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...
To access the remainder of this piece of premium content, you must be registered with Firehouse. Already have an account? Login
Register in seconds by connecting with your preferred Social Network.
Complete the registration form.
But are firefighters continuing to get injured or killed to save just property and vegetation? High risk to save a life is acceptable, but why don't we lower the risk when there is nothing but property at stake? Even with all the guidelines, protocols, and safety doctrines in place, undue risk is still a reality on the fireground. Overly aggressive firefighting without due regard for personal safety is one problem, at times even witnessed by other firefighters who recognized a hazardous situation but failed to speak up. Why do we do this? Are we hampered in some way which makes rational decision making more difficult?
Decision making on the fireground is not as easy as one might think. Of course, telling a crew to take a line into a structure and put the fire out is easy, but taking a hard, objective look at that order to ensure that the gain outweighs the risk is not an easy decision. This could be one reason why we continue to suffer injuries and deaths of our own.
Currently, "Recognition Primed Decision Making" (RPD) is a popular term describing how we make decisions. RPD is when you are presented with a situation and browse that carousel of "photo images" that you have stored in your brain for a similar situation. You pick the best slide for the present situation and based on what you did previously, you put into action what worked last time.
A couple of problems can surface immediately: one, the wrong slide may be picked; and two, conditions have changed, unnoticed, resulting in the wrong action being set into motion; our "situational awareness" was not current. This all seems so easy to comprehend right now, so there must be something when you arrive at an emergency operation — or any complex operation like training and driving, for example — that blocks us from making good, rational decisions, especially when the hazards were so brightly displayed.
Seven barriers to decision making and situational awareness have been identified. If you don't have the most current knowledge of the situation, how can you make the perfect decision? It's difficult under the best circumstances.
Many studies have found that human error is responsible for 75% to 95% of all accidents. A study of 50 fireground incidents found that the fewest errors that led to an accident were four, with the average being seven. The bottom line is that the human brain is still the best tool for the job when it comes to making complex decisions from incomplete information presented. What we need to remember is that we have barriers to good decision making and the possibility of error is very high. So how does one person assimilate all this and expect perfect results? One option is to share the hazard recognition burden by empowering other individuals to help where it is needed most.
The rank-and-file system sometimes makes it difficult for the average firefighter to openly question a given situation. The intent of encouraging firefighters to voice their fireground concerns is not to question tactics, but to question the overall safety associated with that tactic. If the assignment cannot be carried out safely and safety concerns cannot be mitigated, the decision makers will have little choice but to change tactics.
Overall, there is still a missing link in the firefighter safety chain. Risk management at the tactical and task levels is virtually unaddressed. Our culture places the majority of the risk-taking evaluation on the incident commander (company officer, battalion chief, upper-level chief, etc.), but aren't they already over-tasked, especially during initial operations? And as we identified above, the incident commander may be faced with several barriers that keep him or her from making sound decisions. So why don't we task everyone with evaluating the situation for safety concerns? Why don't we have three or four pairs of eyes per company analyzing the situation, weighing the risk versus gain? Of course, this concept will require a complementary cultural change within the command climate for support.
The five-step risk-management process, which is currently used by the wildland fire agencies, is worth looking at for use on the structural fireground. The interesting coincidence is that the risk-management process closely mirrors our normal decision-making process. When we make a decision on the fireground, we gather information (situational awareness), recognize a problem (hazard assessment), select options (hazard control) and then make the decision. Once the decision is in action, we evaluate it to make sure it is getting the desired results. That can be a two-second or five-minute process. Now the entire procedure is repeated as you receive updated information (situational awareness). To keep our history of death, injury, and those questionable cultural practices from repeating themselves, we should encourage a few new concepts to the structural fire service.