “Best Supporting Camera Tech” categories, either.

The awards are more general, meant to “honor the men, women and companies whose discoveries and innovations have contributed in significant and lasting ways to motion pictures,” according to Oscars.org.

Kivolowitz’s first Oscar resulted from a computer program he helped create called Elastic Reality. It helped filmmakers simulate natural movement in animated objects — notably the floating feather in “Forrest Gump” — and laid a lot of the groundwork for SilhouetteFX.

Kivolowitz’s work with another company, Foundation Imaging, also notched an Emmy Award for its contributions to the space opera television show “Babylon 5,” which ran from 1993-1999.

At the awards ceremony for that Emmy, Kivolowitz had complained about how far away from the stage his team was. He stopped complaining when he saw the George Lucas, the creator of “Star Wars,” was sitting one row further back.

Hiding effects

In a lot of ways, SilhouetteFX is a trickster. It allows filmmakers to swap out backdrops when green screens and blue screens aren’t practical.

“A big win for our users is when nobody knows a special effect was used,” Kivolowitz said.

Filmmakers are able to, for example, film a Black Hawk helicopter lifting off in Hollywood, but then swap out the California landscape for a warzone in Afghanistan or an Arctic blizzard — saving time and money on multi-million dollar film shoots.

“You watch that and say, ‘That’s not an effects shot.’ Yet, the entire background was replaced,” he said.

It can also be used on a smaller scale. In the film “The BFG” (short for The Big Friendly Giant), SilhouetteFX was used to remove LED lights from a shot and replace them with computer-animated fairies, without losing any of the original detail and lighting from the film. “BFG” was even nominated for Best Special Effects at the 2017 Saturn Awards.

SilhouetteFX is also useful for turning films that were shot in 2D into 3D rereleases.

“Titanic 3D,” which came out in 2012 thanks to SilhouetteFX — the original film had used Elastic Reality — grossed nearly another $1 billion at the box office. Kivolowitz still hasn’t gotten a Christmas card from James Cameron.

Brushes with fame

Although most of them have been touched by it, actors and actresses generally are not aware of the Kivolowitz or his work — save for Dick Van Dyke.

Kivolowitz said that Van Dyke, known for his generation-spanning comedy, has become passionate about computer effects and uses SilhouetteFX. He was known for calling tech support with questions.

Ahead of the same Emmy ceremony where Kivolowitz rubbed elbows with George Lucas, he ran into René Auberjonois, the actor known for playing the shape-shifting Odo on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” The effects that allowed Odo to change form seamlessly in front of the camera wouldn’t have been possible without the programs Kivolowitz helped develop, he said.

Once, while setting up a table at a trade show, a bearded man was waiting to talk to Kivolowitz. But Kivolowitz ignored him, too engrossed in his own work. Later, somebody came up to him and said, “Dude, you just dissed Stephen Spielberg.”

It’s OK though. Spielberg still used Kivolowitz’s programs to make millions on “BFG,” “War Horse” and “The Adventures of Tintin.”

“A big win for our users is when nobody knows a special effect was used.” Perry Kivolowitz, Carthage College professor and movie special effects specialist

Local
Public hearing on Oak Creek plant water discharge set for Monday

OAK CREEK — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is scheduled to hold a public hearing over We Energies’ application to renew its water discharge permit for the Oak Creek power plant.

The draft permit, which has been available on the DNR’s website since December, grants a variance for the amount of mercury and arsenic the power plant is allowed to dump with its wastewater. That would mean that the power plant could discharge those chemicals at a rate higher than the regulation standard into Lake Michigan for a temporary time period.

Jason Knutson, the DNR’s wastewater section chief, said the variance was put into place because We Energies had discharges above what’s permitted, so the power plant could continue to operate as it works with the DNR to identify the source of the elevated levels.

“Anytime we issue a variance we include conditions that lead to the highest level of compliance,” said Knutson. “These variances aren’t a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

As part of the process a public hearing will be held at 1 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 11, at the Oak Creek Community Center, 8580 S. Howell Ave.

Coalition tests area waters

The Clean Power Coalition of Southeastern Wisconsin, a local clean energy group, presented the results of its water testing near the power plant to the DNR and asked that the agency investigate further.

The samples, collected by UW-Parkside students and tested at the University of Wisconsin Laboratory of Hygiene, showed unsafe levels of boron, arsenic, copper, lead, manganese and more metals. The CPC published the test results on its website on Feb. 7.

Submitted photo 

A map from the Clean Power Coalition's website shows the location of the water testing sites.

Three sites were chosen because they were close to the plant and were publicly accessible: a stream along the bike path west of the power plant, another along County Line Road and a culvert south of the power plant. Samples were collected on June 14 (the summer test results) and Nov. 16 (winter test results) and were sent to the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene in Madison for testing for heavy metals.

Submitted image 

The Clean Power Coalition's water test results for summer show lower levels of heavy metals than winter but levels of manganese higher than the public health standard.

The samples collected in the summer had levels of boron, aluminum and manganese higher than the public health standard for drinking water. The winter samples contained high levels of those metals plus arsenic, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, nickel and vanadium.

Submitted photo 

The Clean Power Coalition's water samples collected in November showed unhealthy levels of aluminum, manganese and other metals in waterways near the Oak Creek power plant. 

During the second round of testing, the coalition also collected samples from a creek at the Eco-Justice Center, 7133 Michna Road, and another creek at Seven Mile Road, both in Caledonia. CPC representative Miranda Ehrlich said “nothing concerning” was found at those locations.

Caveats and unclear connection to power plant

Ehrlich said there are two caveats to their findings: first, at this early stage they cannot definitively say the metals came from the coal fire power plant. The second is that the water they tested is surface level water, not drinking water. It’s unknown if any of those metals are infiltrating into the drinking water system.

However, she hoped the results would compel the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to investigate.

The permit up for renewal is for discharge into Lake Michigan, so Knutson said its unclear at this point if the test results are tied to the power plant.

“Before we finalize the permit we’ll need to answer that question,” said Knutson. “We’re keeping the answer to that question open until we give everybody an opportunity to provide information that might be relevant to our decision making.”

We Energies’ response

We Energies spokesperson Brendan Conway took issue with CPC’s implication that the metals could have come from the Oak Creek power plant.

“The test results of water sampled from drainage ditches near the Oak Creek facility includes runoff from farm fields, state highways and other land uses,” wrote Conway. “The metals that are found are elements that are a natural part of soils and will influence the water quality composition of samples taken in a drainage ditch located in a suburban/rural area.”

Conley also had strong words regarding the organization comparing the results to drinking water standards on their website.

“It is unfortunate the Clean Power Coalition continues to try and scare people using stunts and half-truths,” wrote Conway in an email. “Apparently they believe it is responsible to scare people by comparing water in a stream to water that comes into our homes.”

Ehrlich said the CPC’s testing was just the first step.

“However, we do think what we’ve found is concerning enough that the DNR should consider looking into it,” Ehrlich wrote in an email. “Given that We Energies’ water discharge permit is currently up for renewal, we thought this was a good time to engage the DNR on this issue so they can consider this information while finalizing the permit.”