Gongol.com Archives: September 2021

Brian Gongol

September 8, 2021

Threats and Hazards You're not authorized to help

One of Chicago's defining features is its extraordinary lakefront. Besides being the villain behind a lot of heavy snowstorms and the site of some fascinating water intakes, the lake is a centerpiece of a lot of Chicago's urban recreation. The city's beachfront is long, contains more than two dozen distinct public beaches, and is a major civic resource. ■ But lakes can be dangerous, and Lake Michigan can be particularly so around the city. Drownings are not uncommon, and with so many people so close to what can be a really dangerous set of currents, it's not a risk to take lightly. ■ Following one of those drownings -- taking the life of a young man who had just jumped from a pier -- local residents took matters into their own hands and installed a life ring at the scene of the accident. The Chicago Park District removed it, and then removed a second, because they weren't authorized. ■ Any large organization runs the risk of encountering nonsensical bureaucratic reactions to what otherwise look like common-sense behaviors. But this one in particular is troubling. An advocate for the life-saving devices says he was told "it's in the best interest [of the Park District] to do nothing because it might increase liability". That is self-interested and antisocial behavior. If the life rings being installed voluntarily by citizens aren't "authorized", then the bureaucracy needs to find a way to authorize them or to provide a substitute. In no rational universe should inaction in the face of a known danger be a preferable alternative to even the most basic of responses. ■ That's why we pass Good Samaritan laws. That's why social psychologists study the bystander effect. That's why we have robust debates about the duty of physicians to treat the sick, even (and especially) in a pandemic. It is cowardly for an individual or an institution to hide behind legal protections when a clearly better answer exists. ■ Hazard mitigation is only likely to grow more important as more people concentrate within urban areas all over the world -- including those that might be at escalating danger of significant natural hazards. There's no excuse for permitting institutional inertia and the CYA principle to stand in the way of reasonable community expectations that clear and present dangers will be handled by the community's purported guardians with professionalism and urgency. Taking down an "unauthorized" life ring without installing an authorized one in its place? That's arrogance bordering on malice.

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