Are we helping or are we blaming?

Everyone wants to avoid fatal fires. I assume. And it would appear there are ways to do that.

From the Cullman Times‘ “Space heater likely cause of fatal fire in Winston County”: “State Fire Marshal Ed Paulk noted fires of this nature (related to space heaters) become more common as winter wears on and families look for new ways to stay warm.” The article notes that 19 Alabamians died from fire-related causes in the first 23 days of 2014, though it does not say how many of these are due to space heaters.

Regardless, fires are not hurricanes. When a hurricane happens, people are probably going to die and there is probably nothing we can do to eliminate casualties altogether. Fires, on the other hand, seem to be a bit more preventable — especially those of the space-heater variety.

This article ends with a list of “Fire Safety Tips” to help readers avoid similar fates. Some of them are good: “Always use the right kind of fuel, specified by the manufacturer, for fuel burning space heaters. Never use Natural gas in LP Gas appliances or vice versa.” (Good to know.) Some of them seem tough to enforce: “Have a three-foot ‘kid-free zone’ around open fires and space heaters.” (Any command starting with the verb “have” could use a bit more specificity.) And some of them are head-scratchers: “Never use your oven to heat your home.” (People do that? I didn’t even know you could do that…)

Long story short, many fires are caused by circumstances that could have been avoided.

This is where the ethics get a bit sticky. This seems like quality service journalism. If you can help your readers be more safe, then it would appear you are doing a good job, right? But when you append these tips at the end of an article about an actual person who died because they didn’t follow them, are you entering the realm of victim blaming? Aren’t you basically saying, “This person died, but they wouldn’t have if they had listened to us!”? 

It’s tricky, because it’s most likely true. This person might not have died if they had been more informed about fire safety. But by turning them into a cautionary tale — at the end of the very article that documents their death, no less — you risk being a bit cold. 

I don’t know what the answer is. I doubt the editorial staff of the Cullman Times had a giant debate about the ethics of including the tips. If we can help someone, then of course we should do that, they probably thought. But in the process, you risk blaming the person you didn’t get to help.

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