It is to tragedies such as these that today’s stultifying propensity to codify all responses by the emergency services can be traced. The problem arises when those whose job it is to interpret the codes do so in a way that brooks no common sense. It must be evident to even the most boneheaded commander that the rules for entering a raging torrent were not intended to apply to a shallow lake in a town park.
Those who say there might still have been hazards to negotiate – for instance, mud on the bottom of the lake – miss the point: procedure cannot be allowed to dictate the response to every eventuality. Sometimes, the people on the spot should break the rules, but they don’t because they fear for their jobs. They have risen through the ranks and been inculcated with the attitude that it is preferable to let someone die than to override procedure.
Nor is this an isolated incident. Last year, a mother in Northamptonshire accused the fire brigade of effectively condemning her son to death because crew were told not to enter a frozen lake to rescue him without specialist equipment. The head of fire operations said: “All personnel followed policy and did everything correctly with the equipment they had.” A similar case occurred in Ayrshire, when a lawyer died after being trapped for six hours down a 45ft mine shaft while fire officers argued over health and safety regulations. Alison Hume remained conscious as emergency workers deliberated overnight, but suffered a heart attack when she was eventually pulled out. Once again, rank and file officers were repeatedly prevented by their superiors from attempting to save her.
These attitudes have been on show for ages. A few years ago in Henley, Oxfordshire, police refused to let an ambulance crew enter a house where two people had been shot by a gunman – even though they had been assured that the killer was dead. Instead, they spent an hour setting up an incident room to assess the position. At least one of the victims might have survived had they acted sooner.
Something systematic has gone wrong with our public services. They have become so entangled in red tape that they have forgotten their purpose. How else can we explain the need for a code of conduct for NHS nurses and carers looking after elderly people? Do they really need to be told not to be disrespectful or abusive? That should, after all, be fundamental to what they do; but everything now needs to be laid down in writing, lectures organised, teach-ins staged and certificates issued, simply to set out what should be instinctive and spontaneous. This is not about “health and safety gone mad”; it is about the modern obsession for centralising everything. As a result, we end up with rules that are inimical to individual responsibility. A country once renowned for its free-spirited disdain for procedure is now suffocated by regulation. People argue not about what is right and wrong, but about whether something was done the correct way.
There is no reason to believe that our police and firefighters are any less brave than they used to be. The latter still enter burning buildings and thousands of police officers stood up to the rioters last summer. They are regularly asked to do things that the rest of us would not. But they have become hidebound by regulation. Procedure has got the better of common sense. The fear of litigation has spawned myriad rules and protocols that must be slavishly obeyed whatever the circumstances. Provided everyone can say that they followed the process – however barmy it may be – they are safe from the sack or from being sued.
Worst of all, this warped culture is not being tackled. No attempt is being made to reform a system that clearly does not work. True to form, at the end of the inquest yesterday, Hampshire fire brigade offered a lengthy apologia that brooked no criticism. Since Mr Burgess was face down in the water, it had been assumed he was dead and they responded accordingly, though they conceded some of their water rescue policies needed reforming “in response to the identified gaps in existing procedures”.
They must be the only people in the country who find what happened defensible. What is needed is for those in charge of such operations, or anyone volunteering to assist, to be given assurances that they will not lose their jobs or be disciplined if they overstep the mark in order to save someone. How many more people are to die because members of the emergency services are prevented from doing what we expect them to do – and what most of them are ready to do if freed from the tyranny of the rule book?