COLUMN: Being a good neighbor involves taking risk

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This column first appeared in 2004 but is relevant today. I thought of what I wrote eight years ago after watching media coverage of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting and the shooting deaths of two firefighters who were killed when they responded to a house fire in New York.
Not many of us are called upon to risk our lives to save others. Staff members at the school did that trying to stop a deranged shooter. The firefighters did as well. As the new year arrives, we might think about how we might respond to help others, in all sorts of situations.  

Imagine for a moment you are driving down a country road and see a man lying face-down in a field. Would you park your car and run over to see what help he needs? Or would you reach for the phone and dial 911 before continuing on your way?
If you were traveling on the interstate and saw a car resting at the bottom of a steep  embankment, would you stop to see if anyone was injured? Or would you simply report an accident to police and hope no one was in the car bleeding to death?
Keeping an ear to the police scanner in recent months, it seems fewer of us are willing to lend a direct hand in helping out in emergencies, but are instead relying on our cellular telephones to report problems and then hoping others will come to the rescue.  
A few weeks ago, a call came across the scanner in the newsroom about a man lying on the ground not far from a tractor in a field along Indiana 145. From what I could gather from the radio traffic, a driver noticed the man and the tractor. Fearing the person had been injured or had suffered a heart attack, the driver picked up his or her cellular telephone and called 911. And though it didn’t say the person left, the dispatcher said the person reporting the call had no other information.
An ambulance was dispatched to the scene and the man, so I was later told, was found to have been resting. There was no emergency.
A couple of weeks later, this time on a Friday night, paramedics responded to the report of a man lying on the ground along a road in Anderson Township. Again, there was no emergency. According to the paramedic who arrived, the man was a hunter lying on the ground while taking aim at a raccoon.
In both cases, people called for help what they thought were emergencies, but apparently didn’t stop and see if the person needed immediate help.
Had the drivers stopped to ask if anything was wrong, the ambulances in both cases wouldn’t have left the station.
Some people simply don’t want to get involved in other people’s problems, apparently even if they’re life-saving ones.
However, my conscience — like a lot of other peoples’ — just won’t let me drive past someone stopped alongside the road with their car’s hood up or fixing a flat tire without asking if they need help or would like for me to call someone.
Sure, if I see a healthy man jacking up his car, I won’t stop, but I will if it’s a woman or someone over the age of 60. I’d hate to think many of us would allow an old woman to change her flat tire in the rain while able-bodied people pass her by.
Likewise, I’d like to think most of us would pull in the driveway of a burning home at night, at least one where there aren’t any fire trucks yet, and bang on the door, not simply report the fire and keep driving.
Years ago, I took photos at a fire in which several drivers had stopped to offer help and were actually carrying out furniture and appliances when the first firefighters arrived. The home didn’t burn down and the fire was confined to a back room, but these strangers were carting out valuables — not because they knew the person, but because they wanted to help.
Being a Good Samaritan doesn’t mean putting yourself in danger. I’m sure none of those volunteers at the fire would have — or should have — risked their safety to save a few pieces of furniture. And perhaps we should be cautious when pulling over in the dead of night and offering strangers a ride into town.
But part of me thinks there’s more to offering a hand to someone than telephoning police. If you were lying on the ground alongside a road, wouldn’t you hope that someone would stop? I would. Cellular telephones  have saved countless lives when people have used them to report emergencies.
But they still don’t replace the obligation each of has to help one another. Sometimes being a good neighbor requires a little risk.