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Posted by on Jun 2, 2011 in At TMV, Society | 26 comments

Rescuers Watch Man Drown, Cite Liability Concerns

This story has been very big in Northern California for the last few days and I suspect it is going to be very big nationally pretty soon.

The basic story is that a woman called Alameda County (Oakland area for non Californians) fire and police telling them that her 57 year old son had threatened to commit suicide by walking into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay.

Rescuers arrived on the scene to see the man standing neck deep in water about 150 yards offshore. The water, while cold, was relatively calm but none of the fire or police responders entered the water. The reasong given was that budget cuts had prevented them from recertifying firefighters in water rescue and therefore they could face legal liability for rescuing the man.

Now there are a myriad of reasons this response is, in my opinion (just to protect TMV from liability), idiotic.

For one thing there is a good samaritan law which protects rescuers, and fire and police officials have even greater protections.

In addition, the whole ‘budget cuts’ argument is weak as well. I am not privy to the Alameda county budget but I am pretty sure that there is some fat (say the chiefs reported 300,000 a year salary and benefits package) that could have been cut to provide the recertification training.

Further, it is likely there is fat in the Alameda county budget that could have been trimmed to find the money for the training program. Indeed it is pretty common practice for budget cutters to slice things like libraries, schools, fire and police because this makes the public mad and gets them more money. Meanwhile the county supervisors fact finding trip to Maui stays in the budget (this is just an example, I don’t know such a trip exists, but you get where I am going).

Finally, it is the job of fire and police to rescue people. Indeed in listening to a local radio show this morning I heard many firefighters and police officers call in and express outrage at what the fire chief said, stating that they would all have rescued the man.

And let me be clear here that I am second to none in my deep admiration for firefighters and police. They defend and protect us and deserve our deepest respect. But that respect is, in part, earned by the fact that they take the risks and do not stand around and watch.

Even more amazing is the comments made by the chief during an interview with local TV. The chief is asked what he would do if it was a child drowning and his response was that while he would rescue the child if off duty, while on duty he would ‘comply with the rules’.

The chief it seems was recently appointed to the job.

Fortunately the policy is being changed, but that is of little benefit to the dead man.

Local talk radio has been covering this extensively and one topic of discussion has been the fact that in years gone by this never would have happened. For me the worst part is not the idiot chief who sticks to regulations but that the other firefighters just stood there (in contrast to the responses from other firefighters).

I can’t help but think of a scene from the movie The Time Machine in which dozens of people sat by and watched a woman drowning because it wasn’t their business. I worry how much closer to that reality we might be in 20 or 30 years.