Leader comment: Saving lives should come before rules

Self-preservation is a basic human instinct, closely followed by the desire to help others in a life-threatening situation. Awards are given to those who pull a survivor from the wreckage of a crashed car, or from a house fire. In most cases, the rescuer will not have had to think twice about what to do. In a life and death situation, every second counts.

Scottish Fire and Rescue Service. Picture: John Devlin

When Shetland taxi driver John Gold suffered multiple injuries in a head-on crash, three other people were also hurt. To allow all four casualties to receive medical assistance, a firefighter drove the attending ambulance to hospital, freeing up paramedics to treat the injured.

This arrangement may have saved a life. But according to the Scottish Fire and Rescue Services, this procedure should not have happened, and should not happen again. Firefighters have been told that they should not drive ambulances in any circumstances, because they are not insured to do so.

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It hardly needs to be said that this response will leave the public bewildered. It may also bring to mind the case of Alison Hume, a lawyer who fell down a mine shaft but was not rescued because firefighters were refused permission to operate a winch, which rules stated could only be used to save their own staff. When Mrs Hume was eventually lifted out following the arrival of a police mountain rescue team, she died of a heart attack brought on by hypothermia.

There are many occupations and procedures which benefit from strict adherence to the rule book, but life-saving is not one of them. Sadly, however, we also see the fear of ‘risk’ creeping beyond the emergency services, and into the public mindset, with passers-by frightened of attending to cardiac arrest victims in case of litigation.

But the need to respond as circumstances dictate is paramount, and is even more important in rural areas where the next house might be several miles away, never mind the nearest hospital. Emergency services in these areas often rely on retained or volunteer teams to provide adequate cover. These are people who will drop everything at a moment’s notice to save a life. If we rely on some of them to face a howling gale in a lifeboat, surely others must be allowed to drive an ambulance along a main road to a hospital.

In pursuit of a common purpose, common sense must prevail, and the fire service rule should be relaxed.