P.2 ~ Risk Management: It’s Not Just a Catchphrase

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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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