Commentary: Leave no one behind

Scenario: Leave no one behind

In this tragic scenario, loyalty, courage and mission are pitted against a grim reality of human limits. No one envies LCol Sam Davis’ position of being forced to weigh human lives against each other. 

Let’s separate the first and second steps. The first concerns whether Team 313 will attempt to save one sailor, while the second is a dilemma as to whether to send another team to try to rescue all of Team 313, presumed to have fallen into the same stormy sea.

Sam and CWO “Jo” Jones have rehearsed for how to handle emergencies in such difficult situations, we are told, in their weekly training sessions. While we did not hear them practice using this specific set of circumstances, we are told—after the order to launch Team 313 but before its disappearance from the radio—that “the odds for success in this mission” (at that moment, trying to rescue one person in the water) are “very low.” In addition, Sam knows that he is “well outside safe flight parameters.”

It takes an experienced practitioner to know just how far outside safe parameters is quite likely to be disastrous, since such parameters usually build in a margin of flexibility. Risk management is not an exact science, even for the experts. Nonetheless, the Commander should have a pretty good idea, in moments of clinical detachment, what that actual margin of safety is, beyond which disaster is a strong likelihood or even approaching certainty. By going well beyond the parameters from the outset, Sam appears to have been driven by concern for one man at the expense of seeing the situation as a whole. The language of the scenario at the moment of choice suggests as much. Thus, he put the lives of the entire Team 313 at extreme risk for an outside chance. While Sam’s intense concern for the sailor overboard is completely understandable, we cannot say he made the wisest call. The lives of every member of Team 313 are equally irreplaceable. However cruel it may seem, there are times when a commander can be forced to choose between the very likely sacrifice of a single life and the very likely sacrifice of a much greater number of lives.

A Maple Leaf article a few issues back recounted the example of the Goat Herders. It included the observation that the extreme circumstances in which members find themselves can undermine the ability to think clearly and fully. Perhaps this explains Sam’s first choice. The point of the SAR squadron’s previous practice scenario discussions was to help make the right choice in terrible dilemmas such as this one, but this preparatory discussion seems to have been forgotten by the Commanding Officer here.

Then there is the second dilemma. Sam believes that the entire SAR Team 313 is in the water; however, this has not been confirmed. What Sam should have done in the first place is not necessarily of critical relevance now, since the aircrew is in an emergency situation regardless of whether it should never have happened. There is something different about the second dilemma: a much greater number of people is in presumed need of rescue. This might alter the outcome if weighing the risk to Team 315 against the potential benefit of saving the crew of Team 313 and bringing home all of Team 315 gives Sam positive odds on balance. Although the potential benefit is even higher, we must still assume the risk is unacceptable. It might take far longer to rescue multiple personnel from the water than just one person, and the risk to Team 315 will doubtless rise in relation to time on such a mission, given the weather. A second rescue attempt from the air should await improvement in the weather, just as the first attempt should have, based on the evidence given.

Other factors for which we lack information might include the following: the possibility of the ship effecting a rescue of the man overboard at the outset; whether the crew of the Ann Harvey might have a chance to rescue from the ship’s side some survivors from Team 313 in the stated conditions; and whether the SAR crew in the water have better chances of survival than the first man overboard had, based on the equipment they have. We do not even know with complete certainty that Team 313 has fallen into the ocean (could radio failure account for the silence?). All of these unknowns could help give the rest of the squadron something on which to pin their hopes. None of them, however, seems to negate the conclusion that the rescue attempts from the air were poorly judged in the first place.

This scenario is another stark illustration that ethics sometimes cannot rescue the decision maker from no-win situations. In some cases, it can only try to limit the extent of loss. Unusually, there was no reader commentary submitted in response to this case, whether that was due to the summer timing or the feeling that it was an impossible situation for which to claim an ethical solution.

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