Managing Risk Management


Risk management is a topic we now hear and read a lot about. It has emerged out of the very appropriate increased concern for firefighter safety and survival. We deliver service based on our ability to quickly stand in front of a customer who is being threatened by some risk. Based on our doing that for the past 250 years, we could be called the “Risk Department.” To manage risk, we must first size up that risk, which is the topic we have discussed in the past several columns.

Accurately evaluating the fireground risk present and how the level of risk is evolving is a very challenging and unforgiving process. Sadly, since the beginning of our service, firefighters have been and still are injured and killed by hazard zone risks that surprise and overpower their safety systems. Being able to manage our operations in relation to those risks is a major function and responsibility of everyone operating on every level within the fireground command and operational team.

A major challenge is to develop the ability to first evaluate the risks present and then somehow conduct tactical operations that either offensively control and eliminate those risks or, based on their severity, defensively keep our troops separated from those risks while we protect exposures. Being able to do this requires that we develop a simple, basic conceptual and operational risk management system that works in the fast and dirty fireground environment.

Learning the basic concept of risk management makes us capable of understanding what is going on from a risk/survival standpoint. Developing an effective operational/risk approach enables us to go into and operate within the hazard zone and then safely exit that hazard area. The very simple and basic risk management objective is to operate in a way that gets the job done and consistently produces a round trip into and out of the hazard zone.

Most of what we do on the fireground involves creating some tactical action that overpowers or overcomes a tactical problem. When a customer is threatened by fire conditions, we search for, find, and physically remove that person. Where we encounter fire conditions, we use hoselines to apply water that controls the fire. When building components become a barrier to interior operations, we use Frankenstein tools to forcibly open the building up so we can directly blast the fire with water.

The effectiveness of all of our problem-solving operational action is regulated by a simple process I call the “law of opposing superiority,” where there are two opposing forces and whichever is larger, better placed, and more effectively timed wins.

I’m fairly certain some readers’ reaction to my brilliant ability to recognize (and name) such a natural law is, “Duh!” Go ahead and scoff. Someday this will be known as “Bruno’s Law” and will be the basis of world (?) domination. Although the law is short and simple, it is extremely profound. How it actually occurs on the fireground will determine who wins or loses in the fire vs. firefighter battle.

In fact, we burn down more buildings and beat up more of our troops because of a very basic command and operational risk management mistake in the way we evaluate conditions and then manage our tactical activities within the evaluation. We simply do not create a response that has a force adequate enough to overpower the opposing force of the incident problems.

A major and very practical opposing superiority risk management challenge is to develop a basic model that connects the level and nature of incident risk with a corresponding checklist of operational actions. The following very simple and applicable model makes that connection.

The model shows the two groups of basic opposing elements involved in managing tactical risks on the fireground. On one side are the basic risks that cause firefighter injury/death. On the other side are the parts of the standard, integrated safety system we use to protect our firefighters. They form a “teeter-totter” in the center that is (symbolically) balanced on/over the “IC triangle.”

I insert the IC in the triangle because it is the IC’s responsibility and function to establish and manage the overall offensive/defensive strategy based on which side of the model is bigger and better timed/placed—simply, which of the opposing sides (incident risks/safety system) is “superior.” For students of incident command, the model creates direction and instruction that describe in tactical terms what firefighting strategy really means. Firefighting strategy is the result of the clash of opposing risk/safety forces. This is where strategy gets acted out, which is where our safety system actually meets the incident hazards. It is th IC’s responsibility to always determine and manage the overall incident strategy as long as there is a hazard zone present.

Effective ICs must develop a longstanding understanding (way ahead of the current incident) of the operational details of the capabilities and limitations of each item on both the risk and safety sides of the model. They then must be able to identify and connect the current and forecasted dynamics among all the model elements (very challenging). Developing this skill and ability comes with study, application, and refinement.

Being able to consistently command and control difficult, rapidly expanding tactical situations effectively becomes the very basic and definitive description for a journeyman IC. ICs without this basic skill should not be allowed to manage hazard zone operations.

Hazard zone operations should be established and maintained under a constant review (size-up) of the current status of all the standard risk/safety elements, and firefighters must always be assigned to positions inside or outside the hazard zone based on the ongoing evaluation and decision of which “box” has superior force at that time.

If the hazards exceed the capability of the safety system, the operational strategy must be defensive. If the team decides the safety system will adequately protect the firefighters from the hazards, the firefighters can operate in an offensive interior strategy. During offensive operations, if defensive conditions begin to develop more force and that force outperforms the capability of the safety system that is in place, the IC must increase the safety system force or move the firefighters away from those defensive conditions.

Just writing an article about this opposing superiority topic is pretty easy to do—but actually addressing it on the fireground is very difficult and absolutely unforgiving where and when it must be done. Improving our ability to manage the teeter-totter model is a righteous pursuit for us because it is the only really effective way we can eliminate having firefighters in offensive positions under defensive conditions.

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINIis a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site

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