RISK AND CHANCE? BULL!
MY DICTIONARY defines risk as “exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance; to take or run the chance of.” Some of the listed synonyms are: “imperil,” “endanger,” “jeopardize.”
Just look at this definition for a minute. The word “chance” comes up three times. It is for this reason the word “risk” just cannot be used in the fire service. We don’t take chances.
Last year I was involved in a structural collapse incident. There was a natural gas explosion in a vacant, four-story, brick-andjoist (ordinary) tenement. The explosion caused it to fall onto a one-story, similarly constructed delicatessen. Civilians were being pulled out of peripheral locations on our arrival. We received reports that other occupants were still trapped within the debris. There was no time to waste. We had to operate.
As we entered a large void under the rubble, we found two conditions: There were two observable victims, and the rubble above us was unstable. Many thoughts ran through my head as that company’s officer: first, get all personnel off the top of the rubble; second, shore up the void to stabilize it; third, remove the live victims.
The first was easy. One radio transmission to the chief and they were gone. The shoring was a little more difficult. One of the victims had to be removed immediately, as he was in the way. Thank God he was easy to get out. Also, trench jacks and assorted lumber had to be requested. The chief had made sure that two additional rescue companies were summoned and were arriving at the scene to assist in the operation.
Rescuing the second victim was much more difficult. It took nearly six hours to safely extricate him, requiring a very exhaustive and complicated tunnelling operation — down from above, not up from below. Again, the strength of the chief was the answer. “How many people do you need down there, lieutenant?” After my response that only two were necessary, he ordered all others out. Minimize your exposure!
Reflecting on this operation, I now ask myself, “Did we take a chance?” To this I answer—no! We may not have been in the best spot in the world, but I firmly believe that we (as a collective group) drew on our experiences, training, and the ability to size up (assess) difficult situations.
Again, I must go to the dictionary, this time to define chance-. “The unpredictable and unwilled element of an occurrence without a plan or intent: luck.” To go in thinking you’re taking a chance is crazy. It’s almost as foolish as following an officer who bases all his decisions on hunches.
This operation was successful because a plan was developed by thinking fire service personnel discussing options, not because of a head-on charge into the unknown —a risky chance.
At another response, a trailer had disconnected and dropped from its tractor. It carried a full and heavy load of meat and was in the process of being unloaded. The inside jack had partially collapsed and the load shifted to that side, tilting the trailer over onto a row of parked cars. On arrival, the chief asked us if we could do anything to correct the situation.
After initial size-up, it was apparent that there was no civilian life in danger; that in order to stabilize the trailer I would have had to put firefighters between the trailer and the parked cars; and that none of the cars belonged to us (only kidding, no nasty letters please).
I suggested to the incident commander that we rope off the area and turn the problem over to the owners. Fooling with this trailer was indeed chancy, and the onlyhumans that could be injured were us. There was no return. We did nothing and the operation was a success.
We then have the example of the “lessons learned” fire. In my hometown they’re building new garden apartments. All are of lightweight wood-truss construction. While the apartments were still unoccupied, our volunteer department was called to a fire on the second floor. An aggressive interior attack quickly knocked down the main body of fire. But as firefighters advanced, they determined that the second floor had collapsed in front of them. Another truss loft failure. The firefighters backed to the safety of the public hall and completed extinguishment from there.
Lucky you say? No, nothing could be further from the truth.
They knewit was truss construction, and when confronted with the fire problem, they adjusted. Luck or chance had nothing to do with it.
Let the ones that don’t perform talk about risk analysis, luck, chance, and risk. I say stick with training, size-up, experience, and the basics.