Trending Topics

‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’: 2 tools to help manage dynamic incidents

Nautically themed tools prompt fire service leaders to expand resources and assess risk

Screen Shot 2020-09-21 at 12.53.54 PM.png

How many of us, thinking that we understood the nature and risk of our dispatched call, have had such a moment of realization, with perhaps a less famous, but likely similarly colorful, phrase?


By Drew Jaeger

In the movie “Jaws,” as Police Chief Brody realizes that he has underestimated the risks of his mission to rid his community of a deadly shark, he utters the famous line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

How many of us, thinking that we understood the nature and risk of our dispatched call, have had such a moment of realization, with perhaps a less famous, but likely similarly colorful, phrase? It is not uncommon to have initial information change as either the 911 call-taker gathers more details or additional callers flood the switchboard with reports. Does your department have a standard organizational risk management (ORM) tool that you use to alter your response?

Here we’ll cover two for you to consider, both with a nautical connection.

1. BOAT: Upgrading response

There are several acronyms that have become part of fire service training, including WALLACE WAS HOT, RECEO-VS, and SLICERS – tools used upon arrival at the scene by either the incident commander (IC) or firefighting teams. Your department may even have standards for levels of alarms, such as numerical terms such as first or second alarm, or MABAS terms such as Still, Working Still and Box alarms. These indicate the number and type of resources that you want to respond to the actual or potential threat of your incident, but how do they address the change in risk?

The addition of safety officers, rapid-intervention teams and supervisors are good options to ensure that we are doing everything we can to manage the chaos that we hope will not overwhelm of our IC or unified command team. But we know from line-of-duty-death (LODD) and near-miss reporting that it remains challenging to maintain situational awareness and proactive, effective scene management.

All of these options take time, both in the preplanning phase and for the resources arriving at the scene. Knowing I “need a bigger boat” takes seconds and helps to get these actions started sooner – and this is where the BOAT acronym comes into play.

The BOAT concept is meant to be utilized on dispatch, or any time that I recognize that the standard response package might need augmentation. You could consider using it on every call to ingrain that practice or just on calls where something seems unusual.

B – Blue Lights: Do we need the support of law enforcement? Do I need them to respond emergently or just head this way? Is this a need for immediate life safety protection from violence, or are there certain calls that your department always requests police support? For example, I know when our local police agency conducts shift change, and during that short interval, a routine request for traffic control might take a few extra minutes unless I clearly communicate a need for a quicker response. Do I have direct radio communications with our local law enforcement, or is it relayed through dispatch?

O – Other agencies: Do I need a MedFlight, tow truck or the Department of Natural Resources for a fuel spill? Non-public safety agencies generally take longer to respond, so an early notification starts the process.

A – Additional Resources: Do I need more resources similar to my own, including fire and EMS? Has our dumpster fire on dispatch now involved the building in the time it took to get to the truck? Have I noted that the fire alarm is at a nursing home, not just a single-family home, and that the initial report of just a fire alarm has transitioned to multiple reports of smoke in the area?

T – Time: Is time on my side, such as a medical call for bleeding that in my walk time to the rig has changed to a controlled nosebleed? Is it really justified to drive red lights and sirens to such a call? Or is time against me, and I have a higher risk profile, such as fire involvement to a propane tank? Is time of day an issue, such as end of school day on a traffic incident on a busy street or middle of the night fire call?

The use of the BOAT tool will, of course, depend on how your department dispatches resources. It won’t work well if every person with a radio makes a separate call for support. If your role is a chief officer/IC, it might make implementation of this different than if you are the lieutenant or firefighter. Bottom line: It is intended to be a memory jogger for all members to consider as you initially begin your response. Once you get to the scene, you may turn back unneeded assets or transition to one of the size-up tools.

2. GAR: Color-coding risk level

The military, being the great generator of a never-ending stockpile of acronyms, has some that apply to risk management. The Coast Guard uses the GAR model – Green, Amber, Red – every time a boat or aircraft is deployed on a training or case mission.

Using this tool, team members conduct a quick discussion of specific components of the mission. This huddle takes only a few minutes, and experienced teams can do it even more rapidly. Members of the team give a subjective rating number of 0 for No Risk through 10 for Maximum Risk. The highest number spoken by any team member is honored. If there is momentary confusion as to why most members scored a category lower, while one person rated it higher, a few words clarify the reason, and thereby reinforce the common understanding.

The components are as follows:

  • Supervision: This includes how qualified the supervisor is and whether effective supervision is taking place.
  • Planning: Planning and preparation considers how much information you have, how clear it is, and how much time you have to plan the evolution or evaluate the situation.
  • Team selection: Team selection considers the qualifications and experience level of the individuals used for the specific event/evolution. Individuals may need to be replaced during the vent/evolution and the experience level of the new team members should be assessed.
  • Team fitness: Team fitness considers the physical and mental state of the crew. This is a function of the amount and quality of rest a crewmember has had. Fatigue normally becomes a factor after 18 hours without rest; however, lack of quality sleep builds a deficit that worsens the effects of fatigue
  • Environment: Environment considers factors affecting personnel performance as well as the performance of the asset or resource. This includes, but is not limited to, time of day, temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind and sea conditions, proximity of aerial/navigational hazards and other exposures (e.g., oxygen deficiency, toxic chemicals, and/or injury from falls and sharp objects).
  • Event complexity: Event/evolution complexity considers both the required time and the situation. Generally, the longer one is exposed to a hazard, the greater are the risks. However, each circumstance is unique. For example, more iterations of an evolution can increase the opportunity for a loss to occur, but may have the positive effect of improving the proficiency of the team, thus possibly decreasing the chance of error. This would depend upon the experience level of the team. The situation includes considering how long the environmental conditions will remain stable and the complexity of the work

The mission risk can then be visualized using the colors of a traffic light:

  • G – Green: If the total risk value falls in the Green Zone (1-23), risk is rated as low.
  • A – Amber: If the total risk value falls in the Amber Zone (24-44), risk is moderate, and you should consider adopting procedures to minimize the risk.
  • R – Red: If the total value falls in the Red Zone (45-60), you should implement measures to reduce the risk prior to starting the event or evolution.

The ability to assign numerical values or color codes to hazards using the GAR model is not the most important part of risk assessment. What is critical to this step is team discussions leading to an understanding of the risks and how they will be managed.

I am a huge proponent of this tool, especially as part of a shift or crew brief, where we have some time to discuss how these factors might impact our shift for the day. Do we have a crew member who is normally assigned to another house? Do we have weather or a planned civic event? Are we operating our normal truck or a spare? Did all of our crewmembers get sleep the night before, or are they working a double shift, or have a new baby at home?

The sneaky part of this tool is that if I am working at a house with open-minded team members, we can either use this in a group discussion and run the whole exercise, or I can do the formula silently on a piece of scratch paper, and only bring up the aspect of concern with the crew, such as fatigue or weather.

If I am working at a house or department where outside ideas are rejected and tradition rules the day, they don’t even have to know that I am using the tool, especially if I am working with a crew where maybe I am the visitor. Instead of making a big production about how this tool from another agency is the coolest thing, I can ask their ideas about how they think the weather or my being a visitor to the house might best be mitigated, or what they think the biggest concern is in their station area.

Try the tools with your team

Give these safety tools a try with your crew, and see if they create a better shared understanding of risk as you work together. And certainly don’t be unwilling to change your response practices when faced with unusual circumstances. Repeating unsuccessful tactics with greater intensity and less focus on safe teamwork did not work out so well for Captain Quint, the owner of the boat that indeed proved too inadequate for the task in “Jaws.”

About the Author

Drew Jaeger is a Lieutenant with the City of Oshkosh, Wisconsin Fire Department, serving since 1999. He is also an adjunct fire instructor for Fox Valley Technical College, and serves as the co-lead instructor for the Hazardous Materials Technician course. Drew spent 25 years serving as an active duty and reserve member of the United States Coast Guard, where he responded to over 200 oil and hazardous materials incidents in 31 different states, including duty as the initial group supervisor for the InSitu Burn team leading off shore crude oil ignition teams, and retiring as a Master Chief Petty Officer.