Tactical Checklist for Firefighter Safety

By RICHARD C. KLINE

Most injuries occurring to firefighters operating on the fireground are caused by preventable mishaps-unplanned and unwanted events that lead to human error resulting in injury. One proven tool to help reduce these mishaps is a checklist that recalls important safety and operational procedures when under highly stressful situations. The benefits of using a checklist are well known in the medical and aviation professions; it helps to avoid omitting, neglecting, or failing to understand the importance of complex procedures.

Checklists have proven to be effective in complex, high-risk, and high-consequence disciplines, where decisions are made with incomplete and rapidly changing information. In the high-pressure environment of the fireground, a tactical checklist can assist in the decision-making process. Information overload is a common barrier to situational awareness and impacts effective decision making in stressful situations. Your ability to effectively manage multiple information inputs is limited and, as you are being stressed, your ability to capture, store, process, and recall data fades as the incident grows in complexity. Your perception of risk is also clouded as you become overwhelmed with the information, queues, and clues of the dynamic fireground.

A checklist is a type of informational job aid used to reduce human errors. It is designed to compensate for your potential limits of human memory and attention and helps to ensure consistency and completeness in carrying out a task. A basic example is the “to-do” list. A more advanced checklist would be a schedule, which lays out tasks to be done according to time of day or other factors. A simple fire service checklist often uses a mnemonic that relates to identifying tactical priorities or functions such as RECEO-VS (rescue, exposure, confine, extinguish, overhaul, ventilation, salvage) or SLEEVS (situation, life safety, exposure, extinguish, ventilate, salvage).

A tactical fireground checklist is a simple tool to keep track of what is taking place on the fireground and also to help predict the future needs of the event. The worksheet doesn’t make decisions for the incident commander (IC); it provides a memory jogger to recall important information or steps.

tactical worksheet
(1) A checklist in the form of a tactical worksheet is a handy tool for reducing error and improving performance. (Photo by author.)

Variations of the fireground tactical checklist have been in production since 1980. Many incorporate the mnemonics as described but also include additional information pertinent to the local department. When designing a tactical worksheet, solicit input from command level officers so that there is agreement on the contents of the form, how the information is formatted, and what the end product looks like. Other considerations you should make when designing a worksheet include the following:

Your audience. Who will be using the worksheet? Is it designed for the user of the first-arriving company or officer, or is it for later-arriving command personnel who are inheriting the event? For whom the worksheet is designed determines the amount and type of information contained.

Simplicity. Keep it simple in terms of useful information. The goal of the worksheet is to increase memory and recall while reducing errors and improving performance. Don’t overload the worksheet with every conceivable tactical detail.

Customization. The worksheet should be appropriate for the local jurisdiction. Don’t settle for a worksheet that doesn’t reflect your local procedure, policy, and fireground expectations.

Safety. Many progressive departments include a section that prompts the appropriate operational mode (offensive, transitional, defensive) of operation; others assign a color code to each-e.g., “red” for offensive. Other examples are elapsed time indicators.

Format. Include logical information on the sheet, arranged in a manner that doesn’t require the user to search for important concepts-for example, arranging your incident priorities and tactical benchmarks on the left side of the form may be read and captured more easily since people tend to scan documents from left to right.

Technology. Electronic tactical worksheets are available and offer different formats based on the incident.

Key aspects of any checklist are the comfort and familiarity that the person using it feels when on the fireground. These elements are ensured through training. Remember-practice makes predictable. The more you practice and become familiar with something, the more likely you are to use this tool when under stress.

The use of a checklist in the form of a tactical worksheet can reduce mishaps related to human error, consequently reducing the incidence of injuries. For the IC, the worksheet provides a rational approach to managing an incident, reducing the tendency to make decisions based on emotions.

RICHARD C. KLINE has been the chief of the Plymouth (MN) Fire Department since 1992. He has a master’s degree in public safety and has attained accreditation as a chief financial officer. Kline is also the chairman for the Minnesota State Fire Chief Association’s Safety and Health Committee.

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