Let's Finally Dispense With 'Hero' Nonsense

Article by Steven Greenhut.
Not only did Alameda firefighters and police stand around, watch and do nothing as a suicidal man, Raymond Zack, spent an hour in the San Francisco Bay, neck deep in water, they didn’t even go into the water to retrieve his lifeless body after he died. They left that work to a bystander. To make this incident even more infuriating, police and fire officials defended the inactions of their employees and blamed budget cuts and city policy for this inhumane behavior by those who often claim to be selfless protectors of the public.

At least we can dispense with all the hero nonsense from public safety “first responders” who use the hero card whenever they are negotiating for higher pay, better pensions and other bigger budget items. When it comes time to actually act like heroes, they often act like bureaucrats. Certainly, as a deadly fire in San Francisco Thursday that claimed the life of at least one firefighter shows, these jobs can be dangerous (although they don’t come near the top of the most-dangerous-jobs list). But the Alameda tragedy is an increasingly common situation as officials put their own safety, comfort and bureaucratic priorities above everything else.

Per the MSNBC report: “Interim Alameda Fire Chief Mike D’Orazi said that due to 2009 budget cuts his crews did not have the training or cold-water gear to go into the water. ‘The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable,’ he said Tuesday. ‘But I can also see it from our firefighters’ perspective. They’re standing there wanting to do something, but they are handcuffed by policy at that point.’”

For God’s sake, blaming budget cuts is reprehensible especially given the large chunk of local budgets that firefighting services consume. Simple decency required some effort – rather than standing around and gawking by these highly paid professionals – to save a troubled man. The bystander who fished out his body didn’t have cold-water gear (let alone a big pension from the fire department), but she jumped into the water any way and acted like an actual human being. The water was a bit chilly (54 degrees) but it’s not Alaska.

The article quoted a local resident who made the sensible point: “This just strikes me as not just a problem with funding, but a problem with the culture of what’s going on in our city, that no one would take the time and help this drowning man.” And it’s a huge cultural problem within any firefighting department that would put budgetary complaints and red tape above doing their basic human mission of saving someone in harm’s way.

The Alameda police showed even deeper bureaucratic inhumanity. “Certainly this was tragic, but police officers are tasked with ensuring public safety, including the safety of personnel who are sent to try to resolve these kinds of situations,” Alameda police Lt. Sean Lynch told the San Jose Mercury News. “He was engaged in a deliberate act of taking his own life. We did not know whether he was violent, whether drugs were involved. It’s not a situation of a typical rescue.”

This response is typical from police agencies. First they say that officer safety is their first priority. Then they blame the victim. Well, if you’re not going to do your job and endure even an iota of risk, then let’s stop playing up the risks to officers. And helping suicidal people and troubled people of all sort is part of the job of a police officer, one would think. No one, of course, will be held accountable for any of this, which is how it works in the public sector, and especially with public safety agencies.

The whole scene sounded like something from the Three Stooges, except with tragic results. According to the MSNBC report, “The Coast Guard was called to the scene, but the water was too shallow for its boat. A Coast Guard helicopter arrived more than an hour later because it had been on another call and had to refuel.”

When asked if he would save a drowning child in such waters, Alameda Fire Chief Ricci Zombeck offered this bureaucratic and maddening answer to an ABC news reporter “Well, if I was off duty I would know what I would do, but I think you’re asking me my on-duty response and I would have to stay within our policies and procedures because that’s what’s required by our department to do.”

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2 replies »

  1. I find the moralistic condemnation of the fire-fighters inaction by a libertarian rather odd. On the basis of libertarian principles, wouldn’t it be immoral to try to save the life of someone intent on killing themselves? Wouldn’t doing so be an act of coercion? Am I missing something here?

  2. I would agree with B.B. but I couldn’t imagine anyone on the scene could have been certain of the reasons through which this guy ended up in the water. And even if they knew, their inaction was not a matter of principle.

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