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Why ‘risk moralists’ are wrong

Those who call for risk on ethical grounds are not on solid footing

The safety backlash has become fashionable. Even a cursory read of firefighting blogs reveals authors lamenting the failure of the modern safety-conscious firefighters to live up to public expectations.

The comments sections are full of their supporters.

The backlashers argue that firefighting is inherently dangerous and that you, whomever you are, knew the risks when you signed up, knew the risk when you took the oath, and should be willing, even eager to take those risks.

“Just go in and get it.”

“No structure is vacant until we search it and prove it’s vacant.”

“There might be someone still inside.”

The notion that someone might be inside can be reframed as, “there is a probability that someone is inside.”

This reframing is necessary because it takes a simple statement, uttered without reflection and puts it closer to explaining a stance on risk. Unfortunately, it is not a refined notion of risk because it only speaks to one piece of the risk-assessment puzzle: probabilities.

How people survive fires
Fires do not kill all the people who are trapped in burning homes. Fire departments all over the country rescue people from fires all the time, or do they?

There are numerous blogs that search out and report on situations where people were saved. Yet, I know of no large municipal fire department that tracks the number of persons trapped by fire, the number of those persons who were in “vacant” structures and the number of persons who continued to live for an extended period of time after being rescued.

This lack of data means that no one can draw meaningful correlations between the number of trapped persons, tactics used and outcomes. Those who tell you otherwise ought to present some data sets to go with their assertion.

But let us say for the sake of argument that 10 people last year lived for at least six months after being trapped in a structure that was on fire. I can make some pretty reasonable guesses about what each of those 10 had in common.

  • They were not in the compartment that was on fire, or if they were the fire was not very big
  • They were somehow protected from the 50,000 parts per million (three orders of magnitude greater than the IDLH) of carbon monoxide under-ventilated fires create

People survive when they are isolated from the fire and its byproducts. And when a fire department does save lives it is usually indirectly by putting the fire out quickly. Once the fire is out temperatures drop, oxygen levels rise and carbon monoxide levels fall.

If Mrs. Jones is trapped her apartment, she is trapped by either flames, heat or smoke. Her inability to leave, the thing that makes her trapped is not an absolute condition. Although she can’t leave, firefighters can enter the same environment to save her.

Say she is trapped because there is too much smoke for her to make it down the corridor to the stairway. If the fire department wants to save her, they can do that much more efficiently with ventilation and fire attack than they can with searches under intense heat and in blinding smoke.

That is not a policy statement; it is a factual statement. It is a statement that is hard to argue.

If we want people to survive, we have to be careful of how we create or alter flow paths, be careful not to remove the barriers to fire and smoke spread that have separated the people from the fire. We have to be careful, in general, not to make the attempted rescue a cause of injury.

Probability and contradiction
Backlashers claim that the fire department has become risk-averse and things such as victim-survivability profiling are contrary to the firefighting community’s core ethical values. The ethical connection comes from statements like, “that is what we get paid to do” or “that is what the public expects of us.”

Statements like that center on an ethical imperative to do the right thing, when it is believed that the right thing is to search all structures without regard for probabilities.

There is a contradiction in the backlasher argument. On the one hand they argue that we should search obviously vacant structures because there is a chance, a probability, no matter how small, that someone may be alive inside.

They argue that nothing is more valuable than a human life and that we should, or actually must, expend all efforts to search for that life. This argument is based on undetermined probabilities.

They also argue that probabilities have no place in the search decision-making process. It is not OK to forgo or delay a search because you determine that the probability of victim survival is low or non-existent.

You simply cannot have your cake and eat it too. Either probability plays a role in decision-making or it does not. Either we are making subjective gut-level decisions or we are following a rote policy.

Defining risk
The backlasher appeal to an ill-defined universal firefighting search ethic is interesting in its own right. But with this appeal the backlasher fails on many levels including the conflation and de-contextualization of risk.

Any discussion about risk/benefit analysis and when to search or not search is tied up in ideas about risk. People toss the word risk about as if it has some standard unit of measure and everyone everywhere is talking about the same thing.

A good set of questions for the next kitchen table soapbox session is: What is a risk? What does it mean to take one? And what does it mean to manage one?

In 2011 the Royal Swedish Academy of Science published, Coping with Complexity, Uncertainty and Ambiguity in Risk Governance: A Synthesis. The authors defined risk.

“Risks are not real phenomena but mental constructions resulting from how people perceive uncertain phenomena and how their interpretations and responses are determined by social, political, economic and cultural contexts, and judgments,” the three researchers wrote.

In other words risk is just an idea. It is not a tangible, physical object that can be touched, turned around and considered in the same way you can pick up and consider an apple. This abstraction is informed by who you are, where you are, and who and what you are surrounded by.

All in the mind
And because risk is a mental construct, a way of putting a framework around a concept, it is subjective and informed by all the things that the authors point out: social aspects, political aspects, cultural contexts, etc.

This means that it is almost pointless to try to consider risk or risk management from the universal perspective of a fire department ethical system. You simply cannot extrapolate from the statement, “I am a firefighter” to “because of my status as a firefighter I must now accept this or that risk.”

The situation is really much more complicated than that.

What makes the debate sublimely insidious and dangerous is that, “the question of what is safe enough implies a moral judgment about acceptability of risk and the tolerable burden that risk producers can impose on others,” the study’s authors wrote.

Exceptions not the rule
Those who present outlier case studies where firefighters saved people from situations they would reasonably be expected not to survive not only conflate notions of risk, they do so by attacking the moral judgments of those who make such decision.

This is not an intrinsically bad practice. What makes it insidious and dangerous is that the writers take the exceptions to the rule and promulgate them as the rule. If saving people from vacant buildings were an everyday occurrence, like driving your car to work is an everyday occurrence, no one would be writing articles about it.

Invariably, talk about being a “failure” as a firefighter because you knocked the fire down before entering, or because you delayed a search based on a rational assessment of structural stability and victim survivability are silly. Such talk causes people to question the rules, practices and cultures of their operational environment in favor of an unsupported “universal ethic” that is no more valid, no more supported by data than any other.

It is worth repeating that the same people who berate us for being risk-averse in the uncertainty of a firefight still buckle up before driving to the grocery store even though people continue to die in collisions even when buckled up.

Again, to repeat the Swedish academy researchers, “The question of what is safe enough implies a moral judgment about acceptability of risk and the tolerable burden that risk producers can impose on others.”

What is the tolerable burden that we should place on others?

Fires are complex systems
“Simple risks are recurrent and not affected by ongoing or expected major changes,” the Swedish academy researchers wrote. “As a consequence, statistics are available and application of statistics to assess the risks in statistic terms is meaningful. Examples involve car accidents and regularly recurring natural events, such as seasonal flooding.”

A house fire with or without a report of people trapped, with or without lightweight construction, with or without effective staffing levels, is not a study in regular recurrence. It is a unique confluence of a particular set of circumstance in a unique space and time.

You simply cannot calculate the risk of being injured in a fire in the same way you calculate the risk of winning the lottery.

One of the more basic models for risk describes it as the product of severity and probability. The challenge to the people who attack a more reasoned approach is not to point out the rare occasions where someone was saved.

We can all accept that there are exceptions.

The challenge is to confine the inherent uncertainty of firefighting to a simple arithmetic model based on probabilities that cannot be determined.

By the numbers
Once someone can reliably calculate probabilities, I would be more apt to accept their moral judgments about my decision to search immediately or to wait for a hose line.

When you attack a reasoned approach to decision-making based on a nebulous appeal to an amorphous ethical system, you create danger and doubt. When you create core-level doubt, the least you should be able to do is prove the point with simple arithmetic.

The fundamental question is not whether structures should be searched; they should all be searched. The question is when they should be searched and how much risk should be accepted in an effort to conduct that search.

It is not a question of faulty ethics but rather an exploration of decision-making heuristics, and the rightful place of reasonable assessments where human lives are involved.

Such assessments are an inherent part of our society. Insurance companies, pension funds, and others make bets on how long we are going to live and we accept that.

I favor open and productive debate about risk as it applies to firefighting operations. I just don’t believe the current state of discussion to be either.

I do believe that the backlasher’s continued reductionist framing of reasoned approaches to risk assessment as cowardice is both silly and dangerous.

Get information on the basic tactics of firefighting from veteran Charles Bailey’s FireRescue1 column, ‘Bread and Butter Basics’. Learn how to attack different types of fires and minimize risk to your crew.