Impulse 74: Board notes



The Carnegie Hero Fund is blessed to work with a remarkable group of people, the rescuers whose deeds have earned them the Carnegie Medal. Many critically important nonprofit organizations deal with the most difficult aspects of the human condition, such as addiction, abuse, illness, and poverty. At the Hero Fund we deal with the very best of human behaviors, and it is a delight. Yet we are ever mindful that these heroic rescues can bring serious consequences for our heroes. Remember, about 20 percent of them die in the rescue. And so, it happens that among our work with these uplifting humans, I do sometimes ask myself, “Are we giving medals for things that never should have been attempted at all?” Or, worse, “Does the Carnegie Medal encourage people do things they should not have done?”

One of the most powerful flaws in human reasoning trips us up when we try to think about those questions. Let’s call it “hindsight bias.” When we read a case report, we already know the outcome for the victim and Carnegie hero, which inevitably colors our judgment of the risks the rescuer faced. Specifically, when the rescuer dies in the attempt, there is a powerful urge to look at the case as if the rescuer knew in advance what we know only in hindsight. The rescuer probably saw a risk, but in most cases, it is unlikely they saw the risk as certain death. 

Notice that I used “probably” and “unlikely.” That is because the real world is vastly complicated and the decision facing each Carnegie hero was unique. The upshot is that we who watch from the sidelines must exercise humility and restraint in deciding cases and in making sweeping generalizations about the nature of the award. It is impossible in most cases to know exactly what the rescuer saw in the unfolding situation before them, and how they each reacted to what they saw. From conversations with recipients of the hero medal, we know that rescuers are laser-focused on the victims. While they were certainly aware of the danger to themselves. It does not seem to have been their main focus.

What about the idea that the existence of the hero medal might somehow cause someone to attempt a foolhardy rescue? I wish that the Hero Fund’s PR machine were so effective that every man, woman, and child in North America wakes up every morning thinking about the Carnegie Medal. Sadly, they do not. More importantly, our Carnegie heroes don’t. Most of them heard about the Carnegie Medal for the very first time when they were contacted after their rescues. 

There is one group of cases where you can confidently say it was certain the rescuer would die in the attempt. — those involving suffocating, sometimes poisonous gases in confined spaces. Construction workers digging trenches, farmers inside silage or manure storage units, industrial workers cleaning tanks, all face this risk. All too often a coworker will rush to retrieve the victim but without a rescue-breathing apparatus, it can’t be done. The victim was overcome doing routine work. How can the rescuer go into the same environment, and pick up and carry another adult? The rescuer is using up oxygen at a huge rate and will succumb even faster than the victim. Even worse, it is very common for one or more others to try the rescue, one after the other, with the same result. On farms the victim and the rescuers are often members of the same family. Too much tragedy.

For decades government agencies, industry safety experts, and farmers’ associations have been working to educate about this danger, and this has helped. In the decades I have served, I have seen the number of these cases has dropped, but it is not zero yet.

So, what of this special group of rescuers? Do we withhold their Carnegie Medals because their efforts were doomed from the start? No! There is a judicial saying that “hard cases make bad law.” In just that way, these hard cases test our understanding of what the Carnegie Medal is all about. We do not award the medal for analytic skill or superior risk management. We award it for the triumph of the human spirit embodied in every rescue. Every day in ways large and small we make small sacrifices for each other, doing something that we didn’t have to do but did anyway. This is what makes our society work. The Carnegie heroes show us the way, not with words but by their spectacular actions. Sometimes tragic, but always inspiring.