Managing Risk in the Volunteer Fire Department, Part 1


Risk management is one of the most important yet frequently ignored “Foundation Stones of Knowledge” we must understand in our volunteer careers. How often have you seen firefighters taking risks that are not necessary? Firefighting is a risky and dangerous job, but it should be a calculated risk! As volunteers, we put a lot on the line every time we enter a burning building. If anything goes wrong and you die, what would happen to your family? Does your community have an insurance policy that would give death or survivor benefits consistent with what you earn in your full-time job? For most of us, the answer is no. Our families and survivors may have to depend on the generosity of the community.

I am not suggesting that we become so frightened that we hesitate to do our job, but we should calculate the risks we take based on solid information. You must compare the conditions you observe—and the risks they present—to the capabilities of the responding firefighters or those standing before you at the time. Do their capabilities match the immediate needs of the size-up? Are YOU truly prepared and ready?

Identifying Risk

As firefighters, risk is a part of our job. A competent incident commander (IC) should control the amount of risk to which the members operating at the scene are exposed. An IC (and company officer) must manage these risks while understanding the consequences of certain predictable acts that are a routine part of the job. For example, ordering horizontal ventilation after a company makes entry into the flow path in a pre-flashover condition could cause a flashover that overwhelms or kills the crew. Another would be assigning a company a tactic (such as fire attack) that it is incapable of achieving.

As you evaluate and identify risks, you will have to make decisions based on facts. You are required to make decisions; it’s your job, and you cannot avoid it. Your decisions will drive your strategies and tactics. Remember, first you think; then you plan; and, finally, you act. The strategies are based on the problem before you. Your tactics are based on what you must do to solve (stop) it. Identify the hazards!

The decisions you make must be achievable, communicated, and understood; otherwise, most likely, the fire, not you, will be in control! Your decisions matter and affect the safety and lives of the firefighters operating on the scene.

The IC’s Risk Management Profile

Let’s look at risk management from the perspectives of the IC and the company officer. Some of the terms we hear regarding risk are “risk/benefit analysis,” “risk management,” “situational awareness,” and “survivability profile.” Each of these is different, but they are all components of risk management.

Risk/benefit analysis. Is the risk worth the benefit or the gain? We have been taught to “risk a lot to save a lot and risk a little to save a little.” Do you and your officers have the knowledge and capabilities to make this type of critical decision? “Risk a lot to save a lot” involves saving a life, whereas “risk a little to save a little” means the victim is dead. Also, “risk a little to save property not worth saving” indicates the property burning is beyond saving. So, do not risk your own life! These rules help you achieve calculated minimal risk and good, safe practices.

Risk management. This is clearly spelled out in numerous National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards including NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program; NFPA 1521, Standard for Fire Department Safety Officer Professional Qualifications; and NFPA 1561, Standard on Emergency Service Incident Management System and Command Safety. Within these various standards you will find statements such as, “Activities that pose a significant risk to members shall be limited to situations when there is a potential to save endangered lives” [NFPA 1500 8.3.2 (1), 2007 edition] and “Activities that are routinely employed to protect property shall be recognized as inherent risks to the safety of the members, and actions shall be taken to reduce or avoid these risks.” [NFPA 1500 8.3.2 (2), 2007 edition]

The NFPA goes on to state, “No risk to the safety of members shall be acceptable when there is no possibility to save lives or property” [NFPA 1500 8.3.2 (3), 2007 edition] and “In situations where risk to fire department members is excessive, activities shall be limited to defensive operations.” [NFPA 1500 8.3.2 (4), 2007 edition] As you read these words, think about what they mean. We should not be taking foolish risks to save a body or, worse, a building.

Risk management is a tool used in both preincident planning and on scene to evaluate and reduce firefighters’ exposure to injury, loss, or death.

Components of a Risk Management System

To better understand risk management and have a system that uses it, break it down into the following four steps:

1. Situational awareness (this step is ongoing and a part of a good size-up).

2. What are the dangers and risks, and how do they affect us?

3. How do you control or eliminate the dangers and risks identified, and how can you reduce the risk to the firefighters?

4. Ongoing evaluation of what is happening.

Situational awareness. Situational awareness is observing what is happening and what is changing and asking how those changes affect the plan and safety of the members operating. Every IC and company officer should observe the overall situation constantly when operating at an emergency scene. In addition, the company officer and every firefighter are expected to maintain a continual awareness of their company’s assignment, the progress or lack thereof the company is experiencing, and the overall environmental situation in which they are operating. Current conditions will always change: They get better or they get worse! The company depends on the IC and its officer to observe the conditions and trusts that they have the skills and knowledge to understand what is happening around them. The ability to maintain situational awareness has saved countless firefighter lives.

The IC and the company officer must know and observe relevant information to keep the company safe; this includes understanding fire behavior and smoke. Observe the type of building construction and the occupancy of the structure. Observe what is going on around you, and ask the following questions:

• What are the fire conditions and the phase of the fire, and how and where is the fire spreading?

• What does the smoke tell you?

• Are the occupants in danger? If so, what is their likely condition, and where are they located within the structure?

• What is the communications situation? Is everyone on one frequency and able to talk to each other?

• Are you using the incident command system (ICS); making tactical decisions; and, if needed, assigning divisions, groups, and operational tasks?

• Is a rapid intervention team (RIT) assigned and on scene?

• What mode of attack are you using—offensive, defensive, or transitional? Is it effective and working?

• Are you trained to manage the incident, or is it beyond your capabilities? Lives depend on it!

The IC also needs to evaluate the personnel and equipment. He should know the current on-scene staffing level and if more help is needed and what equipment is needed and what is currently on scene. Review the on-scene personnel, and consider their level of training and if they are qualified and capable to do what is needed. Poor training is exposed quickly!

The Dangers and the Risks

Assess the danger and risks as part of your size-up, which should include a full 360° recon of the building, if possible; this will help avoid “surprises.” Check how the building is constructed, if it is prone to rapid fire spread or collapse, its contents and fuel load, and if there are any occupancy hazards. A great example of this would be a hoarding situation. Do you know if it has lightweight construction such as trusses or wood I-beams; if so, how will the fire affect the building’s structural integrity? Also, look at the smoke—what is it telling you? Do you understand the meaning of the smoke’s volume, velocity, density, and color? Smoke is a key, ongoing observation from the brief initial report until extinguishment and overhaul are completed.

Also, identify the flow path; this is a critical observation for the safety of those operating within the structure. Do you understand fire behavior and how the fire will spread? Is the fire vent limited? A capable IC will identify the hazards, dangers, and risks presenting themselves and prioritize those dangers by their severity or likelihood to happen. An excellent indicator of an impending flashover situation would be heavy, thick, fuel-rich smoke exiting under pressure. Address the most severe dangers first.

Controlling and Eliminating Dangers and Reducing Risk

To control the dangers and reduce the risks, you must have the proper equipment, have the proper knowledge, and ensure your personnel are protected.

Proper equipment. If you want to be a proactive leader during a preincident thought process, examine how your organization operates at a fire. When on scene, look at the current operation. See if all members are wearing personal protective equipment properly; this includes the use of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) at all times when in an immediately dangerous to life or health environment. Also, know which hose and nozzle configurations are being used (“Did they just pull a ¾-inch line because ‘that’s what we always do’?”). If the correct size lines are being used, are they delivering the proper gallons per minute (gpm) flows? Remember, “big fire = big water.”

Do all members have radios? If they do, members must be properly trained on how and when to use them and how to greatly reduce unnecessary radio traffic. In most cases, out-of-control radio traffic is our (management’s) fault because we have not properly trained the members on how to use radios, the radios’ purpose, and why their misuse is dangerous and unwanted. Limiting radios to certain members is not how you ensure great communication abilities on your fireground. Training members properly on radio use will get better results.

Make sure the interior company officers operating have thermal imaging cameras and that they have been trained properly on their use. Look at the building—is it laddered for firefighter safety, and is the aerial device in a position where it can be used rapidly, if needed? Are gas meters used to determine when members can safely remove their SCBAs during overhaul?

Proper knowledge. Does your department have and, if so, follow standard operating guidelines? Operating members must be certified or trained to firefighter I (if not firefighter II) so that they have a solid basic firefighting education and skill set. The officers must also understand the laws and NFPA standards. Most importantly, they must use common sense. Does your department use an ICS, or is your fireground a “free for all” with little, if any, structure? Training members on the ICS is critical to a safe and well-organized fireground. Consider the level of fireground experience and knowledge you possess to assist you in mitigating the dangers present.

These questions and answers are very important, so don’t fool yourself or allow complacency to set in. Complacency has killed and injured many a firefighter!

Ensure your personnel are protected. Protecting your people means limiting or avoiding risk. Some ways to do this include the following:

• When initiating an interior attack, use the correct line size and nozzle configuration and ensure that you are flowing adequate gpm.

• Identify the flow path.

• The IC must coordinate and assign venting.

• Know whether your members are working under lightweight construction.

When you assign a company a task, you are—in essence—assigning risk. Make sure that the company can handle this assignment. The company must have a strong leader (the company officer), and the crew must be capable of handling the assignment. If it is not, transfer the assignment (risk) to a stronger, more capable company.

Make sure a competent, well-trained RIT is on scene. If it is en route, it is not there! Putting inept, unqualified people on a RIT to “meet” a standard is foolhardy and dangerous; if things go wrong, this could result in the loss of a firefighter’s life.

If the structure is a high-hazard building, such as one made of lightweight construction, monitor the time the building has been burning, how long the lightweight structural members have been exposed to fire, and how long the crew has been in the building. Don’t put crews under or on lightweight construction that is not protected or has been exposed to fire. If you must vent a truss roof, keep the company on an aerial device, not on the roof, when cutting the vent hole.

Know your construction and how the building might collapse, and keep the operation out of the collapse zone. If you have a high-hazard situation and no civilian life is endangered, stay out. Target and mark buildings that firefighters should never enter.

JOE NEDDER was an on-call firefighter in various departments for more than 36 years and has served in various ranks. He retired from the Uxbridge (MA) Fire Department in 2013. He has been involved in training for more than 27 years and instructed for the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy for 16 years and at FDIC from 2010 to 2015. Nedder has written for Fire Engineering and is the founder and lead instructor of Cross St. Associates, a fire service training company. He is also the author of Rapid Intervention Crews (Jones and Bartlett).

Joe Nedder will present “Managing Risk in the Volunteer Fire Service” at FDIC International in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Wednesday, April 25, 1:30 p.m.-3:15 p.m.

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