"A good leader at Aldgate would have assumed authority and ordered his crews in to help injured passengers on a bombed Tube train."
So says David Gilbertson
, ex Deputy Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard.*
The delay in rescue efforts by emergency services on July 7th 2005 has been roundly labelled as Health and Safety culture gone mad by the media this week. The assumption is that because fire crews and ambulances were standing by waiting orders to proceed with rescue, instead of racing headlong into the tube tunnels, they should feel wracked with guilt and are personally responsible for any deaths that happened while they waited.
As a front-line police sergeant, reading these articles makes me profoundly angry. We are not talking about a situation where a simple and obvious act by one person could save a life. We are talking about a treacherous and difficult rescue, with extreme hazards to emergency workers, and a situation totally beyond the experience of any of them. I have no doubt that the units on scene were frustrated and impatient to get on with the rescue, regardless of the risk of secondary devices or any hazards. I know for a fact that young officers on my team are not Health and Safety conscious, and are impetuous and risk-taking far more often than they are cautious - see me quoted in the Daily Telegraph here
The truth is you don't save a drowning person from a river by diving in without thinking. You wait for backup, get emergency kit ready on the shore, and then make the decision to dive when you are in the best possible position to save the person, otherwise everyone who turns up to help will be in the same half-cocked position that you were when you first arrived on scene, and the river will soon be jammed with the writhing of would-be rescuers.
In the situation where you have no equipment and no backup (such that of as PC Elizabeth Kenworthy
), each individual must make a decision about how far they are willing to risk themselves. I know that for the majority of my team, there is no hesitation and they will go all the way - sometimes simply to arrest a car thief, let alone for a dying man. My job, like an anxious parent, is to berate them roundly for the peril they put themselves in, whilst secretly proud inside that my kid done good.
To suggest that firefighters in London on July 7th should feel "guilty" for their failings is to totally misunderstand the position they were in, and what their job actually involves. Do we want an emergency service that is no better than a heroic passer-by, or do we want one equipped to help and with a strategy in place to do it well? A paramedic with no defibrillator or oxygen bag is not a paramedic: he is a good Samaritan. It's easy to rush blindly towards danger with flailing arms; it's harder to take a deep breath, walk slowly up and look it in the eye.
There are innumerable situations where I am happy to hold the public sector up to scrutiny over risk-aversion, but the day of the London Bombings is not one of them.
* Note on David Gilbertson. As well as decrying the lack of "Blitz spirit" in officers nowadays, the ex-Commander (and HMIC inspector) regularly expounds
his view that officers view themselves "as combatants in the war on terror", "at war" with the public, and speaks of the days of "policing by consent", when officers went out without stab vests and batons. Apart from the innate contradictions in these views (either we are at war, or we're not: we can't just invoke the Blitz when we feel like it), he appears to yearn for a bygone age of policing. I meet a lot of Commanders like Mr Gilbertson, who come into briefings and tell my young officers about the days they used to face down the world armed only with a short stick, and berate us for our cowardice wanting to be double-crewed and wear body armour. The thing is, Mr Gilbertson may well come from a braver age of policing, but he also comes from an age when girls made the tea, you used to travel free on the bus, queue-jump almost anywhere, and middle-aged white males spent their evenings in Masonic lodges lapping up the cheap beer in police bars. The age of police privilege is past, and with it the age of mindless bravery. I don't say which is better, but it is a new world now.
(Added 19:49 25/10/10)
A final point to consider: the debate is not about whether we should risk our lives for the public or not, but whether it is automatically doing our job better if we risk our lives. Not whether the emergency services were afraid to rush into the tunnels, but whether waiting to plan a rescue strategy was more sensible and stood a better chance of saving life. What folly to race in en masse and miss half the dying people because you don't have the right breathing/vision equipment. When the emergency services first deployed, they did not know what kind of incident they were dealing with.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.