Risk assessment tips for the initial arriving officer

If we're relying only on past 'good' experience or blind luck to handle an incident, we are setting the stage for disaster

There's an old fire service saying that has been around for many decades that states, "What you do in the first five minutes is more important than the next five hours."

This is especially true with regards to assessing and managing risk on the fireground. The initial arriving company officer is immediately tasked with assuming command and managing risks associated with the incident. Here are a few key points to consider:

Risk assessment techniques
One of the most important and immediate tasks of the IC will be to assess the level of risk in the situation and determine if that risk is acceptable. The IC has three choices, of either:

1. Accept the risk

2. Reduce the risk

3. Avoid the risk

Only through training and experience can this judgment be made accurately.

The IC must consider the following:

1. Occupancy: Single-family, multi-family, hotel, commercial, industrial, retail, health care, or vacant/storage

2. Time of day: Based on alarm time, what is the likelihood of the structure being occupied?

3. Situation status: What is the volume and location of smoke/flame, what is the life hazard, do I have the resources (personnel, apparatus, and equipment) to control the situation or do I call for additional resources to ensure safety?

4. Structural integrity: Are there signs of collapse, is the structure deteriorated/abandoned? What is the interior fire load and burn time in relation to the type of construction, especially when dealing with lightweight wood-frame "disposable" structures?

Decide on a strategic approach:

  • Offensive: Benefit outweighs the risk. Incipient fires, light to moderate smoke w/viable victims that are savable with an aggressive interior search and fire attack supported by hose lines, forcible entry,and ventilation.
  • Defensive: Risk outweighs the benefit. Defensive ops are conducted when the situation is too dangerous to commit resources and personnel to, a structure is well involved (not necessarily fully involved), structural collapse is imminent or has occurred, and victim survivability is nil.

Responder safety and exposure protection is the priority. Manned or perhaps unmanned master streams are used outside of the collapse/danger zone. This is not a time to relax; continued risk monitoring is essential.

  • Marginal: The benefit must outweigh the risk. Conditions are nearing the end of the offensive scale for safe operations. IC and ISO must closely monitor conditions and be ready to pull crews out immediately. Crews must understand that evacuate now means "NOW."

Gordon Graham provides a simple risk assessment tool in the form of a scale, which is based on high or low risk and high or low frequency of occurrence.



The IC must assess the situation and determine whether it's a High Risk Low Frequency (HRLF) incident or not. This is the most dangerous category of event and the IC must be cautious with operational strategies, objectives and personnel.

HRLF incidents are dangerous because the low frequency by which we gain experience/knowledge when making critical decisions to act is much more limited than with a High Risk High Frequency event that we will have much more experience/knowledge in dealing with.

Some examples of a HRLF event may include Liquefied Petroleum Gas facilities, large commercial or industrial building fires, enclosed structures, unique rescue or hazmat situations, large wildland fires, just to name a few.

The dangers of Low Risk High Frequency LRHF operations may be overlooked due to the high frequency and nature of the call. A "routine" or complacent attitude can develop if we're not careful. LRHF events may include public assist calls, dumpster fires or automatic alarms.

So how do we prepare for HRLF events? The solution is through training, pre-planning, staying well informed of current fire service trends and sharing lessons learned from near-miss situations.

The most effective fire officers are leaders, teachers and mentors. If we're relying only on past "good" experience or blind luck to handle an incident, we are setting the stage for disaster.

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