Risk Management At the Company Level

March 1, 2008
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 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.

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.

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.

With this new (or old) way of managing the amount of risk to take during the incident, there comes a point where we must engage the situation. The decision is most likely made at the supervisor level. By educating all members in the risk-management process, the quality of information flowing back to the decision makers will be enhanced. Now when the evaluation process begins, the decision makers will have a raised level of situational awareness with which to plug back into their decision making process. The bottom line: Are the incident objectives being met, and are we operating at the appropriate safety level?

In conclusion, firefighting is a dangerous business. Even if defensive operations were implemented on every fire, a level of risk still exists. The risk can never be eliminated, but it can be minimized. Encouraging the average firefighter to voice their fireground safety concerns, coupled with a cultural change within the command climate to support that free thinking, is not an overnight change. It begins with raising awareness of risk versus gain, training with old and new safety-related concepts at every opportunity, and putting these concepts to the test on all types of incidents.

QUINN MacLEOD, owner/lead instructor of Integrated Fire Solutions, recently retired from the Parker, CO, Fire District at the rank of engineer/acting company officer. He is NWCG-qualified as a wildfire division supervisor and holds an associate's degree in fire science and numerous state and national certifications, including fire officer and fire instructor. A downloadable version of the "Structural Watch-Outs" is available at www.integrated-firesolutions.com.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!