Looking out for good samaritans

Goal-oriented as they were, the creeps who ambushed a Hamilton ambulance and monstered its sole officer for drugs are hardly likely to have factored into their thinking that this crime would generate more revulsion than, for want of a better description, a standard robbery.

We can only hope that some stony-faced judge will soon have occasion to point out to them why.

The assault, in which they waved down the ambulance, assaulted the officer and demanded drugs, ended when she rather impressively managed to alert St John operations while they were searching, then escaped.

On top of the elements drug theft and violent assault, the wrongdoing here was compounded because the men targeted an emergency service into which people's lives were entrusted. As Detective Inspector Chris Page put it: how would they feel if the ambulance had been on the way to help one of their own families?

[One potential answer: Still in need of a hit, man].

St John is reviewing the case for lessons and understandably enough there have been calls for ambulances to be staffed by at least two people at all times. At a reported cost of $40 million a year this seems unlikely to happen and, in any case, the extent to which it would really make the occupants safer is uncertain. After all, in this case there were four robbers. Staffing an ambulance on the basis of how many officers it takes to prevail in a fight is hardly an option.

Such attacks are rare, although regrettably it is a good deal more common for ambulance officers to find themselves assailed by agitated, or boozed, people at emergency scenes.

Any society needs to be protective of its protectors, particularly those in the emergency services. This is not simply because of gratitude, although that should be reason enough, but because we rely so heavily on their willingness, and ability, to help us. There are limits to how well we can shield police, fire and ambulance officers whose very job requires them to wade emphatically into our midst, apart from reassuring them that when the chips are down their own safety is as important as anyone else's - so sometimes they may have to stand back. And the social sanctions against wrongdoers who create the need for them to do that must be extreme.

Australians, meanwhile, have been coming to terms with a different sort of debasement of the Good Samaritan principle. In Sydney, a woman identified only as Aida fought off a man who tried to drag her into a car in which three other men were waiting. Although dozens of other people were around, not one came to help her.

It's called the bystander effect, under which as the number of bystanders grows, the probability that any one of them will help decreases and the time taken to help increases.

Psychologists reckon it's not just that people are fearful that they might get harmed themselves.

If the academics have it right, people are thinking that surely someone else among them is better placed to be helpful, or even that the very fact that nobody else is doing anything means that they must somehow know why there're no real need to.

If any of that strikes you as counter-intuitive, or downright rubbish, then please, should the situation arise, do feel free to prove them wrong.

Wade in and try to help.

The Southland Times