Night after night on the evening news, we see aerial photographs of the massive landslide that may have killed almost 100 people in Washington State.
On a quiet Saturday, after days of rain, a mountainside calved off, hurtling literally acres of land and thousands of trees across a river and a road and onto a hamlet of some 35 homes.
It was horrific.
When rescuers arrived, the cries and screams of the injured and buried echoed across the landscape.
Those rescuers, and the men and women who came behind them, scrambled across the debris trying to help. We have seen repeated images of a child being winched into a helicopter. Against great adversity, first responders fought to save lives.
Until they were told to stop.
As the sun began to set, the county fire chief ordered all rescuers off the site. Plaintive voices could still be heard, begging for help, crying out in pain and fear.
But the fire chief pulled out and left them there.
The scene wasn’t safe, he said. So he ordered all rescuers off the debris field.
The next morning, when rescuers were allowed to return, all was silent. There were no more cries for help. There were no more victims saved.
There were no more victims alive.
They had died alone in the night.
And in their passing is illustrated the conflict between a traditional American ethic and current doctrine of the emergency services.
Before I go further, let me say this is not a criticism. It is an observation and, hopefully, the beginning of a conversation. As Columbine caused first responders to reconsider tactical doctrine, so, too, might Oso prompt a review of rescue ideology.
Currently, all fire and first-responder courses teach that “scene safety” is the first and primary consideration. Is the scene safe to operate in? In instruction and testing, “Check scene safety” is the mantra which must be spoken and repeated.
And this is wisely the case.
In the excitement of response, a tunnel vision can develop and there are sad tales of first responders injured or lost because they did not notice and avoid dangers in the response environment.
Certainly, in the Washington landslide there were manifold dangers which threatened responders. There is no denying that.
But there is also no denying that danger is part of the job.
Or that the “Leave no man behind” ethic is part of our culture and heritage.
In the delivery of emergency services, there must be a balancing of the needs of the victims and the safety of the rescuers. Neither one can completely trump the other. There must be some meeting in the middle.
Some fear – even within the first-responder community – that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of rescuer safety. Yes, scene safety is important, but so, too, is saving lives.
And a large percentage of rescues involve risk for the rescuer. That is why we traditionally see rescuers as heroes. It is not because they know first aid or can drive the fire truck, it is because they put the interests of others above themselves.
Adherence to the scene safety doctrine would have had the New York City firefighters running away from the Twin Towers. Instead, they famously gathered their gear and ran up the stairs.
That is heroism, that is the tradition of the fire service, that is the ethic of the American rescuer.
We believe as a society that when people call for help others will bend every effort to provide them that help. In our history and heritage, we believe that you endanger the many to save the one. It is a hard but heroic belief, and it shows our commitment and love for one another.
No American should ever call for help and have rescuers called off the rescue.
In Washington, when the fire chief ordered his men to abandon the field, any number of townspeople and passersby would have replaced them, driven by nothing but courage and love.
That’s the way it should be.
Yes, we must conscientiously protect the safety of first responders. But there comes a point in the emergency services where danger is just part of the scene, and courageous people conquer it.
Members of the FDNY are called “New York’s Bravest” for a reason. It is because, when need be, members of the firefighting profession – like all emergency responders and decent people of all walks of life – will risk their own safety, even their own lives, to save someone else.
That is our ethic, and that must prevail.
Anything else is to lower our standards and abandon our nobility.