without disaster

When I speak or write about the Carnegie Hero Fund, I note how blessed we are to deal with the best of human nature, that is, the splendid altruism of our heroic rescuers.

Organizations doing critical work with abused women, the homeless, or families of those in prison share a heavy emotional burden with their clients. It is a burden that the Hero Fund is largely, but not totally, spared.

One of the paradoxes of our work is that every time we award a Carnegie Medal recognizing the best of the human spirit, it is because something very bad happened to someone else, namely, the victim our hero tried to rescue.
Yes, every one of our medals is awarded because a disaster of some sort befell another person, whom our hero then tried to rescue.

This may seem a bit jarring, and it can be to those working to gather and analyze the details of the rescues we recognize.

I know the members of the commission are concerned about the plight of the victims, and are often curious about how things turned out for them.

Our staff delves into each case in even more detail, and has even more exposure to sometimes distressing details.

Personally, I find it helpful to remind myself what is cause and what is effect.

While we — the rescuers, the Hero Fund, and even Andrew Carnegie — are associated with the calamities our victim have experienced, we are not the cause.

Indeed, we come into the picture as a result of the misfortune.

Another concern here is the powerful emotional impact that the rescues seem to have on the rescuers, the Carnegie Medal awardees.

Part of this might be due to the very real dangers that the heroes encounter in attempting their rescues.

Remember, about 20% of the Carnegie Medals have been awarded to heroes who died in their rescue attempts.

I suspect that our rescuers experience another kind of stress as well.

These are generally empathetic people, and I suspect they suffer a real emotional impact when they see another human being in imminent danger of death or serious injury.

This phenomenon — the need for a catastrophe before a Carnegie Medal can be awarded — suggests this question for our curious readers:

Is the number of medals we award each year determined by the number of potential heroes in our population or by the number of catastrophes to which potential heroes can respond?

The question comes up because we have been awarding 80 to 100 Carnegie Medals per year for some number of years.

Yet the population of Canada and the United States has risen over those years.

Does that mean the number of potential heroes per capita is going down? How could we tell?

Fortunately, our staff is tightly focused on investigating cases and making awards, without being diverted by my idle speculations.

I do have a few ideas about how to explore the question, though, and you might read more about this here in the near future. Meanwhile, do you have an opinion?

— Mark Laskow, Chair
Carnegie Hero Fund Commission


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