Sunday, November 20, 2011

Are you more likely to be saved by volunteers than professionals?

Three days ago I noted the rescue of a woman who had suffered an epileptic fit deep underground while exploring the old lead mine at Snailbeach in Shropshire.

Since then the newspapers have been full of reports of the death of Alison Hume. She fell only 50 feet down an old mine shaft in Ayrshire, but died because senior fire officers showed “rigid compliance” with official health and safety procedures.

I was going to write a post drawing lessons from the contrast between these incidents, but I found that my favourite newspaper - the Shropshire Star - has already done so in an editorial:
Early today, at Snailbeach, volunteers and the emergency services saved the life of a young woman caver who had had a fall 300ft underground in an old lead mine. 
The dramatic rescue operation involving Midlands Cave Rescue, police, and paramedics, took six hours. The woman was brought up safely. 
Those who took part in this selfless act of going to the aid of somebody in distress inevitably put themselves at some risk. But they did it anyway. 
By a coincidence of timing, this comes hard on the heels of a fatal accident inquiry into a very similar incident in Scotland which ended up very differently. 
Alison Hume fell down a mineshaft and the emergency services dithered and dallied. Their risk-averse, health & safety first approach, led to delays. They waited until they got all the “proper”, approved equipment. Only then did they perform a by-the-book rescue. Mrs Hume died.
There are dangers in relying purely upon media reports, but there seems to be a key difference between these two incidents.

In Scotland, where Alison Hume died, the rescue operation was led by the statutory emergency services. At Snailbeach it was led by the volunteers of the Midlands Cave Rescue Organisation.

The conclusion we should draw is one I have tried to show before - see this discussion of the gentler subject of arts festivals. The assumption that anyone who is employed in the public sector is bound to be better than a volunteer is simply unfounded.

Underground rescues, like arts festivals and any other worthwhile human activities, are usually going to involve collaboration between volunteers and professionals.

The question we need to ask is why you appear more likely to survive a rescue if it is the volunteers who get to you first.


Simon Titley said...

I tend to sympathise with your broad view. However, you supply only one example of each type of rescue. Two anecdotes are not an adequate basis for an evidence-based conclusion about the merits of professionals vs. volunteers.

It is perfectly possible in this instance that the problem is not the skills of one group as opposed to another, but a culture of rigid adherence to rules or a failure to devolve power to professionals.

But we really need to study many examples before we can observe a pattern and draw the conclusion that one is "more likely to survive a rescue if it is the volunteers who get to you first".

KelvinKid said...

This is a truly ridiculous post, based on two anecdotes and a complete lack of sense. I for one will not be waiting for volunteers to rescue me if my house goes on fire.

Jonathan Calder said...

Quite right, Kelvin. If retained firefighters turn up to put the blaze out, you send them packing.

Unknown said...

I think that what happened with Alison Hume was absolutely appalling. However, to draw the conclusion that volunteers somehow do a better job, or have more commitment to it is not correct or appropriate.

Just because the representatives of the public services made the wrong decision on that one occasion, it does not negate the many occasions when they save lives and do a good, professional job on a daily basis.