Red tape must not get in the way of saving lives

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 August, 2008, 12:00am

Water sports and pleasure vessels have become more popular in the sea around Hong Kong. But the safety awareness of those taking part has not kept pace with this increase in popularity. Seasoned recreational sailors have described some newcomers as behaving like 'yahoos and cowboys'. Predictably, there have been more accidents. Those who windsurf during typhoons, for example, risk not only their own lives but valuable public resources should they run into trouble.

Marine police are usually the first on the scene of accidents. However, because the force's primary role is to deter smuggling and illegal immigration, officers usually have little medical training and do not carry proper first aid equipment. The police say it is the Fire Services Department's job to provide ambulances and medics. But the short time between transferring a victim from a police craft to an ambulance on land could be a matter of life and death. Clearly, marine police policy has not kept up with the times.

A change in policy and a rearrangement of priorities are called for. This should not require too much in the way of additional resources. Greater public education is needed to promote safety on and in the water, much like campaigns that aim to improve awareness of road safety. Greater co-ordination between marine police and fire services will help ensure timely rescue operations. But most of all, marine police officers need to be better trained and better equipped to deal with medical emergencies.

Operations against smuggling and illegal immigration must remain their primary tasks, but as these have declined because of better border controls, officers should be prepared to take on a new role. It should not be difficult to station at least one properly trained officer to serve as a medic. Essential medical equipment, such as portable defibrillators, is affordable and easy to use. The force should equip its craft with them. All government departments need to change with the times, and the marine police are no different. Saving lives should always be the priority of any government service, regardless of the precise definition of its bureaucratic functions.