“Risk Policy”-As Plain As The Nose On Your Face

“Risk policy” is becoming a common fire service phrase. Many sense the importance of establishing parameters for how much risk firefighters should or should not take in a given situation, be it a house fire, a technical rescue, or a terrorist incident.

It has been suggested that the “risk a lot to save a lot; risk a little to save a little; risk nothing to save nothing” rule should be the foundation of risk policy in the fire service. While this proverb is easy to remember and works as a loose guide, it does nothing to address the intricate, fluid, and unique aspects of every incident. The “risk a lot” rule really only serves as a reminder that firefighters should not sacrifice their lives for a worthless pile of sticks and bricks or for someone known to be already dead.

Something more is needed. What is it? The answer is as plain as the nose on your face. Before we can take another step toward minimizing firefighter injuries and deaths-hopefully that’s the goal of the risk policy exercise-we’ve got to come clean on three critical points.

First, if the usual feel-good fire administrators and policy wonks turn this into a standards fest, we’ll lose. We must come to grips with the fact that the 20-year experiment to standardize safety into firefighting has failed to measure up to expectations. Can we say it enough? Firefighters are getting hurt and killed on the job at a rate equal to the days of leather-lung smoke eaters.

Second, many are fond of saying that there’s no such thing as an “acceptable loss” in the fire service. Bull. So long as firefighters die in the same ways they did years before, so long as we make the same catastrophic mistakes over and over without making a real effort to reverse the trend, we’re defining and approving our acceptable loss levels. Line-of-duty deaths and injuries without substantial institutional change equal acceptable loss. The fire service must put an end to its fantasy, an end to its hypocrisy. Words and grand funerals don’t cut it.

Third, municipalities must change the promotions and appointments practices that are cancerous to the fire service, eating away its heart and ensuring that our depressing death and injury rates will continue into the foreseeable future. No firefighter yet has died on the line because the commanding officers didn’t have sensitivity training or paramedic licenses. No fire building was ever “made to behave” because the commanding officers had college degrees or were from the right social group.

So what does this have to do with risk policy? Everything.

Recognize the problem. Commit to solving the problem. And understand the solution, which is right in front of you: Your people are your risk policy.

We don’t need a lot of words or fancy rules. If a fire department does not ensure that it has enough of the right, best-trained, most experienced people in the right jobs, then it has no risk policy. If your chiefs and company officers at the scene don’t live and breathe fire and rescue, if they can’t manage risk in dynamic, dangerous environments, then you’re just part of the charade that perpetuates our deadly trend.

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