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How much is a life worth?

Businesses make decisions every day to accept a certain level of death and dismemberment of citizens in the name of dollars

By Tom LaBelle

If you’re anything like me, you get lots of news stories and clips sent your way. I recently received such an article and found it interesting in its own right — but then looked a little deeper. The article — “Why Snakebites Are About to Get a Lot More Deadly” — focuses on the lack of anti-venom for certain snake bites, specifically the coral snake.

This snake has a fairly powerful venom, but not a very effective bite. About 100 people per year are bitten and the venom can cause death. But apparently 100 bites isn’t enough, at least not enough to turn a profit. The maker of the anti-venom decided a few years ago that it was too expensive to make the drug, and so it stopped production. The final FDA-approved doses that were produced all have expiration dates of 2010.

Amazingly, this isn’t quite as uncommon as one might think. In fact shortages of scorpion anti-venom are common, even though nearly 1,500 people are bitten each year. It is very expensive to develop, produce and get a drug approved by the FDA, especially for a relatively few, although likely quite desperate, consumers. Clearly erectile dysfunction is a much more pressing issue here in the United States!

It all raises this question in my head — how much is a life worth? And, are all lives worth the same? What the answer truly is and what the answer should be are, of course, different. Clearly, at least in the for-profit world of drug manufacturing, 100 is a fairly acceptable mortality rate, although if I’m the one having been bit, I might think their outlook a tad bit cynical.

Now let’s take a different look at the story — to be specific, the figure involved here of 100. In our industry, most of us are familiar with this figure — it’s about the average number of line-of-duty of deaths we see every year.

One might say that there is no connection, that people hiking in the woods getting bitten clearly need to be more careful, and why should society help them out. But how many of our line-of-duty deaths are preventable?

I myself have a never-ending battle to ensure that my waistline doesn’t become longer than my inseam. So, I certainly have an increased chance of a heart attack compared to a healthier firefighter.

Do I deserve less of an effort by others? I hope not, but I realize that I need to be part of the solution.

There is only so much investment that can or will be made in new gear and technology. While we’re making progress with improved equipment, the buildings we go into, and what furnishes those buildings, will continue to cause us problems.

Lighter mass buildings and high BTU fireloads are driven by profit, not by any concern for the firefighters who might need to enter the building in the future.

It’s not right, but we shouldn’t be shocked by this finance-based attitude. Nor should we feel like we’re unique. Businesses make decisions every day to accept a certain level of death and dismemberment of citizens in the name of dollars.

It’s not personal, and if you’re bitten by a snake or are running into the fire, it probably won’t even cross your mind at the time.

Learn how to make your department a safer place in Tom LaBelle’s FireRescue1 column, ‘The Butcher’s Bill.’ LaBelle provides tips, advice and opinions that balance accomplishing strategic objectives with making sure every firefighter goes home.
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