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Safety 101 - Lesson 28

A higher level of risk is acceptable only in situations where there is a realistic potential to save known endangered lives.

In Lesson 27 - Emergency Safety Issues in the Fire Service, there was a reference to the number of firefighter deaths associated with operating at emergency scenes and the number of firefighter injuries occurring while operating at emergency scenes. A resultant emergent safety issue was the level to which an organization took aggressive firefighting action, when no life saving objective existed and there was minimal potential to save significant property.

To fully understand this we must first understand the term "risk" which is generally defined as "the uncertainty of loss."

Secondly, we must understand that a strategic departmental approach must be taken to assure that personnel:

  • know the philosophy/operating principles,
  • can develop and train to a related standard operating guideline, and
  • can be supervised to a defined performance level.

To help understand this better, the IAFC Health and Safety Committee developed "The 10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Fire Fighting and the Acceptability of Risk." It is an excellent starting point for developing an acceptable level of risk during operations for your organization.

Acceptability Of Risk
All firefighting and rescue operations involve an inherent level of risk to firefighters. A basic level of risk is recognized and accepted, in a measured and controlled manner, in efforts that are routinely employed to save lives and property. These risks are not acceptable situations where there is no potential to save lives or property.

A higher level of risk is acceptable only in situations where there is a realistic potential to save known endangered lives. This elevated risk must be limited to operations that are specifically directed toward rescue and where there is a realistic potential to save the person(s) known to be in danger.

This leads naturally into the development of specific considerations to preserve safety for those intruding in harms way - no different than the military entering a confrontation or law enforcement taking action - rules of engagement must be established.

Rules Of Engagement For Structural Firefighting
All structural firefighting operations involve and inherent level of risk to firefighters. All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid these risks through risk assessment, constant vigilance and the conscientious application of safety policies and procedures.

  • The exposure of firefighters to an elevated level o frisk is acceptable only in situations where there is a realistic potential to save known endangered lives.
  • No property is worth the life of a firefighter
  • No risk to the safety of firefighters is acceptable in situations where there is no possibility to save lives or property.
  • Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive firefighting operations in abandoned or derelict buildings that are know or reasonably believed to be unoccupied.

To accomplish this each fire department must evaluate its own response area to determine the key answers to what, where, and why, regarding appropriate rules of engagement. This starts with a risk assessment.

Risk Assessment
It is the responsibility of the incident commander to evaluate the level of risk in every situation. This risk evaluation shall include an assessment of the presence, survivability and potential to rescue occupants. When there is no potential to save lives, firefighters shall not be committed to operations that present an elevated risk.

An incident command system shall be established, beginning with the arrival of the first fire department member at the scene of every incident. The incident commander must conduct an initial risk analysis to consider the risk to firefighters in order to determine the strategy and tactics to be employed.

The responsibility for risk assessment is a continuous process for the entire duration of each incident. The incident commander shall continually re-evaluate conditions to determine if the level of risk has changes and a change in strategy or tactics is necessary. The incident commander shall assign one or more safety officers to monitor and evaluate conditions to support this risk analysis.

At a minimum, the risk analysis for a structure fire shall consider:

  • Building Characteristics
    • construction type and size
    • structural condition
    • occupancy and contents
  • Fire Factors
    • location and extent of fire
    • estimated time of involvement
    • what are smoke conditions telling us
  • Risk to Building Occupants
    • known or probable exposures
    • occupant survival assessment
  • Firefighting Capabilities
    • available resources
    • operational capabilities and limitation

This can be summarized succinctly in 10 rules of engagement for structural firefighting which can be applied locally by all fire departments

10 Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting

Acceptability of Risk

  1. No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter
  2. All interior firefighting involves an inherent risk
  3. Some risk is acceptable, in a measured and controlled manner
  4. No level of risk is acceptable where there is no potential to save lives or save property
  5. Firefighters shall not be committed to interior offensive firefighting operations in abandoned or derelict buildings.

Risk Assessment

  1. All feasible measures shall be taken to limit or avoid risks through risk assessment by a qualified officer
  2. It is the responsibility of the Incident Commander to evaluate the level of risk in every situation
  3. Risk assessment is a continuous process for the entire duration of each incident.
  4. If conditions change, and risk increases, change strategy and tactics
  5. No building or property is worth the life of a firefighter.

Lesson #28
In the interest of firefighter safety, each fire service organization must determine the level of aggressiveness it is willing to take, when there is no life saving objective and there is minimal potential for saving significant property.

Safety 101 - A new series from the technical and administrative perspective, designed to help you reduce emergency responder injuries, illnesses, property loss and death!

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DR. WILLIAM F. JENEWAY, CSP, CFO, CFPS, a Firehouse.com Contributing Editor, is Executive Vice President of VFIS and has over 30 years experience in safety and risk management in the insurance industry. He was named "Volunteer Fire Chief of the Year" as Chief of the King of Prussia, PA, Volunteer Fire Company, and is the author the text Emergency Service Risk Management. He has partipated the NVFC Corner podcasts on Radio@Firehouse.com. To read William's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here.

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