Dynamic Risk Assessment on the Fireground

How many firefighter deaths or injuries happen as a result of those poor individuals carrying out a Valid Rescue ... or doing less critical fireground duties?

How many of us have seen or known of a colleague who was killed or seriously injured? I suspect a great deal. Amongst those, how many of these deaths or injuries happened as a result of those poor individuals carrying out a Valid Rescue?

A lot less in my experience, most of the Firefighters who have been killed or seriously injured on duty in the United Kingdom in recent years have been whilst carrying out routine work at an incident that didn't involve a risk to someone else's life.

To be blunt they died for nothing, no building or incident scenario is worth the life of one of our own.

The UK Health and Safety executive placed improvement notices on a number of UK Fire Brigades in the last decade. In response to this the Governments Home Office took a new look at the way risk was managed in the Fire Service and have evolved a system of Dynamic risk assessment.

Due to the great demographic diversity of the UK from the Skyscrapers and densely populated streets of London the Nations Capital which has the World's third biggest and one of the busiest Fire Departments to the outlying rural Scottish Highlands covered by a series of retained or Volunteer Fire Departments.

It was apparent that no 'generic' system of work or procedure could be applied. Therefore the emphasis of Firefighter safety fell to continuing to build on the excellent Incident Command reputation of the UK Fire Service and developing a concept where the Firefighter became 'safe' and became more aware and responsible for his or her own safety. The title given to this was Dynamic Risk Assessment.

Risk Assessment

As Fire Departments we all carry out some form of risk assessment. Whether it be the type of assessment that is carrying out before an event such as identifying the best Turnouts and equipment that we use, the likely incidents we will face and so on. This is termed Systematic Risk Assessment. This feed into Strategic Risk Assessment, where decisions are made about what we do and how best to prepare for the risk, I.e. SOP's, Training Information and supervision etc. We have all been doing this for years. The one thing that no one thought about was the type of risk assessment we have to do as Fireground Commanders at 3 in the Morning faced with a developing incident and multiple rescues. Although we do this, it was never formatted into a workable procedure, a means of risk assessing on the move as incidents changed; 'Dynamic' Risk Assessment.

So what is risk assessment? This is defined as an overall process for the management of safety; a process that involves looking at the risks we face and ensuring adequate safety measures have been put into place.

Does this apply to use solely in our role as Firefighters? Of course not. We manage risk everywhere we go across a broad range of activities in our lives. If you ride a Motorcycle you use a Crash Helmet, if you are changing a fuse you isolate the power supply, if you cross a road you look, wait until the road is clear before you set off.

In the UK we have now adopted a form of risk management that is based around the safe person concept. Every Firefighter must be able to perform the risk management process which consists of the following elements.

  • Hazard Identification
  • Risk Assessment
  • Risk Control
  • Risk Elimination

The application of the risk management process during the activities we undertake will lead to the Safe Person. There is also a degree of personal responsibility that members will have to commit to if this is going to be effective, theses are;

Competent to perform assigned tasks An Effective team member Self disciplined to work within an accepted system of work and in part of an overall Command Structure under the control of decisions made by the Command Team. Adaptable to changing circumstances Vigilant for his or her own safety and the safety of others Able to recognise his or her own abilities and limitations.

It does not matter if we are attending a regular daily run of the mill incident or a massive Fire in a Warehouse. We must identify the hazards and assess the risks. Once this is done we have to try to eliminate the risks or if this is not possible control the risk. This will lead to safer working practices during our activities on the Incident Ground.

Hazard and Risk

So what is a hazard and what is a risk. To simplify things a child's roller skate left on the floor in the middle of a room is a hazard. The risk is the fact that anyone could slip over on it the severity of the risk is what the likely outcome will be from slipping on this skate. This could be soft tissue damage of a fracture. What can we do about this risk? Well we can ELIMINATE the risk, if we pick up the roller skate and place it in a toy chest the risk is no longer there because we removed the hazard.

So to look at life on the Fireground. If you are operating at an incident and there is a gas cylinder nearby that is about to become involved in the fire, this is a hazard. The risk is that the cylinder will heat up and eventually explode if it becomes involved; the severity of the risk speaks for itself. Well we send a Firefighter in to remove the cylinder, thus ELIMINATING the risk.

Inside a structure we come across a hole in the floor, that is the hazard, the risk is that someone may fall through the whole and the severity is that they may be killed or seriously injured. We cannot remove a hole in the floor, so we light up the area, inform all Crew's of the Hazard and maybe section that area off. In this instance we have CONTROLLED the risk.

If operating at the scene of a small rubbish Fire there is a Chemical plant just down the street where does that leave us. The Chemical plant is one hell of a Hazard. But as this is remote from the small fire and we have it controlled there is no risk.

What has been demonstrated in a simplified manner above is the Risk Management Process. Where we identify a Hazard see what the risk is and measure the likelihood and severity of that risk. We then decide to remove or Control the risk managing the risk for the benefit of our Crews.

Risk versus Benefit

The Fire Service by its nature is a risky job. What we need to assess and manage though is the benefit that can be gained from the risks we are prepared to take. In the UK we have 3 Statements relating to this;

  1. Firefighters may take some risk to save saveable lives.

    In essence Firefighters will take a risk, enter a burning building with an uncontrolled Fire inside where there is believed a person is trapped inside the property. We manage the risk by ensuring the Crews are wearing SCBA and their Turnouts, we know where they are and what they are doing. This is a justifiable risk. The likely benefit from the risk is that they will save a life that would otherwise have been lost.

  2. Firefighters will take a little risk to save a saveable Property

    If we turn up at a Building where there is a Fire inside but the building has not been consumed or compromised, we will send Crews in as above to stop the fire and mitigate further damage. The benefit of this is that someone's property that would otherwise have burnt to the ground has been saved by our actions.

  3. Firefighters will take NO risk to save a Life or Property that is already lost.

    If we take the 2 scenario's above, turn up and find they are fully involved and the structures are beginning to show some form of Structural Compromise, then it is obvious to anyone that anyone inside is going to be beyond Our help and the building is beyond saving. Would you attempt to send Crews into such a scenario? What are the risks versus the benefits? The risks will be that we will Kill or injure anyone we send in for what? The life is already lost and the building is gone, no benefit would come from the risks we take. Use Defensive Operations.

    I recognise that if we were to turn up at a Fire with a Person involved we cannot just say "Sorry it's too late your Children are dead" we have to do something. This is a scenario I have faced as a Commanding Officer and I am sure many of you have. You have to do what you can to tackle the Fire aggressively and to attempt a rescue but there has to be a point when you have to stop Throwing Firefighters at the Fire in the vain hope a miracle will occur.

    Dynamic Risk Assessment is a vast Subject. This is not the forum to create a massive article that looks at all the variables that we have to face when dealing with risk to our crews.

    I just wanted to open the subject up so those of you who do it on a daily basis to remind you to check your thinking along the lines of risk. And for those of you who have no real procedures for dealing with Risk Assessment you can take this as a starting point to develop your own Protocols.

    Stay Safe and be lucky.

    Steve Dudeney G.I.Fire.E
    London Fire Brigade

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