Risk versus gain is a philosophy that the structural fire service has battled with for hundreds of years. Line-of-duty death and injury have always been dangers of the job, everything from being kicked in the head by a horse pulling the fire wagon to being caught in a flashover during an interior...
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Risk versus gain is a philosophy that the structural fire service has battled with for hundreds of years. Line-of-duty death and injury have always been dangers of the job, everything from being kicked in the head by a horse pulling the fire wagon to being caught in a flashover during an interior attack. With the advent of the self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) and better flame-resistive fabrics for turnout gear, our firefighting efforts have allowed us to push the envelope with regard to aggressive firefighting. Throw in lightweight building construction and the wide use of plastics, and firefighting is more hazardous than ever. Unfortunately, our risk-management protocols have been slow in evolving to reflect these changes.
The mission of the fire service still reads "to protect life and property." Life safety is incident objective number one. Ask any firefighters and they will tell you that their own lives are the top priority. But the firefighter death and injury figures suggest that we actually place firefighter safety below that of protecting property. Firefighters are getting injured and killed when there is no rescue to be made. In fact, case studies make mention of firefighters being injured during search operations while the homeowner was standing on the curb watching and everyone was out of the home upon arrival of the first engine.
There is a perceived notion that every second counts and the faster we get in the door the safer we will be. For the most part, our culture dictates a speed on the fireground that is impossible to react to, let alone plan around. There are many reasons we operate in this fashion: the possible savable human life, failure of lightweight truss roofs and keeping the fire small so it is more manageable. Extra time is needed to make firefighting safer. As noted above, many incidents unfold under the watchful eye of the building owner, which can cause an additional sense of urgency.
Recently, I found that many firefighters perceive that the public expects them to risk injury or even death to save their property. I found this perception rather disturbing, so I decided to find out for myself what the public thinks by asking that exact question. I did this in a typical middle-class neighborhood in Colorado. To my relief, all the residents I asked told me that they did not expect the fire department to incur injuries and death to their firefighters to save property. Furthermore, the people questioned could not understand why we would take such risks. Is it possible that some of our culture used to rationalize why we take unnecessary risks on the fireground is based on a misconception of what the public really expects?
The risk-versus-gain debate is not solely inherent to the structural fire service. The wildland firefighting agencies have incurred numerous multiple-firefighter fatality events over the past 75 years, with some of the worst occurring within the past several years. Similar to the structural fire service, they aren't finding new ways to get injured or killed.
Wildland fire events are on the rise, and the fires that become large often evolve into multi-week sieges. These "project" fires sometimes require firefighters to work 16-hour days for two-week periods. If you take this figure and multiply it by the 2,000 firefighters that some fires employ, you see that a massive amount of risk is being taken. Of the firefighters killed, most died during the first day or two of the fire when resources and intelligence were at their lowest. These events have prompted the development of numerous safety-related doctrines such as "The 10 Standard Firefighting Orders," "The 18 Watch-Out Situations," the formal "Risk Management Process" and many others. These assist individual firefighters in determining the appropriate strategy and tactic for a given situation. This in turn allows for a clearer view of the risks involved.