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The quick answer to this question is a resounding “NO.” You don’t need to respond to all “911” calls in an emergency fashion. The operative word in this question is “all.”
The success or failure of fire service emergency and non-emergency functions is dependent on the safe operation of fire department vehicles. “Arrive Alive,” a slogan popular with first responders, points directly to the fact that if we don’t arrive safely to help the customer, we are no good to anyone. In fact, not arriving at all because you’ve been in an accident will add complication to the first emergency call. Without the safe operation of emergency vehicles to incident scenes, an emergency service organization cannot effectively achieve its mission of saving lives and protecting property.
Responding emergency versus non-emergency is a matter of risk management. How much risk is the fire chief willing to assume or tolerate? Members will practice risk management based on the example set by department leadership. Poor safety records, demonstrated by workplace injuries and death, are frequently the result of inadequate training or ignorance about reducing risk to first responders.
Risk management is a comprehensive approach to safe workplace practices. Practitioners of risk management recognize the landscape is continually changing and must consider how this impacts their organization. Success, as measured by a safer work environment, is best achieved through focused and coordinated efforts. The question discussed in this article focuses on reducing risk during emergency responses. This is an important topic and progressive fire service leaders consider risk management to be a top priority of their organizations.
One of the more significant occupational risks, in terms of injury and death to firefighters, is traffic collisions involving fire apparatus. In 1999, a study authored by the Center for National Truck Statistics found that fire apparatus (defined as using emergency signals on the vehicle) were involved in 62% of the fatal accidents surveyed and 56% of non-fatal accidents. The study also found that when fire apparatus were involved in accidents with other vehicles, fatal injuries most often occurred in the civilian vehicle, with injuries occurring in 24% of the crashes. Seventy-six percent of the accidents tabulated involved property damage to some degree. The results are closely linked to the size and weight of fire apparatus in comparison to the passenger vehicles with which they collided.
Historically, some American fire service agencies have resisted efforts to reduce line-of-duty deaths attributed to emergency responses, although more departments are recognizing the need to reduce risk when responding by “managing” their responses. We will elaborate on a managed response shortly.
Managing risk is a fundamental responsibility at every level of management in the organization, but especially for top leadership. The term “risk management” can be applied to a wide range of functions and activities, requiring a multi-faceted approach that encompasses many elements within the delivery of emergency services. These elements include safety and health programming, financial and loss control. Our discussion will focus on the delivery aspect of our service – the response – and reducing risk while responding. It is a fundamental principle of risk management to identify areas where risk can be reduced or eliminated. Using the accompanying chart, let’s look at reducing or eliminating risk when responding.
Risk management through the use of technology enhancements offers options for a safer response. These tend to be viewed as quick and simple “solutions” that can, in some cases, be expensive. Examples include occupant-restraint systems, vehicle-speed governing and monitoring, traffic pre-emption equipment and driver-training simulators. Administrative guidelines and monitoring are common mechanisms in efforts to identify and reduce risk.