Let’s Dispense With the ‘Hero’ Nonsense

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Let’s Finally Dispense With ‘Hero’ Nonsense

by Steven Greenhut

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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. u2018The incident yesterday was deeply regrettable,' he said Tuesday. u2018But 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.”

Obviously, then, we are safer without these departments. A heroic bystander might at least jump in the water and try to save your kid while the professional, well-paid, highly pensioned “hero” is forbidden by policy (and a bureaucratic attitude) to do so.

The firefighters, cops and Coast Guard, with all their personnel and top-of-the-line equipment, were incapable of even trying to save the life of a man who stood neck deep in water for an hour. Something definitely is wrong with this picture. It reminds me of another incident in Philadelphia I wrote about for LewRockwell.com a few years ago:

"In a videotaped u2018rescue' along the Schuylkill River last May [police and firefighters] did nothing other than watch for a half-hour or so as a troubled man clung to the side of a bridge, then jumped off and drowned. … [T]hey were joking around as the tragic event transpired. It took a roller-blading passerby and another bystander to attempt a rescue. … And the officials wouldn't touch [the dying man] or try to resuscitate him until the rubber gloves and other safety equipment was on the scene. They left the dirty work for the brave volunteers. This infuriating response didn't merit a rebuke from the police commissioner, who actually praised the assembled cops for their efforts after a public outcry ensued."

Instead of getting punished, Alameda officials will get rewarded — with additional training dollars. But who really believes that even if that money had been available and the policy been different that these first responders would have done the right thing? The local resident was right. The problem is a deep cultural one, something I see to be endemic in the government agencies that always claim to protect and serve us.

Police and fire agencies are bureaucracies and, as such, they end up functioning in a similar manner to the Department of Motor Vehicles, the IRS and any other alphabet soup agency you can name. As writer Thomas Sowell put it, "You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing."

And so normal people stand around wondering how we can end up with such a bad outcome — a needless death — while the bureaucracies, stuck as they are on procedure, tell us they acted appropriately.

It's about time the public starts rethinking our public safety policy and starts wondering whether the creation of big costly bureaucracies, encumbered by ridiculous rules and designed mainly around the convenience and safety of those working in the agencies, is the best way to protect the public's safety.

Steven Greenhut (send him mail) is editor-in-chief of CalWatchdog.com and a widely published opinion writer. He is the author of the book, Abuse of Power, and his latest, Plunder!.

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