Risk Management: It’s Not Just a Catchphrase


The enemy has changed, and the enemy isn’t playing fair. Many of the rules that applied to firefighting 50 years ago are no longer valid today. Firefighters are now operating in environments that are trying to kill them faster and more aggressively than ever before. Lightweight construction components and the increased use of synthetic materials have changed the game for the fire service. It may appear that the fireground has become safer for firefighters because of a reduction in the overall number of firefighter fatalities over the past 30 years, but during this same time frame, there has been an alarming 67 percent increase in firefighter fatalities from traumatic injuries. The fireground has become increasingly dangerous to firefighters everywhere. We are duty-bound to understand why this is happening and to do whatever it takes to prevent the loss of another one of our own.

A line-of-duty death (LODD) is not something that any firefighter or any fire department expects, but it still happens. According to the United States Fire Administration (USFA) report Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, 81 firefighters were killed in the line of duty in 2012 and, on average, 100 firefighters per year over the past 10 years have lost their lives. Since 1977, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has collected data from fire departments across the nation regarding fires and fire deaths. A report published by the NFPA states, “Since 1977, the number of U.S. firefighter deaths annually at structure fires has dropped almost two-thirds, a finding that often has been credited to improvements in protective clothing and equipment, fireground procedures, and training, but little attention has been paid to the drop in the number of structure fires themselves.” In fact, from 1977 to 2009, the annual number of structure fires has decreased by 53 percent. This would indicate that the decrease in firefighter fatalities might actually be the result of the reduction in the number of fires and not advances in all areas of the fire service.

shorter times to flashover than in the past, the fireground has become less forgiving and more dangerous to fire service members
(1) With considerably shorter times to flashover than in the past, the fireground has become less forgiving and more dangerous to fire service members. Firefighters must place an emphasis on the identification and recognition of warning signs that indicate a hostile fire event could take place. This could mean the difference between life and death. [Photos by Albert Pedroza, San Antonio (TX) Fire Department.]
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What resource can firefighters use to help combat the dangers they face in today’s modern fire environment? Risk management is a critical life-saving tool that, when used properly, will keep firefighters alive. This dynamic process involves the following:

  • Identifying actual and potential hazards or risks.
  • Deciding on a plan of action based on the level of risk to responders.
  • Implementing control measures to increase the safety of firefighters.
  • Constantly monitoring and reviewing conditions and adjusting the plan as needed to reduce the level of risk to responders.

An effective risk management plan could mean that defensive operations may be the only safe option at a structure fire because of the risk of collapse or that ventilation should be the first tactical priority to prevent flashover or that firefighters must back out of a structure because of rapidly deteriorating conditions. The ultimate goal of a properly executed risk management plan is to keep firefighters as safe as possible throughout the course of the incident.

The fire service has already recognized the importance of risk management in relation to firefighter fatalities. During the Firefighter Life Safety Summit that took place in 2004, 16 initiatives were developed with the goal of reducing the number of firefighter fatalities. Initiative number three specifically concentrates on risk management and calls for the need to “focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.”

What we must all realize is that risk carries a name. That name is the name of each and every firefighter operating at an incident. It is essential that all firefighters understand the difference between an acceptable and an unacceptable risk. It is fundamentally important that each of us understands that it is never acceptable to lose a firefighter trying to save lives or property that has already been lost. To do so is careless and intolerable. Firefighters have sworn to protect the lives of the citizens in their communities. They want to help people and save lives, but sometimes the lives they save need to be their own.

overall increase in firefighter deaths caused by traumatic injury
(2) There has been an overall increase in firefighter deaths caused by traumatic injury. To maintain the highest degree of safety for all firefighters operating on the fireground, always follow the principles of risk management: Risk a lot to save a lot, risk a little to save a little, risk nothing to save nothing.


Since 1998, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has been charged with the investigation of firefighter fatalities in an attempt to prevent future injuries and deaths. The reports furnished by NIOSH are an incredible opportunity for us to reflect on our own departments, our own decision-making processes, and the way that we evaluate risks in every situation so we can determine whether we are on the path to an LODD of our own.

NIOSH invests considerable time and resources in the investigation of each fatality. We can learn a substantial amount of information from the data included in these reports. If we can learn from what has happened and focus our efforts on preventing similar events, then we are well on our way to limiting or decreasing firefighter fatalities.

Preparation and prevention are key components. We must be trained to recognize the cues and clues that indicate operations or conditions are dangerous, and we must be able to respond appropriately. This is not to say that all firefighter fatalities are preventable. Despite our best efforts, catastrophic events that may result in the death of a firefighter can and do occur.

The only component missing from the NIOSH LODD reports is the victim’s account of what happened. Without this information, we cannot truly understand the events that occurred on the fateful day. It does no good to be a “Monday morning quarterback.” Nothing will come out of this negativity. We cannot change the past or undo what has already been done. We must learn from these tragic events and figure out a way to prevent future firefighter fatalities.

Most firefighters understand the importance of risk management and know why it should be used on the fireground, yet failure to use it is still a major contributing factor in the death of firefighters, as demonstrated in many NIOSH LODD reports. An overwhelming number of contributing factors and NIOSH recommendations relate directly to risk management. Even more surprising and deeply unsettling is that many of the same contributing factors and recommendations appear over and over again, which could lead us to believe that we are not focusing on the lessons that need to be learned from these fatal events.

In an attempt to identify the scope of the risk management issue in relation to firefighter fatalities, NIOSH analyzed 36 structure fires that resulted in the death of a firefighter (nonmedical issue). These deadly fires occurred between June 18, 2007, and November 2, 2012. On June 18, 2007, the South Carolina Sofa Super Store fire took the lives of nine firefighters as conditions deteriorated inside the commercial furniture showroom and warehouse facility. These nine firefighters became disoriented and ran out of air. This was the second largest loss of firefighter lives at a structure fire since the terrorist attacks that took the lives of 343 firefighters on September 11, 2001. The NIOSH report included 43 recommendations to minimize the risk of a similar occurrence in another fire department. It serves as the beginning for this research because of the numerous risk management recommendations NIOSH provided.

The NFPA publishes consensus standards that cover all areas of fire safety and are nationally recognized by the fire service. Because of this, NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, was used to identify risk management categories for this study. It served as a guideline to place the applicable contributing factors and recommendations into the categories found in section A.8.3.2 of the standard. It states, “The management of risk levels involves all of the following factors:

  • Routine evaluation of risk in all situations
  • Well-defined strategic options
  • Standard operating procedures (SOPs)
  • Effective training
  • Full protective clothing ensemble and equipment
  • Effective incident management and communications
  • Safety procedures and safety officers
  • Backup crews for rapid intervention
  • Adequate resources
  • Rest and rehabilitation
  • Regular evaluation of changing conditions
  • Experience based on previous incidents and critiques.”


Based on the information gathered from the 36 firefighter fatality reports, it is evident that risk management contributed substantially in the deaths of 57 firefighters. A total of 199 contributing factors were listed for 33 incidents. Two of the incidents, June 18, 2007, and August 3, 2007, did not have any contributing factors listed. More than 80 percent of the contributing factors can be placed into one of the risk management categories provided in NFPA 1500. Of the 12 categories listed in NFPA 1500, the top categories are the following:

  • Routine evaluation of risk in all situations (e.g., hazard recognition, ineffective/inadequate size-up, and building construction characteristics).
  • Effective incident management and communications (e.g., ineffective and/or inadequate communications, suboptimal incident command, and lack of personal accountability system).
  • Safety procedures and safety officers [e.g., crew integrity not maintained, and rapid intervention team (RIT)/rapid intervention crew (RIC) not established].
  • Effective training (e.g., training on collapse hazards and lack of comprehensive training on fire behavior).
  • Full personal protective equipment (PPE) [e.g., use of PPE and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) issues].

NIOSH also includes recommendations in each report for other departments to review in an attempt to try and prevent a similar tragedy. These recommendations are based on the events that took place at that particular incident. The number of recommendations NIOSH made in all 36 incidents totaled 398. Again, more than 80 percent of the recommendations fall into one of the 12 risk management categories listed in NFPA 1500. The top categories include the following:

  • Effective training (e.g., training to recognize all types of building construction, Mayday training programs, fireground survival training, and training on SCBA emergency procedures).
  • Routine evaluation of risk in all situations (e.g., ensuring a complete situational size-up is conducted at all fires, using risk management principles at all fires, and understanding the influence of ventilation of fire behavior).
  • Safety procedures and safety officers (e.g., having a designated incident safety officer and having a dedicated RIC/RIT, maintaining crew integrity).
  • SOPs (e.g., developing a Mayday doctrine, developing written guidelines for fireground operations, and developing guidelines on thermal imaging camera use).
  • Effective incident management and communications [e.g., fire departments using the incident command system (ICS) at all emergency incidents, the incident commander (IC) maintaining close accountability for personnel, and the IC establishing a stationary command post and maintaining the role as director of fireground operations].

One question we need to ask ourselves is, “Are we risking too much?” NFPA 1500 states: “Activities that present a significant risk to the safety of members shall be limited to situations where there is a potential to save endangered lives” and “No risk to the safety of members shall be acceptable when there is no possibility to save lives or property.” We may extend ourselves in a calculated manner if there is the potential to save lives or property, but there is absolutely no reason for firefighters to be killed when there is nothing to be saved. One important question the IC needs to ask on the fireground is, “What is more valuable-the building or my firefighters?” The answer should always be, “My firefighters.” You can rebuild a structure, but you cannot bring back a firefighter. It should not take the death of one of your own to figure this out.

Fifty-seven firefighters were lost in these 36 incidents. In comparison, five civilian fatalities occurred in four of the incidents. In the majority of the incidents, there was no civilian life safety issue. The breakdown of firefighter fatalities is as follows:

  • Occupants were reported to be inside the structure in just 10 of the 36 incidents by either the 911 caller or bystanders on scene. Seven of these 10 incidents actually had occupants inside. Twenty firefighter lives were lost as a result. Five civilians died in four of these fires.
  • In nine incidents, occupants told firefighters that everyone was out of the structure. Twelve firefighters were killed in these incidents. No victims were found inside during any of these fires.
  • In six incidents, there were no reports that anyone was inside, but a search was conducted. No occupants were discovered inside. Nine firefighters were lost at these fires.
  • In 11 incidents, there were no reports of occupants inside or of a search being conducted by fire companies. Sixteen firefighters were killed during these incidents. No victims were found inside any of the structures.

Just as each incident is different and carries its own set of risks and hazards, so, too, does each structure within which firefighters operate. It is important for firefighters to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each of these types of structures and how each will react when exposed to fire because of the potential for collapse. This knowledge directly affects responder safety during operations and may even dictate strategy and tactics. Of the 36 incidents studied, 18 of the structures involved Type V, or wood-frame, construction. Type V is used in most modern homes. It is also the most dangerous type of building in which a firefighter can operate. Of the remaining 18 incidents,

  • One incident occurred in a Type I, or fire-resistive, structure.
  • Two incidents took place in a Type II, or noncombustible, structure.
  • Ten incidents occurred in a Type III, or ordinary, structure.
  • Three incidents took place in a structure with mixed construction types.
  • Two incidents occurred in a silo.

When the first fire unit arrives on scene, the initial IC should conduct a size-up of the situation (to include an evaluation of the fire and smoke conditions) to assist in determining the strategy and tactics that will be used to bring the situation under control. In every incident that was analyzed, there was evidence of a fire on fire department arrival. Conditions ranged from light smoke showing to a structure that was fully involved. The amount of smoke visible on arrival is not always an accurate indicator of the potential severity of the fire and the potential life safety risk to responders. Experiments conducted by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) have shown that when a fire becomes ventilation-limited, smoke being forced out of openings in the home is greatly diminished or may even stop. Responders must remember this information when sizing up the incident.

The wind conditions reported during on-scene operations are another factor that was considered while reviewing the NIOSH LODD reports because of the potential impact on fire conditions. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) research has determined that wind speeds as low as 10 miles per hour (mph) are adequate to create wind-driven fire conditions if the flow path is not controlled. Of the 36 incidents,

  • Fourteen involved wind speeds of 10 mph or greater.
  • Another four involved winds that were less than 10 mph but had wind gusts above that number.
  • Twelve incidents had wind speeds of less than 10 mph.
  • No wind conditions were reported in four of the incidents.
  • In two of the incidents (those in which firefighters fell from the exterior of the structure), wind did not play a part in the fatality.

Wind can have an immense impact on the outcome of an incident, and firefighters must be aware of how much more deadly it can be when operating in today’s fire environment. Fires burn hotter and faster than ever before, and wind can be a catalyst in the rapid development of untenable conditions. It is extremely important that firefighters understand the impact wind can have on fire behavior. They must be ready to adjust the strategy and tactics used to match environmental conditions.

According to the USFA 2012 Firefighter Fatalities in the United States report, “the term ’cause of injury’ refers to the action, lack of action, or circumstances that directly resulted in the fatal injury. A fatal injury is usually the result of a chain of events, the first of which is recorded as the cause.” The causes of injuries in the 36 incidents include the following:

  • Lost or disoriented: Five involved a firefighter who became lost or disoriented within the structure.
  • Collapse: Nine incidents resulted in firefighter fatalities from structural collapse.
  • Caught or trapped: This classification covers firefighters who were trapped in structure fires and were unable to escape because of rapid fire progression and the by-products of smoke, heat, toxic gases, and flame. There were 15 incidents that met this criterion.
  • Fall: This was the cause of injury in five incidents.
  • Out of air: One incident involved a firefighter who ran out of air while still inside the involved structure.
  • Contact with: This cause of injury was involved in one incident in which a firefighter came in contact with an overhead power line.


The information provided from the 36 incidents spanning over five years provides an eye-opening look at the fire service in relation to firefighter fatalities. Risk management is one of the most important tools firefighters can use to help reduce the level of risk to responders operating at a fire. You must consider all fireground factors and their associated risks prior to committing crews to interior operations. All firefighters should be familiar with the concept of risk management. So why is it that the lack of risk management seems to have been an enormous factor in the deaths of 57 firefighters that occurred between June 18, 2007, and November 2, 2012?

As stated in the NIOSH reports, “Occupational fatalities are often the result of one or more contributing factors or key events in a larger sequence of events that ultimately result in the fatality.” The contributing factors, along with the recommendations listed in each report, provide insight into the events that unfolded during the course of that incident and can be broken down into individual and organizational factors. Three individual factors that may have impacted the risk management process include the body’s reaction to stress, “helmet fire,” and lack of fireground experience.


Stress is something all firefighters experience; it comes with the job. It can be described as “a state that results from an individual’s perception or reaction to an event or a threat.” The event or threat itself is not considered stress but can produce it and, as such, is referred to as a “stressor.” Stressful events occur frequently at the scene of a fire as we attempt to bring order to chaos or when firefighters find themselves in a life-threatening situation. The key to firefighter survival is the ability to manage the stress.

The “fight-or-flight response,” also termed the “acute stress response,” helps an individual respond to a stressful or dangerous situation. The intensity of the reaction depends on the individual’s perception of the stressor. When a person is placed under stress, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) will automatically activate and release hormones into the body. These hormones primarily include epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine (noradrenaline). As they are released, the body prepares itself for action. This includes an almost immediate increase in heart rate among many other things. Activation of the SNS can raise the heart rate from 70 beats per minute (bpm) to more than 200 bpm in less than a second. The increase in heart rate is critical for the hormones to reach their target location within the body for the intended physiological effect to occur. This will continue as long as the individual perceives the stress or threat. The hormones and the increase in heart rate can also affect how the body functions.

In his book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why? Laurence Gonzales (who has covered stories for National Geographic and published several books on the topic of survival) states, “The hormones released by the body interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. That is where perceptions are processed and decisions are made. You see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and can make mistakes. Under extreme stress, the visual field actually narrows. Stress causes people to focus almost exclusively on the thing that they consider the most important, and it may be the wrong thing.” The body’s reaction to a life-threatening situation (e.g., being trapped following a collapse or running out of air inside a structure that is on fire) can result in sensory distortions and a decrease in cognitive processing. The impact of the “stress” hormones on the body can affect the physiological system, the perceptual system, and the cognitive system. When it comes to managing risk, the two systems with which we are concerned are the perceptual and cognitive systems.

The perceptual system refers to our ability to process input from the five senses- vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. The two that responders use most on the fireground are the sense of vision and the sense of hearing. As the heart rate climbs to 145 bpm, perceptual narrowing begins to occur as the brain focuses solely on the sense providing it with the most information. In most cases, this is the sense of vision. Visual exclusion, also known as “tunnel vision,” occurs as the field of vision narrows to focus on what is causing the individual stress. When the heart rate exceeds 175 bpm, peripheral vision and depth perception can be lost. Firefighters will lose the ability to see the “big picture,” which is so very valuable when it comes to risk management and subsequent decision making. Auditory exclusion may also occur when the heart rate is above 175 bpm. Hearing may be diminished, or an individual may lose the ability to hear altogether. Critical transmissions on the radio to evacuate the structure can be missed, or the shout from a victim inside a burning building may go unheard. If we are not getting all of the visual and auditory information that our brains need-our cues and clues-then decisions will be flawed, which can have disastrous consequences.

Changes in the modern fire environment have caused significantly dangerous alterations in fire dynamics and fire behavior
(3) Changes in the modern fire environment have caused significantly dangerous alterations in fire dynamics and fire behavior. It is imperative to conduct a thorough size-up of the tactical area prior to the commencement of operations. Evaluate all fireground factors to determine the amount of firefighter involvement it will take to bring the situation under control.

The cognitive system refers to the mind and the ability to process information, which enables firefighters to perform the risk management function. The ability to think clearly, assess risks and hazards, and make decisions is critical on the fireground when lives are on the line. When the heart rate climbs to 175 bpm, cognitive processing can begin to deteriorate. The brain is concentrating almost exclusively on one stimulus and can shut out or blunt any other stimuli. This is done in an attempt to prevent the brain from being overstimulated or overwhelmed. Information processing times slow down and the decision-making process may be delayed. Access to long-term memory may be blocked, which can be problematic because many of the decisions that firefighters make are based on past experiences. Also, the brain can actually begin to “shut down,” and a firefighter may simply “give up.”

When it comes to the ability to perform on the fireground and to recognize and respond to risks and hazards, there is an ideal range for the heart rate to be within. The rate to perform optimally is between 115 to 145 bpm. This range is a guideline, not a rule, and varies based on the individual. Many factors can affect a firefighter’s performance at the scene of a structure fire. Experience, or lack thereof, is perhaps the most important factor. Other factors include the environment itself; lack of sleep; and an individual’s confidence in his level of skill or knowledge, which can be tied to experience, an individual’s level of physical fitness, or the perception of limited time and resources needed to accomplish a task.

It is important to note that an increased heart rate caused by physical activity does not have the same effect on the body. Physical work performed on the fireground can raise an individual’s heart rate without any significant changes in the perceptual or cognitive systems because the sympathetic nervous system has not been triggered. But if a firefighter is suddenly placed in a dangerous situation, such as when conditions deteriorate quickly (e.g., sudden collapse or flashover, for example), the SNS will activate and the heart rate can jump immediately into a range that can impair functioning. The heart rates given above are guidelines, not absolutes, for the way in which the body reacts when placed in stressful situations. We must learn how to keep our heart rates in the “ideal zone” for optimal performance on the fireground.


Helmet fire is an expression that originated within the military pilot community to describe a mental state characterized by unnaturally high stress and task saturation, which can often result in the loss of situational awareness. Situational awareness can be defined as, “The process through which one perceives and comprehends the implication of surrounding conditions, and then applies that understanding to help predict how and when the situation may change in order to take appropriate action.” Helmet fire is jokingly used to say that a pilot is undergoing so much stress that his head is actually on fire and there is smoke coming out of the ears. This term is also applicable to the fire service because of the stressful nature of the job and the tendency for task saturation to occur-both of which may affect situational awareness.

Task saturation, or task overload, can be described as the “perception, or the reality, of having too much to do with not enough time, tools, or resources to accomplish the mission.” This can result in a loss of situational awareness, which can lead to injuries or fatalities on the fireground. The scene of a structure fire can be described as organized chaos with many factors to be considered before decision making can occur. Also, there are many actions that need to be taken to bring the situation under control-all within a very short time and sometimes without enough resources on scene. When an individual becomes task saturated, he becomes unable to perform any one task proficiently. For example, the IC can rapidly become task saturated, especially during the initial stages of an incident.

When task saturation occurs, an individual may focus on one particular task while ignoring others, which can place other responders in potentially dangerous situations. A good example of this is the first-arriving officer who assumes command and chooses to go “fast attack” with his crew. That individual must now balance the challenge of managing the needs of the incident along with operating with the crew inside the burning structure. It would be easy in this situation for the officer to become focused on one specific aspect of the incident and overlook others because of the demands of both the IC and the company officer roles. Firefighters are not normally able to control their task workload. The situation and the incident dictate that need. Many factors can influence an individual’s ability to manage tasks. They include experience; lack of sleep; confidence in the ability to manage multiple tasks; lack of resources; limited time; and the environment itself, which includes distractions.

The fireground is a rapidly changing and continuously evolving scene that involves processing visible and audible information to have a positive outcome for occupants and responders. The IC, the company officer, and the firefighters must be able to prioritize tasks; be proficient in task management; and recognize when task saturation, or task overload, occurs.


As mentioned earlier, the number of structure fires has decreased significantly over the past few decades-from 1,098,000 in 1977 to 480,500 in 2012. This equates to less fireground experience for the newer generation of firefighters, officers, and chiefs. Also, as veteran firefighters retire and leave the fire service, we lose their valuable experience and knowledge. Experience is necessary for firefighters to maintain proficiency and feel comfortable using their skills, apply the knowledge they have learned, and possess the ability to recognize risks and hazards in relation to their own safety. It is perhaps the most important individual factor related to the use of risk management and can have a direct effect on the body’s stress response along with the ability to manage task saturation.

Many of the decisions made on the fireground are based on previous incidents or experiences that firefighters have had. As an incident escalates and the pressure increases to bring the fire under control, the IC is placed under an extreme amount of stress to make strategic decisions, the company officer to make tactical decisions, and firefighters to carry out and complete an assignment. Coupled with this, there is often very little time to do so. Because of this, many fire service members use Gary Klein’s Recognition Primed Decision Making (RPDM) model to make quick, effective, and safe decisions on the fireground.

Using this model, firefighters assess a situation, pay close attention to the cues and the clues in their environment, and then choose a course of action based on this assessment-an “action script.” Rather than consider a number of options because of time constraints, responders tend to choose the option with which they are most familiar or have or have not had success with in the past. As stated in one NIOSH LODD report, “When commanding and controlling a structure fire, fire officers may resort to what they did at a similar incident, or what they’ve seen and heard most frequently. These individuals use memory recall to try and find a match in terms of training, experience, and competencies for developing effective strategy and tactics. If there is nothing to draw from, the individuals will resort to actions that they are familiar with or comfortable with relating to the incident.”

The information used to make decisions on the fireground is pulled from a firefighter’s “experience library.” This “library” consists of previous fireground or other experience, such as training, which can then be used to help in the decision-making process as well as in the recognition of risks and hazards and understand their consequences. Without experience to draw from, important cues and clues may be missed or fireground risks may be underestimated, leading to decisions that can cause injury or even death. Experience is a key component to the success of the RPDM model.


Benjamin Franklin once said, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Preparation and prevention will enhance firefighter safety. We must prepare to meet the challenges of today’s modern structure fires and prevent putting ourselves in dangerous situations if at all possible. What does the fire service need to do in terms of risk management to make this happen? To put a stop to future firefighter fatalities, we must take a different approach to risk management. In a time when fires are few and far between, training is where we can make up for the lack of experience and gain valuable information that can be translated to the fireground.

A vital component in a successful risk management program involves the development of a proactive and aggressive training program with a focus on the identification of risks and hazards during size-up, the ability to maintain situational awareness throughout the life of the incident, and the capability to execute fireground survival procedures when placed in a deadly situation. Rare are the instances in which firefighters find themselves in a life-threatening situation, but it is at this time when survival training can prove so very valuable.

As was stated by Archilochus, Greek poet and soldier, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations-we fall to the level of our training.” Effective training is just one component of the management of risk levels categorized in NFPA 1500, and it also ranks as the top category for NIOSH recommendations listed in regard to the firefighter fatality reports. One of the best ways to make up for a lack of fireground experience is to provide firefighters with more realistic and meaningful training. It should be aimed at all ranks within the fire service. Not only does training provide us with the knowledge and skills required to safely and effectively carry out operations at a structure fire, but it also provides firefighters with a form of experience that can be translated directly to the fireground.

As we learn a particular skill or body of knowledge through training, neural pathways begin to develop in our brains. These pathways are strengthened as the skill or concept is reinforced by repetition through use on scene or during training evolutions. The stronger the neural pathways, the more likely the information or skill will be retained for later use. When the situation calls for it, firefighters can perform the skill or use their acquired knowledge without conscious thought because it has become second nature. Training will increase the information available in firefighters’ “experience library,” which they can draw from when using the RPDM model. This is significant because decisions can be made more quickly, and fireground safety and operations will be enhanced for everyone.

To be safe, firefighters must be well trained. Everything comes back to training. That is where firefighters make up for the lack of fireground experience because fires are few and far between today. It is where mistakes can be made, because there are no do-overs on the fireground. Training is where responders are able to practice their skills and refresh knowledge once learned, since repetition and reinforcement help to maintain proficiency. Training is where we become better firefighters.


Over the past several decades, the residential occupancy has evolved in such a way that it has altered the traditional fire growth curve, causing fire behavior to be less predictable and more dangerous. Because of this, an emphasis must be placed on the recognition and identification of actual and potential risks and hazards that may be encountered on the fireground. This is a critically important step in the risk management process. Size-up involves gathering information and evaluating fireground factors, which are then used to determine the amount of involvement that firefighters will have to bring the situation under control. The risk that firefighters will face must be weighed against the potential to save lives and property.

Today’s modern fire environment demands a more thorough and accurate size-up. Lightweight construction and modern furnishings cause faster fire propagation, quicker time to flashover, shorter time to collapse, and reduced escape times for firefighters and occupants. The fireground can be unforgiving; there is little room for error. You must evaluate three factors at every incident: building construction, smoke conditions, and the survivability profile of potential occupants.


The fire service is well aware that burning structures were not built to protect firefighters. A combination of changes in construction methods and materials along with building contents made primarily of synthetic and plastic materials cause fires to burn hotter and faster than ever before. The demands of the modern fire environment are nothing like those of the past. Because of this, fire service personnel must possess increased technical knowledge of building construction in relation to fire behavior with a focus on structural stability during operations. Firefighters must include an evaluation of the construction of a building to help assess the level of risk to responders.

Perhaps the most significant impact of the evolving residential fire environment on firefighting tactics is a change in the “safe” operational timeline. The “20-minute rule,” introduced in the 1970s, was valid when applied to legacy homes, defined by UL as homes “having furnishings from the mid-20th century and building materials from between 1950 and 1970.” These types of structures were shown to reach flashover in as many as 29 minutes. We cannot expect to safely apply that time frame, or any time frame for that matter, in the present when fires in modern homes can transition into flashover in less than four minutes.

Not only must firefighters understand the five types of building construction, but they must also know how each type reacts under fire conditions. During size-up, the officer must think, “How could this building kill us?” before deciding on a course of action. Property conservation is always a priority, but when firefighters are the only objects of value within a structure, there is now a life safety issue that takes precedence over property conservation. No building is ever worth the life of a firefighter.


The ability to read smoke is another life-saving tool in the risk management process that can give firefighters an indication concerning the size and location of the fire as well as the progress it is making within the structure. By evaluating smoke conditions, firefighters can predict what the fire will do in the future. Strategy and tactics can be adjusted accordingly. Reading smoke can also be used to predict hostile fire events, such as flashover or backdraft, and can even tell responders when the stability of a structure is beginning to deteriorate. Reading smoke will help responders make better and safer tactical choices, which ultimately will save lives.

It is easy to focus on visible fire, but firefighters must condition themselves to take in the “big picture,” to include an evaluation of what the smoke is “telling” them. Many times, visible smoke is the only indicator that there is a fire within a structure. According to Dave Dodson, responders must learn to identify the four characteristics of smoke-volume, velocity, density, and color. Firefighters must understand what each characteristic means in regard to fire behavior and, in turn, fireground safety. (http://bit.ly/1iY2ENN)

Firefighters must understand that smoke is actually unburned fuel. Many of the gases produced in today’s structure fires have a wide flammability range. For example, carbon monoxide has a flammability range of 12 to 74 percent. This means that firefighters are crawling through a potentially explosive environment. Not only that, but their bunker gear is becoming saturated with the unburned fuel. If the right trigger is introduced, it can lead to a life-changing event on the fireground.

Reading smoke is another “tool” that firefighters have in their toolbox to assist in making safe strategic and tactical decisions. It will help responders understand fire behavior and give them the ability to recognize potentially dangerous situations. Through education and training, firefighters must become proficient in reading smoke. It is a vital component of a thorough size-up and will contribute to firefighter safety and survival.

Fire service personnel must possess a sound understanding of building construction and how different structures can react under fire conditions
(4) Fire service personnel must possess a sound understanding of building construction and how different structures can react under fire conditions. Base the “Go”/”No-Go” decision on, in part, an evaluation of the structural integrity of the building. Changes in modern construction materials and techniques will cause buildings to fail faster than their legacy counterparts when exposed to fire.


Could anyone possibly be alive inside a structure that is on fire? That is the question that survivability profiling seeks to answer. As defined by Stephen Marsar, survivability profiling is “the art of examining a situation and making an intelligent and informed decision based on known events, or circumstances, to determine if civilians can survive existing fire and smoke conditions and to determine whether to commit firefighters to life-saving and interior operations.” (http://bit.ly/1uj45h4) The initial size-up, which should include a 360° walk-around, is an extremely vital step in determining the potential for victim survivability within a burning structure.

According to the NFPA, the human temperature tenability limit is just 212°F. This is well below the temperatures firefighters encounter at most structure fires today. Lightweight construction materials and modern furnishings cause fires to ignite quickly and burn at very high temperatures. Because of this, the time frame for an occupant to escape a structure fire is greatly reduced. The amount of fire and its extent throughout the structure are just two considerations in survivability profiling.

Simple asphyxiation occurs when an individual is exposed to an oxygen-deficient environment. The normal concentration of oxygen in air is approximately 21 percent. The environment inside a closed compartment structure fire is oxygen deficient because of the rapid consumption of oxygen by the fire and by other gases that replace it. Because of this, it is not uncommon for oxygen levels to fall to six percent or below. At that level, loss of consciousness and death are quite common and occur rapidly.

Chemical asphyxiants interfere with the delivery of oxygen to the body and its use by the tissues. The increased use of synthetic and plastic materials creates a deadly environment for occupants. Toxic gases commonly released when the contents of a structure burn include ammonia, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, hydrogen chloride, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen cyanide, and carbon dioxide. In 2006, a study conducted by the NFPA revealed that 87 percent of people who died in fires had a toxic blood concentration of cyanide in addition to carbon monoxide. Hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide have come to be known as the “toxic twins.” (http://bit.ly/1kMpkjD)

The compartment itself also plays a role in determining the survivability profile of any potential victims. An occupant may have taken refuge in a room within the structure. Conditions inside that “compartment” may still be able to sustain life. This is the reason it is vital for a 360° walk-around to be completed. The few seconds it takes to complete this critical piece of a size-up will give responders a better idea of where a search should begin within a structure based on the fire and smoke conditions. According to Dodson, the windows are a good indicator as to whether or not occupants may still be alive. Clear windows indicate that occupants may be alive inside; black stained windows mean there is a zero chance for survival.

There comes a point when there is a zero-survivability chance for any occupant who may still be inside a structure because of the fire and smoke conditions. In today’s fire environment, rapid fire growth will quickly take hold of the structure; in some cases, there may be little of the building to save. Firefighters must be considered occupants as well; their safety must be the highest priority at the scene.


Situational awareness is another important component in an effective risk management program. It is one of the most critical aspects of fireground survival. The loss of situational awareness can easily lead to the death of a firefighter and is the most commonly reported cause for a life-threatening, near-miss event according to the National Near Miss Reporting System. Maintaining situational awareness involves not only understanding the current situation but also being able to react to changing conditions to prevent unsafe situations from occurring. Another element involves the ability to predict conditions in the future and to understand how your actions can affect other operations on the fireground.

Situational awareness, as it applies to risk management, consists of three levels:

  • Perception: the ability to recognize and identify unsafe conditions on the fireground. What are the risks and hazards to firefighters?
  • Comprehension/Processing: the ability to understand current conditions in relation to safety. What is going on, and how can current risks and hazards affect the safety of firefighters? What can be done to reduce risks to firefighters?
  • Prediction: a knowledge of what will happen in the future based on what is currently happening. What will happen in the future based on the current strategy and tactics? Will the current strategy and tactics have a positive or negative effect on responders and conditions on the fireground? What can be done to reduce risks to firefighters?

By answering these questions, responders can help maintain a high level of situational awareness. This will translate into the highest degree of safety for all firefighters operating on scene. Everyone at the scene, not just the IC, is responsible for maintaining situational awareness. As such, all responders must be familiar with the concept of situational awareness and how to maintain this vital component of fireground safety.


Of the 36 LODD reports analyzed, 14 contained NIOSH recommendations related to the need for training in Mayday competencies and fireground survival skills. In several incidents, there was no indication that firefighters were even in trouble. Other situations involved firefighters who gave an incorrect Location, Unit, Name, Assignment, and Resources (LUNAR) report. Because these skills are not used frequently, firefighters must be absolutely proficient in them.

If firefighters ever find themselves in a life-threatening situation, their survival depends on their feeling comfortable in calling a Mayday and being proficient in using fireground survival skills. These skills must become second nature. For fireground survival training to be effective, it must be realistic and involve situations that firefighters may encounter in the field. If training is not realistic or not based on field applications, the training will not be effective. Firefighters will not be motivated to practice the skills if they cannot relate them to their job.

Laurence Gonzales, author of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, explains, “Only 10 to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency. They are the ones who can perceive their situation clearly; they can plan and take correct action, all of which are key elements of survival. Confronted with a changing environment, they rapidly adapt.” When placed in a dangerous, even life-threatening situation, firefighters must be able to remain in control. Responders must learn to adapt and overcome. Adaptation equals survival.

Survival training should be aimed at developing a firefighter’s skills confidence. A skill consists of “the ability to bring about some end result with a maximum certainty and minimum outlay of energy, or of time and energy.” The end result means that when placed in a life-threatening situation, a firefighter will possess the ability to function under a high level of stress and perform the actions needed to survive. In one report, NIOSH explains, “Repetitive skills training can instill the knowledge that is necessary to provide a more self-controlled, composed response to a potentially life-threatening situation.”

When individuals are confident with their skills, the level of anxiety or fear they feel will be reduced. In turn, this will keep the body’s heart rate below a detrimental rate that can impair functioning. This will allow responders to use their cognitive processes in other areas such as remembering how to get out of a structure when they have run out of air.

In The Combat Position: Achieving Firefighter Readiness, Christopher Brennan explains that when the heart rate increases above 175 bpm and cognitive processing begins to shut down, “We can become caught in an escalating cycle of anxiety. Rather than calmly thinking, ‘I need to get my company together and follow this hoseline out,’ the survival brain centers kick in, and we will only do what we have practiced before. If we have not trained on maintaining company integrity and situational awareness under rapidly deteriorating conditions, panic will take over, we will become disoriented, and those combined forces could result in a fatality.”

Survival training should consist of two elements. The first involves the identification or recognition of the hazard or threat. The second involves being able to perform the survival skill competently. Once an individual has been trained sufficiently in both areas, the mind is conditioned to select the necessary response based on the training or experience the person has had. Reaction time to the threat or hazard is also an important part of survival training. For reaction time to improve, the skill must be practiced under similar conditions, such as zero visibility, that firefighters might expect to encounter in the field.

Some firefighters may go their entire careers without experiencing a fireground emergency. These occurrences are, thankfully, few and far between. Because the potential exists for these situations to occur because of the nature of the job, firefighters must be well trained in the skills that will help them to survive an emergency at the scene of a structure fire. The need for this type of training has been identified in several NIOSH LODD firefighter fatality reports. Firefighters must be able to perform these skills with competency and efficiency because every second counts when your life is on the line.


When a firefighter is killed in the line of duty, it is sudden and devastating. It leaves a department without a valued member; a community without a dedicated public servant; and, most importantly, a family without a loved one.

The fireground is becoming more dangerous every day. To manage the risks encountered at structure fires, firefighters must take a more proactive approach toward training that emphasizes identifying and recognizing risks in the modern fire environment, situational awareness on the fireground, and survival training should an unforeseen life-threatening event occur. These concepts are a front-line defense fire service members can use to help prevent future fatalities.

JENNIFER CHADWICK is a lieutenant in and a 12-year veteran of the San Antonio (TX) Fire Department (SAFD). She has served in the Fire Operations, Emergency Medical Services, and Training Divisions. Prior to joining the SAFD, she served in the United States Air Force as an electronic systems security assessment analyst. She is a member of the SAFD’s Training Cadre, where she is an instructor and the coordinator of several programs.


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