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The Butcher's Bill
by Tom LaBelle
Sponsored by Globe

How much should we risk?

The level of "risk" you are taking is in direct relationship to the human and equipment resources you're bringing to the table

By Tom LaBelle

Editor's note: In the first installment of this series of articles, we started to look at the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Safety, Health and Survival Section's "Rules of Engagement for Structural Firefighting." As discussed in that article, these rules try to establish a basic framework for both fire officers/team leaders and firefighters as well as commanders to follow. These rules help to keep the focus on the bigger picture of safety — which is the responsibility of all ranks — and also help to create a greater use of Crew Resource Management.

While the mantra of "Risk a lot to save a lot..." has set the stage over the years for what we essentially do, it does little to help quantify two very important items.

The first — what is risk? The second — what is a life worth and what is property worth? It would be oversimplistic to state that property is worth nothing, and if the very purpose of firefighter safety is to save firefighters from death and injury, then clearly lives have value.

It's the "how much, how far, how risky" question that not only eludes too many, but varies so greatly from fireground to fireground.

The Rules of Engagement help us to begin to quantify those questions of risk and value by driving the decision-making back to those on the firegound. So, let's began by looking at the first five rules.

1) Size-up your tactical area of operation
At each fireground, teams are assigned to carry out specific tactical objectives; suppression, ventilation, search and rescue to list just a few. All too often we assume that the Incident Commander has already scoped out the area we're going to work in for safety issues. That thought is naive.

Commanders have a large numbers of items (hopefully) working through their heads. Certainly one of them is firefighter safety, but to assume that they would or could make the same assessment of the ability of your team to safely carry out the task is foolish at best. 

Both line officers and members of the team assigned to the task must look at their area of operation with a finer eye to detail than the command staff at the scene.

Our own truthful analysis of what our team can accomplish must drive our decisions on moving forward with the tasks assigned. Communicating our inability to safely accomplish a task may feel like a failure, but the true failure is to begin the task in ignorance, only to end up injuring (or worse) yourself or crew, and then still not getting the task done.

2) Determine the occupant survival profile
Again, often the Incident Commander will perform a 360-degree review and come up with a great action plan, but with the passage of time the fire changes in a way that the Incident Commander just doesn't see.

Often that includes directives for saving civilian lives. Company officers and firefighters must be able to perform their own realistic assessments of the survivability of the civilians in a fire building. It needs to be a process of continual review that will allow for changes to actions plans where necessary.

The next three rules regard risk. They are:

3) DO NOT risk your life for lives or property that cannot be saved

4) Extend limited risk to protect savable property

5) Extend vigilant and measured risk to protect and rescue savable lives

If we've followed the first rules, then we've taken a good hard look at the level of "risk" that's involved for us and for our team to carry out certain tasks and tactics. We've then conveyed those assessments to Command as well as evaluated our ability to carry out the tasks safely.

I often say to people that our job is to save lives and property (stuff), our lives, their lives, their stuff then our stuff. I'm more than willing to lose a piece of fire department equipment to save citizens' property, but we won't throw away (unmeasured risk) in the vain hope of saving civilians who've already perished.

I also personally find it interesting that the level of "risk" you are taking is in direct relationship to the human and equipment resources you're bringing to the table. A well-trained team, with enough members and the right equipment, is much less risky than a poorly trained, ill-equipped understaffed squad.

Property can only sustain so much damage before it is simply ruined beyond salvage. Recognizing this point, as a firefighter or officer, will allow us to not go beyond a reasonable level of action to ensure our own safety.

The same is true for occupant survivability. Take a look at the room or building — can anyone truly have survived what happened or clearly is about to happen? If not, we as a team and team leaders must recognize that simple fact and stop or change up our actions.

About the author

Sponsored by Globe

Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.



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