Assessing Risk-Taking Behavior in Firefighters

Assessing Risk-Taking Behavior in Firefighters


MOST FIRE DEPARTMENTS make an effort to recognize and reward heroic acts officially. Some departments honor personnel at annual dinners, some at civic ceremonies. In some paid, civil-service systems, points towards promotion are awarded by a board of merit which reviews written accounts of individual heroic performance. On occasion, other community components are involved in the commendation process; local newspapers run stories on the “Hero of the Month,” and local service clubs present plaques.

We all know that the best newspaper photos and the most impressive video clips for that “film at 11“ are those which capture acts of bold courage. Firefighters often provide those acts. Each of us remembers at least one such especially moving image. They are often framed and hanging in the firehouse If the current mayor has a need to project a positive picture of city services under his administration, you may even see them hanging in city hall!

If you have the chance to read official accounts of bravery in the fire service, you will notice recurring phrases that can be misleading, such as “without regard for his own safety…” or “at extreme personal risk…” or “placing himself in jeopardy….”

There is absolutely no doubt that, many times, these are accurate descriptions of the behavior which occurred. However, there is also an inherent danger in some of these descriptions. Whenever an experienced firefighter engages in an act of bravery, you hope that it really is not “without regard for his own safety.” You expect that he has sized up the situation and. counting on his training, equipment, experience, and knowledge of his own limitations and capabilities, made a judgment about how to respond. A civilian in the same situation would indeed be “at extreme personal risk”; and sometimes, for a variety of reasons, so would a veteran firefighter.

There is little doubt that fire departments offer institutional encouragement of risktaking behavior. There is also no doubt that, through training programs, these same departments make a very large effort in the area of risk management.

The purpose of this article is to get you to take a hard look at just why an experienced firefighter might “place himself in jeopardy.” There are both good reasons and bad reasons for doing so. You need to know what is motivating your troops to do what they do— and if these motivators are acceptable to your department. You also need to make sure that you are not subconsciously giving the wrong messages to your firefighters as to what constitutes acceptable risk.


We have already mentioned some of the external positive reinforcements for risk taking: awards, community recognition, advancement in the job. There are also good internal reasons for taking risks: saving lives, protecting property, having a sense of selfless dedication to the mission of your job, which causes you to feel good about yourself and the work you do.

Unfortunately, not all risk-taking behavior is as positively motivated. There are other influences w hich will cause similar behavior, but for less acceptable reasons. Since these behaviors often have a positive outcome, their causes are usually not analyzed. What are some of these motivators?

Risk-taking behavior motivated by guilt is often unnecessary and unacceptable. This guilt can be “survivor guilt” experienced by the firefighter who has seen comrades killed or incapacitated in a fire at which he was operating. Often, for a member of a profession that prides itself in being able to get the job done and that provides an elemental sense of satisfaction (I’ve often heard firefighters point out that “there are a lot of unsolved crimes out there, but all the fires get put out!”), the idea of being unable to help a brother firefighter is impossible to internalize.

An outcome of that sense of helplessness is guilt, sometimes even self-loathing. The firefighter may believe (usually incorrectly) that others feel he is inadequate. For any of these reasons, or for a combination of them. the distressed firefighter may engage in “atonement heroics” to redeem himself. [See “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Firefighters,” Fire Engineering, November 1985.]

The firefighter may also engage in foolhardy risk taking because—for whatever reason, including many personal issues such as divorce, loss, and alcohol or other drug dependence—he now values his own life less. The behavior is most often rewarded by the department, but it is disguised self-punishment for the individual.

There is also a certain element of machismo involved in some risk-taking behavior. Particularly among new firefighters, there is sometimes the feeling that taking risks leads to acceptance by the group. This is not without some basis in actual experience, and it is up to the line managers to evaluate just how much of an influence this is in their companies.

There are many other reasons for individuals’ risk-taking behaviors. In some cases, the need for acceptance takes on added urgency if the fire service “runs in the family.” Furthermore, there is information in the medical and psychological literature to suggest that it is possible to get hooked on the “adrenaline high” that, for some folks, accompanies risky behavior.


A lot of folks take the performance of firefighters at face value and leave it at that. “Why should it bother me why he does what he does?” is a question that has been asked of me when I have discussed this issue with fire service leaders. Well, we’ve all heard the old saying that “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” Ironically, what can be the weakest link in the field company is frequently perceived as one of the strongest. It isn’t until you do start to look at “why they do what they do” that you can begin to define the “heroic” behavior as a strength or a liability.

Although we don’t often like to think of it in just these terms, your personnel represent quite an investment for your department. Time and money spent on training and outfitting your firefighters are substantial. There is no way that you would justify taking an unnecessary risk with an apparatus. There should be at least as much concern with the individual. Your risk management is not limited to ensuring the tensile strength of roof ropes and the bursting pressures of hoses. You need to know the strengths and limits of your firefighters as well.

The firefighter who, for whatever reason, takes an unnecessary risk jeopardizes the entire company. In some cases, he may delay the extinguishment, search, and rescue missions of the department by attracting resources to himself after putting himself in danger. In other cases, he may be attracted to the supposedly “impossible” task to prove himself to his comrades—while he neglects his primary tasks as part of the overall unit.

I know of one case in which a “truckie,” aware that the engine company was unable to make a hall that was on fire, grabbed the nozzle screaming and yelling, goading his brother firefighters on until they completed the stretch and extinguished the flames in the hall. A few of the enginemen sustained burns in the operation; but when the truckie came out of the building, it was to cheers and backslapping. There were no cheers from his lieutenant, however, who gave him hell for not attending to his primary mission: ventilating the rear of the building. When a desire to engage in risk-taking behavior leads to disregard of the mission of the unit as a whole, the line manager has to look at why that behavior is taking place.

You have to be even more concerned when it is a veteran firefighter who displays unacceptable risk-taking behavior. For one thing, “he should know better.” In other words, you can’t chalk this up to ignorance, so there must be some other problematic forces at work in that firefighter’s life. For another thing, when an experienced firefighter performs—whether he likes it or not—he is a model for newer members of the fire service. The rookies look at the veteran and decide that, if they would like to get to be oldtimers themselves someday, perhaps it would be healthy to emulate this guy. Although they may not talk about it, the thinking is, “What the hell, he’s doing this 19 years—if this were not an acceptable risk, he’d be dead by now.”


First of all, TALK about the levels of risk you can anticipate. Explore the ideas of limits and choices with your firefighters. Let it be clearly known that the “hell-bent for leather” approach to firefighting may make for amusing stories at retirement parties, but it also can lead to a convening of the troops for department funerals.

Emphasize positive behaviors. Make it clear that it is okay not to make a room if the conditions turn you back. Indicate that you respect the firefighter’s professional judgment when an assessment is made that a particular situation is untenable. You want to do this not only to discourage the “Rambo” approach to firefighting, but also to encourage honest communication on the fireground. If the message given to the field troops in your department is “You will search that room and no excuses are accepted!”. then you are augmenting the already existing peer pressure to reject a perceived “failure.”

With such an unenlightened approach, you are inviting both the taking of unacceptable risks and the increased likelihood of poor communications on a search operation. A firefighter under this mandate is more likely to say, for instance, that the primary search of the second floor is completed, when, in fact, he may not actually have gotten fully into all the rooms. The line managers need to give the message that while it is okay not to make a room, it is not okay not to tell us about it.

Don’t be reluctant to examine the inherently risky nature of the business in light of other issues—especially substance abuse or other factors which will limit physical or mental performance.

If you do suspect that a firefighter’s behavior is motivated by less than positive forces, approach that firefighter on an individual basis with your concerns. The worst that can happen is that you might be wrong… which, indeed, would be the best that could happen! In any case, your troops will know that you are concerned about them as people as well as firefighters.

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