Risk Management on the Fireground


At different times in its history, the fire service has employed various types of management theories. In the 1960s, it was personnel management techniques; in the 1970s, it was management by objectives. In the 21st century, it is using risk management to understand the reality of managing operating firefighting personnel. This article will examine risk management concepts to identify and control the risks firefighters face on the fireground.

When the International Association of Fire Fighters investigates a firefighter fatality, a fundamental question to answer is, Was it appropriate for the firefighter to be in the building? No active firefighting operation is ever risk-free. Firefighters expect and accept a degree of risk during routine firefighting and emergency operations. Fireground risk management is a tool to determine which risks are acceptable. In analyzing risk, the two basic principles are as follows: Do not risk a lot to save a little, and consider the odds—how severe will the consequences be if something goes wrong? When considering the odds, always consider the worst-case scenario.




Life-and-death fireground decisions involve a risk/benefit analysis based on these two primary goals: the protection of life (civilian and firefighter) and the protection of property. Firefighters accomplish these two fireground goals and satisfy the priorities of risk taking when they enter a burning building and quickly extinguish a fire with the initial attack hoseline. If a fire is allowed to grow and extend, this increases the potential for firefighter death or injury. When applying the risk management principles to a fire operation, judgments are always based on these goals.

Every action on the emergency scene involves a risk and a benefit. The acceptable level of risk is directly related to the potential benefit of saving life or property. Where there is no possibility of saving lives, you must evaluate the risk to fire department personnel in proportion to the ability to save valuable property. Acceptable risks are those in which the positive benefit has a higher value than the negative possibilities posed by the risk.

Emergency responders may take a calculated risk to their life to save a life but only take a moderate risk to save property. The Fire Department of New York’s Safety Bulletin guidelines regarding risk management are clearly stated: “The risk to be assumed by our members must be in proportion to the expected gain. Thus, search tactics at an occupied tenement should be substantially different from those in a vacant building. While there may be a suspected life hazard at a vacant building, the only known life hazard at a vacant building is that of the members. Chief and company officers must be cognizant of the risk members are exposed to when operating at vacant building fires.”

Where there is no possibility of saving lives or property, there is no justification for exposing firefighters to any avoidable risk. For these situations, tactics should change from an interior hoseline attack to an exterior or defensive fire suppression operation.

Risk management concepts provide a practical way to judge and control the necessary risks required to accomplish firefighting goals. The four principles of risk management are identification, evaluation, prioritization, and control. Using these principles will help fireground officers determine what to focus on when defining the risk on the fireground and controlling the risks taken.




Some risks are easily identified, such as a warning sign indicating a specific hazard such as high electrical voltage. After identifying a particular hazard, you must inform the incident commander (IC) and all firefighters on-scene of the hazard.

When encountering an unusual situation or a unique event, it can be very difficult to accurately identify risks. To do so effectively, use all available resources, including accident/injury statistics, fire case studies, and your and others’ experiences. Different situations, such as gas leaks, expanding fire conditions, and building collapses, present different risks. When identifying the risk, always formulate a safety plan for the worst-case scenario; if you are prepared for that, anything that occurs short of that will be easier to handle (photo 1).

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(1) Photos courtesy of the FDNY Photo Unit.




Once you have identified the risk, evaluate it according to its frequency and severity. How frequent is the threat, how often does it arise? Some risks are present at every incident; others may occur only once in three years. Severity depends on evaluating the potential negative consequences to operating personnel. Evaluating frequency and severity together helps you to establish the priority of risks that you must monitor. Generally, the priority order is as follows:

1. High frequency/high severity (e.g., burns and smoke inhalation; photo 2).
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2. High frequency/low severity (e.g., sprain and strain injuries).
3. Low frequency/high severity (e.g., a building collapse that entraps firefighters).
4. Low frequency/low severity (e.g., a nail in a boot).


Analyzing these factors helps you to organize your concerns. Many separate operations are performed on the fireground in different areas, such as ventilating the fire building roof or examining adjoining buildings or exposures. We evaluate the risk to prioritize the risk on which to focus at the scene.

Usually, you should monitor high frequency/high severity situations first, followed by high frequency/low severity items, and so on. For each particular event, use your personal experience of what will occur at the initial phase and what other concerns develop as the situation progresses. Generally, you should address low frequency issues after you have assessed the potential for a high frequency event.




This is a difficult task, especially at an emergency where multiple dangerous activities are taking place. Which one should you turn your attention to first? How do you decide which one should be next? Every risk has a different priority, and your ability to mitigate a threat depends on the resources available, how difficult it is to address, and how much time it requires. Is the solution simple or complex? What are the consequences if things go wrong? How long will it take to overcome a problem? How quickly can you get help to the scene?

An officer’s personal judgment and experience play a major part in this activity. Keep it simple. The process begins with any risk that has a high likelihood of happening. Deliberate on the potential for severe damage and injury. This should not take long. You will be able to calculate the frequency and severity factors rapidly, which will point you to the area that needs your attention the most. When trying to decide where you should position yourself on the fireground, always trust your common sense.




Once you have determined the priorities, the process shifts to risk control. Are the operations being performed appropriate? If not, what needs to be changed? Risk control is where the rubber meets the road. Performing all the preliminary steps and then not controlling the risk is futile. All officers are to play a major role in determining if the benefits outweigh the risk.

Fireground officers can effectively lessen or remove scene hazards and, thus, control risk where necessary by altering, suspending, or terminating operations.

Altering means modifying the actions performed to accomplish a task. For example, an outside company is using its hoseline to extinguish fire through the structure’s first-floor front windows but is also in the collapse zone. Move the company out of the collapse zone, and have it operate its hoseline from a safe vantage point to control the risk by altering an action.

Suspending means delaying actions until safety concerns are addressed. For example, if the one team operating a hoseline on the fire floor is having difficulty containing the fire, no company should be allowed to proceed to the floor above. Suspend firefighters’ movement to the floor above until the fire is controlled. Only then should the company be allowed to proceed to the floor above.

Terminating an operation is a last resort and is done only if a significant life hazard is involved. Termination requires ending all actions in the operation completely. For example, terminate an operation if fire has extended behind the firefighters and they must be removed immediately from the fire area. These members terminate any tasks they were performing; all efforts should now focus on safely removing them from the untenable area.

Communicate all actions taken to the IC as soon a possible. These actions will affect the plan the IC has put in place and can influence the event’s outcome. The rule is: “Keep the boss informed.” This is mandatory when you must terminate an operation.




Perform the risk/benefit analysis continually. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse on 9/11, risk management principles guided search procedures. Initially, when there was a strong possibility of rescuing live victims, members placed themselves at great personal risk operating in unstable building collapse debris. Days later, when it was determined that no one could reasonably still be alive, the safety of operating members then became the main concern, and operations changed to body recovery procedures.

At the emergency scene, try to determine the victim’s condition. If this is not possible, consider victims’ likely condition under the circumstances, especially as time passes. Do not expose personnel to unnecessary risk if there is no life to save. Studies have shown that during confined space rescue attempts, the rescuers often become fatalities while attempting to recover dead bodies.

An officer’s risk/benefit analysis should focus on the safety of all operating members. Shifting from performing routine tasks that you did in the past to thinking as a manager responsible for everyone’s actions is not easy to do.

You must be aware of all areas of the operation. Use your firefighting experience and the four principles of risk management to identify, evaluate, prioritize, and control risk, to help you decide where the greatest risk to members might be and what actions to take.

Keep in mind the following:

  • Risk a lot to save a lot. Keep significant risk to members limited to potential life-saving situations.
  • Risk a little to save a little. Reduce and minimize the inherent risk of routine activities.
  • Risk nothing to save nothing. No risk to the safety of members is acceptable when there is no possibility of saving life or property.


All officers must evaluate the situation continuously and ensure that the IC is aware of the actual and potential risks present during an operation and the consequences if something goes wrong. Vigilant attention and constantly watching for changes in conditions are traits of an effective officer.

Fire conditions are fluid and can change suddenly without warning. At a 1966 fire involving a drug store on 23rd Street in Manhattan, a light smoke condition with little heat was present just before the floor collapsed, pitching 12 FDNY members into a cellar that was fully involved in fire. It was the worst tragedy the department suffered prior to 9/11.

Fireground officers must look for immediate dangers and evaluate the scene for potential future risks. To control risks, you must forecast the future of the emergency as it relates to members’ safety. Looking ahead and imagining what might occur are necessary to prevent accidents and injuries. A successful officer uses experience, training, safety cues, and intuition to get ahead of the emergency and predict developments that will have an impact on the safety of responders (photo 3).

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The tangible benefit of risk management on the fireground is reducing the number and severity of accidents and injuries. Properly applying risk/benefit analysis will help ensure that the members who came to work will go home from work.

HOWARD J. HILL retired as assistant chief of department with the Fire Department of New York (FDNY), for which he had served more than 34 years. During his career, he created and taught a Command Chief course at the FDNY Training Academy and was the project manager for this year’s High-Rise Symposium. He has lectured nationwide and has written for various fire service publications.


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