What's The Risk?

April 8, 2004
One of the ways operational firefighting is taught is to explain to the new member in training what is called a Risk vs. Benefit analysis.
One of the ways operational firefighting is taught is to explain to the new member in training what is called a Risk vs. Benefit analysis. This is a formula for figuring out what should be attempted and what should be avoided when risking the lives of the firefighting force. Chief Brunacini of Phoenix has a wonderful rule of thumb-
  • Risk a lot to save a life
  • Risk a little to save property
  • Risk nothing to save nothing (property already lost)

It works and it makes sense. At times it will be difficult for firefighters to accurately assess the danger they are facing. Often the danger cannot be correctly read due to smoke conditions, unusual layouts, unexpected obstacles, unknown building contents or knowing the actual extent of the fire.

These parts of your on-going size up are difficult for the experienced firefighter and will be next to impossible to calculate for those with little or no actual experience. When in doubt, ASK!

Use the experience of those around you. If you have doubts, speak out. There is a good chance the firefighter working next to you is thinking the same thing.

"Why are we cutting the lock to a dynamite factory with a torch?"

Some things however can be expected and relied upon. Commercial buildings, by their very nature, are extremely dangerous. Large open areas with flammable stock piled to the rafters or heavy machinery and their associated barrels of lubricants-also highly flammable, will often be encountered. Building components such as lightweight wood roofs- some that feature heavy HVAC machinery or the use of gypsum planks instead of wood as the roof deck. Features such as membrane roofs (rubberized waterproofing) or built up roofs that make vertical ventilation even more difficult and dangerous than usual.

Those can be expected-and therefore taught in drills, lectures, videos and written about in columns, books and online. Some other dangers are overlooked or missed completely in regular fire training.

A primary search is a primary search-or is it?

Say you find a bedroom on fire and you close the door, call for the line and watch as they move into position. When you move to the next room to conduct a quick search, there is the inherent danger you face by not having the protection of a hoseline. Moving deeper onto the floor the danger increases.

What about the same search in an apartment house? Place that apartment on the top floor. Instead of a 2 or 2-1/2 story drop you now face 4, 5, 6 or more stories. But heck even a probationary firefighter can figure that out on their first day.

All the while a major danger is looming over your head, often taken for granted and certainly unseen-THE COCKLOFT.

If you are not sure of the extent of a fire in a house it's bad. But if you're not sure of the extent of a fire in a large uncompartmented space over your head its Russian Roulette. How many square feet of fire is up there. How many BTU's, how much pressure from the fire gases building up. Can the roof be opened before it blows the ceilings down? Takes on a whole new prospective doesn't it?

The need to search for known life hazards is worth a prudent risk. The need to search for the sake of searching with a potential sea of fire over your head is a risk not worth taking. Information gathered over the portable radio, stating there is no fire in the cockloft, adjusts the calculation in your favor.

There are several different types of persons living on this planet some are classified as risk takers, others are classified as thrill seekers. Risk taking is part of the job of firefighting. The more information and knowledge you have, the better your rapid calculations become on the Risk VS. Benefit equation. Thrill seekers on the fireground are just plain dangerous. Don't just be brave-be smart.

I see a decal around that makes me shake my head. NO FEAR. Fear is a good thing, a healthy thing. Don't be afraid of fear-it keeps you alive.

Paul Hashagen, a Firehouse? contributing editor, is a retired FDNY firefighter who was assigned to Rescue Company 1 in Manhattan. He is also an ex-chief of the Freeport, NY, Fire Department. Hashagen is the author of FDNY 1865-2000: Millennium Book, a history of the New York City Fire Department, and other fire service history books.

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