Tom Sutcliffe: Even fools know the meaning of bravery

Social Studies: Have modern firefighters had their hands tied by the paperwork, or are we all less brave than we once were?

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We need more fools, it seems. They, the proverbial wisdom has it, rush in where angels fear to tread – something that the proverb implicitly disapproves of, angels being a proverbially good thing. But recently we have had quite a few examples of situations where a bit of rushing would have been appropriate and fearing to tread ended up looking less than angelic.

An inquest into the death of two men in an icy lake reported that the firemen first on the scene had not entered the water because a team with the requisite safety training was on its way – a hesitation that one of the dead men's mothers felt had contributed to his death.

Another "fool" – a member of the public – did have a go at rescue but felt his attempt was compromised by the firemen's refusal to tie a rope around him, presumably because they might then have been liable for anything that happened to him.

In a similar vein, last week's inquests into the 7 July bombings in London noted that the emergency services were stalled in responding to the injured because of a clash of protocols – though fortunately there were some "fools" on hand who ignored the done thing and did something anyway. And yesterday we learned that police officers are expected to fill in a 238-point hazard checklist before engaging in any operation – assessing, among other things, the likelihood of encountering "steps and trestles", "poor ergonomics" and "contact with hot/cold objects".

It is pretty clear that very few police officers do any such thing before responding to an emergency call – but the existence of such a document is telling in itself about a culture that seeks to exclude risk from an inherently risky occupation. And it begs the question of whether such a culture is debilitating in itself, or whether it is merely a symptom of a more universal timidity. To put it more bluntly, have modern firefighters had their hands tied by the paperwork, or are they just less brave than their predecessors – because the population at large isn't as brave? It isn't inconceivable that the latter might be the case, without any harsh judgements on our collective moral fibre.

As two world wars have shown, the effect of social expectations on bravery is remarkable – and in a situation where your colleagues take it for granted that you will not expose yourself to unnecessary risk, the readiness to do so might well atrophy.

I doubt that is the explanation, though. The frustration expressed by firemen at their own inactivity wasn't the outward sign of shame at their own lack of grit. It was evidence of anger at finding themselves caught between a human instinct and professional discipline. And it isn't shameful that discipline won out.

Odd as it might sound, the fear of losing your job (or prejudicing your career) can weigh much heavier than the fear of losing your life in such circumstances – if only because the personal extinction is hard to imagine, while trouble at the office is all too easy. You assume you will survive and will then have to face the consequences.

We have no shortage of the right kind of "fools" – but we badly need to rewrite rule books which don't seem to recognise that impetuosity is sometimes a virtue. The bureaucratic angels – foreseeing every hazard imaginable – have missed the blindly obvious danger of fatal delay.

Determined to see the nastiness of Nice

"Penny-pinching Nice stripped of power to ban life-saving drugs" read the strapline to the Daily Mail's report of the decision that the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence will lose its power to decide on the cost-effectiveness of NHS treatments. The phrase conjured the image of a kind of bureaucratic Scrooge, heartlessly refusing to unclip his purse as patients expired in front of him.

Naturally, the story didn't make much of the fact that the power to penny-pinch has not actually disappeared, but simply passed on to GPs, who will have to make exactly the same agonising choices about how to divide up a limited NHS budget – and are likely to do it in ways that will involve equally cruel disappointments to individuals.

It was never Nice that "condemned" patients to die "an early death". It was cancer. And the penny-pinching was not in the interests of stealing the money but spending it in ways that more effectively alleviated human misery. A headline reading "Government abolishes difficult decisions" would have made about as much sense.

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