In social psychology there’s something known as the “bystander effect.” It’s a phenomenon, particularly acute in the United States thanks to our overly litigious society, that prevents help from getting to those in emergency situations because witnesses assume someone else will seek help or it’s already been summoned.
To counter it, as I was trained in first aid courses I took when I was a camp counselor, someone needs to step up and specifically assign a task to one of the bystanders, making him or her responsible to take action. “You, go call 911,” for example. It generally gets the job done.
You don’t have to tell that to those who work in public safety. Whether they’re firefighters, police officers, soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, lifeguards or even the mall security guy, something in these people — their training or something more ingrained in their DNA — makes them want to act and help their fellow man. They’re remarkable people.
There are, no doubt, a million stories like this every day around the world. But every now and then the stories are worth knowing and remembering. Sometimes they happen in our own back yard, and sometimes the commotion and the attempts at mitigating disaster don’t turn out well.
Take the two-alarm fire during the early morning hours of Nov. 24 along State Avenue in Lower Price Hill. Three children died in that awful blaze, and their 37-year-old father, Robert Hulett, was left in critical condition with burns over 30 percent of his body.
As firefighters pulled up on the scene they saw a 9-year-old girl standing on a second-story front porch as the house burned.
Before they could do anything, the girl, screaming for help, burst into flames.
As other firefighters arrived and learned that two other children were unaccounted for, they leaped into action and entered the burning home. Inside they were met with formidable flames that made climbing the stairs to the second story nearly impossible.
One firefighter, a man’s man most other times, wept as he told me later about reaching the charred body of one child, recognizing it under debris as human by touching it: “Legs, torso, head.” They were too late.
Every day, each time the “tones drop” and dispatchers set off the alarms in a firehouse, men and women drop what they’re doing and come to the aid of their fellow citizens. Many times they’re false alarms, overreactions by well-intentioned do-gooders, calls from people with conditions that could have been prevented had they access to affordable health care or just plain lonely or mentally ill people (or both) who know what to say to get some attention.
But it’s those times when it really matters that we’re glad they come running with flashing lights and blaring sirens. It could be the cop with the ability to quell an out-of-control situation. It could be the firefighter with his or her knowledge and ability to save life and property.
In all of that expectation, it’s easy to forget what they go through. Dealing with another gunshot victim in what seems to be a world gone completely mad. The auto accident with the two drunk college kids who had so much potential but were dismembered and wrapped around a tree. The old woman who shot her husband and then herself so they no longer had to suffer the pain of deteriorating health with no money to care for themselves. The two-week-old baby who just wasn’t equipped for this world.
Firefighters who were at the Lower Price Hill scene tell me they suspect the fire was so bad because the well-intentioned father tried to put it out himself before calling for the Cincinnati Fire Department. It’s a common mistake, I’m told, because many don’t understand how fires work — while a fire can appear small, the contents of a room might be approaching the flash point, the temperature at which everything ignites at once, engulfing a room, raging out of control.
That’s likely what happened in Lower Price Hill.
No matter how good the firefighters’ training was, there was little they could have done. It doesn’t make the images of dead children any easier to deal with.
Had I been born with more gumption, I would love to have been a police officer, a firefighter or served in our military. Lucky for them, I realized early on I wouldn’t make a good public safety servant.
But there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think what they take on — for us strangers — is nothing short of amazing.
CONTACT JOE WESSELS: firstname.lastname@example.org