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The Great Debate: Is a Dog Worth a Rescuer's Life?

The Great Debate: Is a Dog Worth a Rescuer's Life?

Los Angeles Fire Department

Los Angeles Times via YellowBrix

January 29, 2010

LOS ANGELES – Millions of Southland residents were glued to their television sets last week watching the live team coverage of a rescue of man’s best friend. A German shepherd mix was fighting for its life in a maelstrom of debris in the fast-moving flow of a swollen flood control channel during the recent rainstorms.

Not to worry, the good men and women of the Los Angeles Fire Department were on the scene – 50 of them along with a rescue chopper gathered to save someone’s family pet even though they were risking their lives. As all LAFD members believe, “We risk a lot to save a lot; we risk nothing to save nothing.”

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News directors were rapturous, as they sent up their choppers to capture the dramatic rescue with high-definition gyro-stabilized cameras – up close and personal – for their viewers as Nielsen meters ticked liked a Geiger counters next to uranium.

Cable news networks cut live to the Los Angeles drama, throwing out their programming so their viewers would be a part of the action: Would the LAFD save the dog? Would a firefighter die? Would the chopper crash? Stay turned to our continuing coverage without commercial interruption!

Alas, the LAFD made the rescue look easy, with the exception of Joe St. Georges, a firefighter/paramedic, suffering a dog bite.

After the drama, came the questions. No less than nationally syndicated conservative talk show host Dennis Prager was critical of the LAFD for placing firefighters and a chopper at risk to save an animal. Mr. Prager surely was not alone in questioning the decision to mount the rescue of a dog.

What Mr. Prager did not know is that, in fact, the rescue of the dog did save human lives. Given the widespread media coverage, had the LAFD not tried to rescue the dog with trained professionals, some person would have put their life at risk to do so.

According to LAFD Capt. Steve Ruda, nationally 900 people die in severe rainstorms. One third of them – or 300 people – are would-be rescuers.

However, critics complained about using public resources to save a dog. What if there was a need to fight a fire or save a human life?

As Ruda pointed out, there are enough resources to handle all emergencies even during events like this rainstorm or a wildfire.

The LAFD plans for the unusual occurrences, which is why additional firefighters were on duty during the storm, especially the highly trained and well-equipped swift-water rescue teams.

One of the reasons L.A. firefighters are so good at what they do is the experience they get. Sure, the LAFD training is top notch, but what truly makes a great fire or police department is hands-on experience like the rescue of the dog.

Those LAFD personnel gained extraordinarily valuable experience for a future effort to save a child or an adult during the next storm.

Still, the issue remains that the LAFD rescued an animal when its policy, and that other fire departments, is to not get cats out of trees. That may be so, but in the recorded history of humans, no one has ever found a cat skeleton in a tree.