Commentary, Health & Safety

Safety and Risk Management Start at the Top

Indianapolis firefighters work to control a residential structure fire on Christmas Day 2020.
Indianapolis firefighters work to control a residential structure fire on Christmas Day 2020. Photo courtesy Rita Reith, Indianapolis Fire Department.

Chief Kanterman’s Journal Entry 61

Risk management as we use it today refers to programs that help us evaluate what we do and how we do it. We put in to place certain control measures in order for us to operate within particular safety parameters. These parameters help to insure that we injure and kill less people while working. We use controls, the first of which are  “administrative” controls: standard operating guidelines or procedures, training requirements, safe practices, rules regulations, fire code compliance inspections, industry standards and best practices. The “engineering” controls build in what we need to reduce risk and increase safety. Some examples of these are apparatus design, building construction (codes), thermal imaging, and active and passive fire protection systems. The third is “personal protection” which comes in the form of personal protective equipment (PPE) and is the one we more closely relate to, however is the last item in the process. We must realize however that if the administrative and engineering controls are in place, the need for PPE lessens. As a simple example, take a commercial building fire. If in fact the codes were strictly adhered to when built and the building is outfitted with active and passive fire protection systems, and a good inspection program insures compliance, the fire will be contained to the area of origin by the sprinklers and fire walls and fire doors, and we’re looking at an easy mop up and go home type of job. A failure however in these systems whether mechanical in nature of an active fire protection system, or a breach of passive fire protection (a hole in a fire wall) could lead to unsafe conditions and firefighter injury or death.

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Firefighting is inherently risky work and our people are often thrust into situations that are considered “high risk.” Having a good risk management plan or program and to know where the lines must be drawn and is critical to the longevity and survival of our people in the field. Chief officers need to reaffirm when the risk is not worth taking (vacant buildings) and when circumstances allow us to take some risk in the interest of saving another human life. The controls as noted above along with good solid training and experience permits us to take calculated risks with good outcomes. A very small percentage of American firefighter line-of-duty deaths happen due to unforeseen circumstances. We must continue looking at the process by which we can evaluate and define risk so we can reduce injury and death on the job. The process is fairly simple:

  • Identify what risks are inherent in firefighting, rescue, hazmat, EMS and the other things we do; perform a risk analysis.
  • Evaluate the risks in terms of how often and how bad the consequences could be—what can happen and at what intervals
  • Control the risks through a good risk management program using an administrative, PPE, and engineering controls (APE!)          

Risk management has been a concept that has been in and around public service and private industry for a very long time. It should be regarded as a “system” more than anything else. Looking at the above noted process of identifying, evaluating and controlling risk, we need to use this system so we can minimize risk. Analyses have been performed on the tasks of firefighting and the associated risks too many times to list, and they still show most of these risks are avoidable. If in fact fire departments use the three-phase process as noted above and they are successful, then it’s probable that they are measuring their success rates by their ability to enforce their Risk Management Program (RMP). We also understand that we wield a two-edge sword. We know if we arrive too late at an occupied structure fire, we may not be able to make a difference in saving lives or property. However, with that in mind, we may also tend to drive too fast, run controlled intersections against signals, and may cause death and injury to ourselves and others—the very thing we’re trying to prevent. It’s hard to strike a balance but if this was easy, anyone could do it. Risk management takes patience, understanding, training, and the ability to analyze and decipher where and when we’ll take chances. In fire service organizations, risk management has to occur at every level, however it starts at the top and on the fireground with the incident commander. It has to trickle down to the company officers and the line firefighters, the last two being the most vulnerable to the risks at hand.

The expectation of the American people who depend on the emergency services is that we will show up in a timely manner and cure their headaches, whether it’s a fire, oil burner emergency, heart attack, or a gasoline tanker laying on its side. Although the public expects their firefighters to “lay it all on the line,” they don’t necessarily accept the fact that we get injured or killed for no good apparent reason. Many ordinary citizens have often questioned our tactics when firefighters are killed or badly injured in a vacant building for example. Yes, even the layperson knows that an empty, abandoned building is not worth the risk. Chief Ronny Coleman of California said that based on the above noted factors, “we’re the most qualified group of individuals to go into a dangerous situation and come out alive.” He’s right.

Good luck, stay well and have a happy, healthy, and safe New Year.

Ronnie K

RON KANTERMAN is a more than four-decade veteran of the fire service and recently retired as chief of the Wilton (CT) Fire Department. He has a B.A. degree in fire administration and two master’s degrees. He’s a contributing author for Fire Engineering, the Fire Engineering Handbook for Firefighter I and II, and the 7th edition of the Fire Chief’s Handbook.