Lack of training may be the most prevalent factor contributing to firefighter death and injury. The type of training needed deals not with tactics but with that internal evaluation process used to determine the level of risk we are going to assume in any particular situation while performing our duties. This process is called the risk-benefit analysis. Even though we may not fully understand this concept, we unconsciously perform it every day without realizing its impact on our efforts. We should bring the risk-benefit concept to the forefront of our strategic decision-making process.


Try to imagine for a minute a fireground tool called a risk-benefit scale–similar to the scales of justice, with risk on one side and benefit on the other. The tool measures all factors dealing with risk and compares them with the benefits. Obviously, we can turn the situation in our favor if the benefit side is much heavier than the risk side. If the risk side is heavier, however, there is probably no advantage to continuing the operation. Let`s look at a couple of examples in the following paragraphs.

When we arrive on the fire scene to find heavy black smoke billowing from every window and fire venting from a downstairs opening, our first task should be to ascertain whether anyone is in the structure. When a civilian on the scene says people may still be in the building, it presents an interesting situation for first-arriving firefighters. First and foremost, our job is to rescue people from the perils of fire. To effect a rescue, we know we must enter the structure and perform a search. In addition, the following are needed when hot smoke is escaping from the structure: breathing apparatus, full turnout gear, attack and backup handlines, a second means of egress, a rapid intervention team, and ventilation. These tools and tactics are used to bring the risk level down in proportion to the perceived benefit of the situation. Hopefully, by protecting ourselves with the finest gear available and using sound tactical options, we will be able to effect the rescue and save another life.

Eliminating the risk isn`t where we firefighters make bad decisions. Usually, it`s in evaluating the benefit. It is just not our nature to make decisions that appear to render the situation hopeless. In the previous example, we did all that was necessary to reduce the level of risk to ourselves. But, what was the benefit of the situation to begin with? Ask yourself, What was the chance that the victim was alive or could be resuscitated? In this case, the benefit may not have been justifiable because the victim was dead when you got there.

When teaching technical rescue classes, especially confined space rescue, the risk-benefit subject becomes a critical objective to get across to the student. What level of risk should be assumed to retrieve the unfortunate worker who has fallen into a tank of “menthyl ethyl smertz” (apologies to the haz-mat folks) and who, it can be seen, is not breathing? How would you as an incident manager justify having one of your people injured or killed? The point is that, once a victim is dead, other lives should not be risked.

If you`re saying to yourself that I am not for rescuing people, that it is impossible to resuscitate anyone, or that some risk is not implied in our job, you are missing the whole point of this article. It is about understanding the level of risk a situation presents and then making sound, conscious decisions with regard to the level of risk you will assume or, more importantly, are willing to place on your personnel.


Let`s look at some of the key factors that will determine your success in evaluating a situation for the proper risk-benefit ratio:

Understand the environment. In every situation, it is absolutely necessary to understand the environment in which you are expected to work. Whether it is a structural collapse, rope rescue, confined space rescue, or structure fire, you must understand the environment to make a proper risk-benefit assessment. How many times have we read stories about the would-be rescuer in a confined-space incident who neglects to do atmospheric monitoring, enters an unsafe atmosphere, and also becomes a victim? Understanding and not understanding the environment will allow you to make the proper choices about the level of protective clothing and equipment required for safe operations.

Have the proper equipment. Nothing gets us in more trouble than trying to perform a job without the proper equipment. Doing this places us at a tremendous disadvantage in rescue operations. Not having the right tool for the job makes the situation worse. You wouldn`t enter a burning house without a breathing apparatus, would you?

Do my people have adequate rescue skills? Almost as bad as using the wrong tool for the job is putting people in a position in which they will likely fail. Make sure before you commit your personnel to attempting a rescue that you have given them the proper training to succeed. There is a right person for every job, and the key to success is finding the person with the proper skills for that situation.

Is this a rescue or recovery? We will never be able to eliminate all risk associated with performing our job, but understanding the difference between a rescue and a recovery is vitally important. Subordinates should not be made to risk injury or death for a recovery.

What is the risk to the rescuer? Taking for granted the points addressed above, turn your attention to determining the risk for the rescuer(s). With all considerations under scrutiny, does the rescuer stand a fair chance of succeeding without getting killed or injured? In addition, is the risk to the rescuer proportional to the attempted action? There is a very real difference in the level of risk undertaken to save a life and that to save a piece of property. If you are questioning your judgment at this point in the evaluation, you can be sure you are about to make a big mistake.

What is the benefit to the situation? If you can reduce the risk to the rescuer and the benefit is a savable victim, you are close to giving the situation the green light. No matter what anyone tells you, there is no benefit to saving a dead person or some dead person`s property if that action necessitates risking your personnel.

Head vs. heart decision making. Compassion kills. In every situation, ask yourself, Am I thinking with my head or my heart? Hoping that you can effect a rescue when the situation is hopeless is thinking with your heart. As much as you might wish that a trench-collapse victim who has been under 10 feet of soil for 20 minutes is alive, he will be dead nevertheless unless a protective mechanism was in place at the time of the collapse. Nothing you can do in such a situation will reverse the outcome. Just make sure you don`t add to the problem by placing your personnel in jeopardy.

In every situation, we, as rescue professionals, make choices about our actions. These choices are based on the tried-and-true methods associated with the size-up of any given situation. The next time you are faced with making decisions that involve placing your people at risk, make certain that the decisions are based on a conscious effort and not just intuition. Ask yourself if the scales are leaning to the benefit side or are at least balanced. Above all, make sure that there is some benefit to the situation and that the level of risk is commensurate with that benefit. Understanding these concepts will make your fireground and rescue operation decisions defendable under even the most careful scrutiny.

Who knows? The next time an instructor teaches you about size-up and its inherent considerations such as time of day, type of building construction, and concerns about occupants, he might be standing there with a set of scales. Wishful thinking, I suppose! n

BUDDY MARTINETTE, a 23-year veteran of the fire service, is a battalion chief in the Virginia Beach (VA) Fire Department, a team leader on FEMA USAR Task Force II, and an instructor with the State of Virginia Heavy and Tactical Rescue Team. He has a master`s degree in public administration and teaches nationwide as a corporate partner in Spec. Rescue International.

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