Ethically, what would you do? Commentary: Leave no one behind

A night time photo of a stationary yellow search and rescue helicopter.
This scenario is another stark illustration that ethics sometimes cannot rescue the decision maker from no-win situations. In some cases, ethics can only limit the extent of loss. File Photo

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In the tragic July ethics scenario, loyalty, courage and mission were pitted against the grim reality of human limits. No one envies Lieutenant-Colonel Sam Davis’s position of being forced to weigh the value of human lives against each other.

Let’s separate the first and second dilemmas that were found in this scenario. The first was whether search and rescue Team 313 should be sent out to save one sailor who had fallen overboard into stormy seas. The second dilemma occurred after it was presumed that Team 313 had also crashed into the ocean. LCol Davis had to decide whether to send a second search and rescue team into the same dangerous weather conditions to try to rescue all of Team 313.

LCol Davis and Chief Warrant Officer “Jo” Jones said they rehearsed how to handle emergencies in such difficult situations during their weekly training sessions. While readers were not told whether the team practiced using this specific set of circumstances, they were provided with some key details. For instance, after the order to launch Team 313 but before its disappearance from the radio, readers knew that “the odds for success in this mission” were “very low.” In addition, LCol Davis knew he was “well outside safe flight parameters” for this first rescue attempt.

An experienced practitioner knows how far they can work outside safe parameters before this will be disastrous for the mission, as these parameters are generally built with a margin of flexibility. Risk management is not an exact science, even for the experts. By going well beyond the parameters from the outset, LCol Davis appears to have been driven by concern for one man, as opposed to viewing the situation as a whole. This put the lives of the entire Team 313 at extreme risk for an outside chance.

While LCol Davis’ concern for the sailor overboard was understandable, it cannot be said that he made the correct call. The lives of every member of Team 313 were equally irreplaceable. However cruel it may seem, there are times when a commander must sacrifice a single life to ensure the safety of a number of lives.

As stated in the Goat Herders (Ethical Scenario Feburary 2016), the extreme circumstances that military members sometimes find themselves in can undermine their ability to think clearly and fully, which perhaps explains LCol Davis’ first choice. The point of the search and rescue squadron’s previous practice scenario discussion was to help members make the correct choice in a terrible situation such as this one. This preparatory discussion seems to have been forgotten by the commanding officer.

In the second dilemma, LCol Davis believed the entire SAR Team 313 was in the water; however, this was not confirmed. The major difference between the first and second dilemmas was the number of people needing rescue. This fact alone could have altered the outcome, weighing the risk to Team 315 against the potential benefit of saving the crew of Team 313. The reader must assume the risk was unacceptable, as it could have taken far longer to rescue multiple personnel from the water than just one person, putting Team 315 in harm’s way for a longer period of time than the earlier crew. A second rescue attempt from the air should wait for improved weather, just as the first attempt should have, based on the evidence given.

Other factors for which information was lacking included the possibility of the ship rescuing the sailor that went overboard at the outset, whether Team 313 had a better chance of survival in the water than the sailor, based on the equipment they had, and finally, whether Team 313 had truly fallen into the ocean at all (could radio failure account for the silence?).

This scenario is another stark illustration that ethics sometimes cannot rescue the decision maker from no-win situations. In Send reader feedback and suggestions for future scenarios cases, ethics can only limit the extent of loss.

Send reader feedback and suggestions for future scenarios.

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