Board Notes: The Hardest Cases

It is truly wonderful to serve the Carnegie Hero Fund. We deal with the best of people doing the best a human can do. There are hard parts, though, such as dealing with certain kinds of cases which cause real anguish for those who must decide whether to award the Carnegie Medal.

The second hardest group of cases are those in which someone takes a serious personal risk to perform a brave and wonderful act that nevertheless falls outside the criteria for the Medal. For the Carnegie Medal to mean what it does, we have to say no to these cases, but we say so with considerable anguish.

To give a familiar example, we have written here before about our requirement that a rescuer leave a place of safety to make the rescue. Capt. Sully Sullenberger is a great spokesman for this principle. He points out that he didn’t make a choice to board an airliner with both engines out — he was already aboard when it happened. He couldn’t make a decision to put himself in danger; it was forced upon him. Great guy, fascinating aviation “save,” but no Carnegie Medal. That said, of course, how lucky were the passengers to have pilots with the skill and sang froid of Sullenberger and his copilot Jeff Skiles at the controls. (I’ve always wanted to use “sang froid” in a sentence, but if it doesn’t apply to these
guys, then who?)

Cases involving policemen and firemen are even harder. The issue here is the requirement that the rescuer act without any obligation to do so.

Police certainly have an obligation to intervene in assaults, and firefighters to rescue occupants of a burning building, so no Medal in those cases.

Astute readers will object that they have indeed read of firefighters and police receiving the Medal, and they are right. But police receive the medal for rescues from a hazard, such as a burning building or a raging river, that has nothing to do with law enforcement. Similarly, firefighters receive the award for rescues from assault. In each case, the rescuer was far outside of his or her professional responsibilities.

These cases are completely within the award criteria for the Carnegie Medal.

But here is a harder case: suppose a policeman is the first to arrive at the scene of a mass shooting by multiple well-armed attackers. The policeman, realizing the urgency of the situation, crosses an open space under a hail of fire to engage the attackers and stop the shooting.

Suppose that under the circumstances this was so dangerous that only 1 percent of all police officers would have acted immediately rather than waiting for help. Or even .1 percent? Nevertheless, that act itself — protecting citizens from armed attack — is squarely the kind of thing police are hired to do. This can be hard at times, but we would not award the Medal.

If this seems like a tough line to take, consider how important it is that we make these distinctions consistently. The Carnegie Medal was not created to award goodness in general. It was created to recognize heroes who choose to put the lives of others ahead of their own, without any obligation to do so. It is the very restrictiveness of the criteria that makes the Carnegie Medal as special as it is. Put another way, the value of the Carnegie Medals we award is defined by the medals we choose not award.

The other bit of good news is that these wonderful acts that we fail to award often attract other, more specific awards. Most police departments have a system of recognition for such acts, and there are also state and national awards for police bravery.

As for Sully Sullenberger, Jeff Skiles, and their doughty crew, London’s Honourable Company of Air Pilots awarded them its rarely-awarded Master Medal. Just the right medal for the job!

I opened by saying that great acts that don’t exactly meet our criteria are the second toughest we handle. The toughest? For me, every case in which the hero dies in the rescue is a heartbreaker. What these Carnegie heroes did, and the price they paid, forever humble all who read their stories.

— Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission

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