Risk Management At the Company Level

Quinn MacLeod contends that while firefighting is more hazardous than ever, risk-management protocols have been slow to evolve to make it safer.


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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Situational awareness (SA) is everyone's responsibility to maintain and update. SA is updated through observations and communications. Everyone must pay attention. Remember those barriers to situational awareness, both physical and internal. If the entire crew walks to the A-B corner of the building so everyone can update their SA, that is time well-spent.

Hazard assessment contains a number of working parts. Assessing fire behavior (reading smoke), determining the makeup of the structure, and utilizing the predetermined "structural watch-outs" can help to quickly bring to light the hazards present.

Structural Watch-Outs

  1. 360-degree view of fire and size-up not performed.
  2. Uninformed on strategy, tactics, fire conditions and hazards.
  3. Instructions and assignments not clear.
  4. The incident is progressing poorly.
  5. Transitioning from offensive to defensive or vice versa.
  6. The structure has been evacuated by the public and is confirmed.
  7. Water supply is unreliable.
  8. Searching without a hoseline or tagline.
  9. Working above or below the fire.
  10. Attempting to attack the fire from a ground ladder.
  11. Interior building configuration makes escape to safe areas difficult.
  12. Upon entering the structure, you encounter heavy smoke conditions and/or high heat.
  13. Unable to quickly locate the seat of the fire.
  14. Unfamiliar with the building and/or its contents.
  15. The building has had numerous alterations.
  16. Operating on the roof with only one means of egress.
  17. 15 minutes have elapsed and the interior firefight continues.
  18. Environmental conditions are extreme.
  19. The incident scene is dark.
  20. Mentally and/or physically tired.

Hazard control takes on numerous forms: the utilization of specific risk management tactics, limiting the amount of time firefighters are exposed to the hazard, and the LCES format — Lookouts, Communications, Escape Routes, Safety Zones. To expand upon the C within LCES, communications is more than just establishing communications, having the portable radio on the correct fireground channel and ensuring your battery is charged, although those are all very important points. Communication must emphasize the use of these five elements that are the backbone of good communications: brief, communicate hazards, acknowledge messages, debrief and most importantly, "ask if you don't know."

A significant component to any safe operation is that of a solid tactical briefing. On the fireground we are faced with a time crunch that can be difficult to manage. Being able to facilitate a thorough and quick briefing is critical. Briefings take place among crew members, officer to crew and officer to officer. When all members use a standardized briefing format, the critical information stands an improved chance of being passed on and more importantly, understood by others. These briefings are the avenue for enhanced SA of everyone from incident commander to the rookie firefighter. If we take the time to brief, we constantly elevate our SA. And if conducted properly, observations are collected from other company members who quite possibly noticed a hazard the company officer had not. Through this process alone the company stands a better chance of identifying those hazards and errors before they become a true problem.

A five-step briefing process can be used. Remember it is just the critical information you are conveying. If practiced and used on all incidents and trainings, officers and firefighters should be able to touch on the five highlights in as little as 30 seconds. If more time is available, it can be used to facilitate a more thorough briefing.

5-Step Briefing Process

  1. Current situation — Helps to update everyone's SA.
  2. Assignment — Is known to everyone. Hazard identification will start here.
  3. How to make the assignment safe — Will expand on the hazards present and end with how to mitigate them.
  4. How to support the assignment — Will include safety support, logistical support, and of course what do you need to accomplish the task/tactic.
  5. Questions/concerns — To and from the crew, if the company officer is the only one talking, other crew members may be experiencing barriers to SA.