Risk/Benefit Analysis on the Fireground

Risk/Benefit Analysis on the Fireground


Analyzing the risks accompanying fireground decisions isn’t just good policy—

it is your obligation.

A VIDEOTAPE of a welladvanced church fire, at which several master streams were employed, was incorporated into a lecture on firefighter safety. It highlighted a solitary firefighter who operated a relatively small attack line in close proximity to the structure. Suddenly, this firefighter was struck by a falling wall and, judging from the first-aid measures that were taken, he incurred serious injury.

Analyzing that situation, we see a firefighter whose desire to become actively involved in the control effort overshadowed the potential risks attached to such action. His actions were the result of a well-intentioned but misguided effort to impact the fire—to make a difference. Since the structure was heavily involved, would the relatively small amount of water that the firefighter was applying to the fire really have made a difference in the control effort? Was the increased extinguishing action of this additional 150 gpm worth the risk of injury due to falling structural materials?

I suggest not. Yet, every day, firefighters are seriously injured during similar operations, that, in the final analysis, contribute little or nothing to fire control.

Why do such injuries occur? Why do incident commanders, sector or company officers, and individual firefighters allow such injuries to occur? The answer lies in the fact that we—incident commanders, officers, and firefighters alike—tend to think in one dimension: namely, fire control. We evaluate tactical alternatives and fireground actions solely on the basis of our perception of their respective contributions to fire control. Many of us feel that just because we are ordering the implementation of a fireground tactical alternative or because we are performing a fireground action, the event automatically constitutes a significant contribution to the fire control effort.

The firefighter operating the relatively small hoseline in the video certainly thought he was making a significant contribution. However, to those of us who were fortunate enough to view the event within the context of the entire control effort, it is apparent that he didn’t; in fact, since a number of firefighters rushed to his aid, he may have significantly reduced the operational effectiveness of the on-scene forces. To accept the fact that the action didn’t contribute to fire control is to accept the fact that the injury was avoidable.

One way of avoiding such injuries is to evaluate tactical alternatives and fireground actions on the basis of their contribution to the fire control effort and the associated level of risk of firefighter injury that each entails. Risk/benefit analysis should enter into every decision made on the fireground.

Risk/benefit analysis works along the same lines as cost/benefit analysis, a proven decision-making process used by government and industry in which the costs of a particular action are weighed against the benefits of expected outcomes. By substituting risk (the chance of firefighter injury) for the cost factor, this equation is adapted for the fireground decision-making process. Within the confines of risk/benefit analysis, the incident commander, the fire officer, and the firefighter will view tactical alternatives and fireground actions in terms of the risks and benefits that can reasonably be expected to occur. Then a judgment is made as to whether the risks are equal to or greater than the benefits that the tactical alternative or fireground action may exert in the fire control effort.


Risk is part of the firefighting experience; however, officers have a responsibility to the firefighters in their charge not to expose them to unnecessary risks. Risk/benefit analysis offers the fire service a means of judging the relative merits of fireground decisions beyond their contributions to the fire effort. It becomes the firefighter’s voice in the decision-making process: the IC’s consideration of the risks that directly affect the firefighter is what brings the interests of the firefighter into the incident command decision-making process.

The incident commander, the company or sector officer, and the individual firefighter are responsible for firefighter safety and fireground effectiveness and therefore should use risk/benefit analysis. The IC may employ it as an additional step within the size-up process. During size-up, the IC identifies the critical factors that will impact upon the fire control effort and then determines the appropriate course of action—usually a fireground tactical alternative such as the initiation of an interior attack—that will lessen or eliminate the impact of these critical factors.

Unfortunately, the IC all-too-often overlooks the element of risk in his sizeup considerations and choices of tactical alternatives. Given the confusion and stress on the fire scene, this is understandable, yet risk evaluation is vital size-up data. In the interests of firefighter safety and fireground effectiveness, the size-up should be refined by assessing tactical alternatives on the basis of their relative risks and benefits. Doing otherwise is dangerous. The incident commander should evaluate proposed tactical actions, such as positioning hoselines or conducting the primary search, beyond their significance to fire control, seeking to balance the contribution of tactics to the control effort with the risks that will be placed on the operating forces.

Risk/benefit analysis is ongoing. It should be continued throughout the incident control effort, not restricted to initial size-up. Company or sector officers may employ the concept in their supervision of the implementation of tactical commands from the IC. In this regard, the company officer, being physically closer to the fire control effort, is in a better position than the IC to judge the relative risks and benefits of a tactical command.

It’s important to remember that the IC’s risk/benefit analysis is generally performed several minutes before the company officer implements a tactical command. In the interval, fire and/or structural conditions may have changed. Likewise, the analysis may have been performed from the exterior of the building and not necessarily from the portion of the fire building in which the fire control task must be implemented. Therefore, the company officer has a responsibility not only to the firefighters under his immediate command, but also to the incident commander to act and then inform him of changed conditions that might have rendered the initial risk decision invalid.

Consider this example of a continuing risk/benefit analysis: The incident commander, following established procedures of the ICS, has ordered the extension of the primary search into all involved areas of the upper floors of an urban row house. The company or interior sector officer is now charged with the search effort and therefore assumes a position closer to the interior area of operations.

If conditions deteriorate to the point that the officer has doubts as to the safety of operating forces, he should consider whether or not the risk of injury to the search team exceeds the benefits that the extension of the primary search may have. If occupants are known to be in area of the structure where the firefighters are operating, the officer, in the attempt to rescue the known victims, may undertake a greater level of risk in the search effort.

By the same token, if the structure is vacant or if it isn’t definitely known that the occupants are still inside, the officer will endure a lower level of risk before deciding to discontinue the search and withdraw to a safer area. The officer’s continual evaluation of conditions with respect to risks posed to operating forces fulfills his obligation to the safety of personnel. He fulfills his obligation to the incident commander by reporting on the conditions and his assessment for the need to withdraw.

In essence, the sector or company officer’s continual risk/benefit analysis represents a means of updating the incident commander’s original risk/benefit analysis to changing fire and structural conditions. By doing this, the officer is keeping firefighter risk in tune with the demands of the fire situation.

Individual firefighters should be encouraged to avail themselves of risk/ benefit analysis. Again, consider the example of the extension of the primary search in a specific area of the fire building. If the search team finds a particular room or area that’s too dangerous to enter, members should be encouraged to use their own judgment, performing a risk/benefit analysis with regard to their search of that room. Isn’t this intelligent firefighting? In actuality, the search team is evaluating the risks accompanying room entry with the benefits that will derive from their performance of the room search. Their use of the simple risk/benefit equation improves fireground effectiveness (since obviously, effectiveness can’t be achieved when the firefighters are down). Of course, the firefighters in question would advise their officer of their decision, who would in turn advise the IC. Isn’t this the upward flow of information from the sector and company officers that many texts on fire tactics speak of?

Incident commanders, ask yourselves: “Have I ever ordered tactics without considering the risks and benefits involved?” Firefighters, ask yourselves: “Have I ever disregarded the risks and benefits tied to my fireground actions?”

Incident commanders, company and sector officers, and firefighters must realize that, in view of the numbers of firefighter injuries and fatalities, even the most trivial fire control task or “tried-and-true” tactical alternative poses varying levels of risk. The notion that risks in the fire-suppression business are commonplace and unavoidable predisposes almost everyone in the fire service to tolerate or even ignore extreme levels of risk. Fire officers and firefighters, indoctrinated for years in the quick attack, may accept high risk levels as the norm or as a necessary part of fire suppression; risk levels are obscured and benefits accentuated.

With respect to the fireground decision-making process, the challenge facing fire officers is to recognize the actual level of risk and the true level of benefits, and then to structure the fire attack accordingly. In many cases our standard operating procedures and tactical decisions are made solely on the basis of their contribution to the fire control effort. We are thinking in terms of fire extension, ventilation, and attackline positioning, but shouldn’t we be thinking in terms of the relationship between risks that such decisions will place on our firefighters and the benefits that we can reasonably expect our actions to produce?

Incident commanders, ask yourselves, “Have I ever ordered the implementation of tactical alternatives without a consideration of the risks and the benefits that may be involved?”

Firefighters, ask yourselves, “Have I ever undertaken fireground activities without a conscious consideration of the risks and benefits of my actions?”


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