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‘Risk a little to save a lot’: A new look at an old mantra

Is it time to reconsider the levels of risk in light of everything we now know about the exposure risks we face on the fireground?


“With all that we’ve learned about the connection between exposure to chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens and firefighters developing cancers at rates higher than the public, why is this still accepted behavior?” asks Avsec.

Photo/Spokane Fire Department

“The more things change, the more they remain the same.”

That phrase comes to mind every time I see pictures and videos of firefighters entering a structure fire to engage the fire but are obviously no longer in the hazard area, walking around the exterior of the building, still wearing their contaminated PPE and SCBA, with their facepiece hanging down in front of them. Or equally disturbing, firefighters, walking around the building still wearing their contaminated bunker pants with their equally contaminated protective hood still around their neck and their helmet on their head.

I don’t get it.

With all that we’ve learned about the connection between exposure to chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens and firefighters developing cancers at rates higher than the public, why is this still accepted behavior?

The hazmat connection

A concept theme that’s been more widely adopted since the realization that cancer is killing firefighters at an alarming rate is that we should view fires as hazmat events where fire is the “product that’s escaped its container.” And once that product has escaped its container (i.e., the structure), it begins unleashing an unknown volume of chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens..

During my fire service career, I was certified as a hazardous materials specialist and a member of my department’s hazmat response team. From day one of my training, the following concepts regarding the hot zone go/no-go decision-making process were deeply engrained in my brain:

  • Identify and characterize the product: What is it? What does it do? What are the hazards?
  • Characterize the site and the container: Where are we operating? How big is the container? How much product has escaped and how much remains? Where is the product going?
  • Identify the appropriate level of PPE for the hazards presented by the product.
  • Identify the appropriate level of decontamination that the entry team will require and have it set up before entry is made to the hot zone.

And those were just the “lead up” to actually making entry into the hot zone to complete tasks. Our air supply was carefully monitored to ensure that we would have a sufficient supply of air to leave the hot zone and successfully complete the 9-step decontamination process to get us out of our chemical protective clothing and on to medical surveillance and onsite rehab.

So, if we’re going to characterize today’s structure fires as “hazardous materials incident with a fire component,” why are we not approaching them as such, following the list above?

The ability to extinguish today’s structural fires safely, effectively and efficiently, while minimizing the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals present in today’s structural fires by firefighters, requires knowledgeable and skilled firefighters, equipped with the right PPE and tools, plus equally knowledgeable and skilled incident commanders leading them.

Why do we continue to preach and teach firefighters that the default mode of fire suppression is an aggressive interior fire attack? Why do we have fire officers who do not consistently conduct a 360-degree assessment of the fire building using a thermal imaging camera (TIC)? Why do we have fire officers and firefighters who do not consistently follow the IAFC’s Rules of Engagement for Firefighter and Incident Commander Survival?

Applying an old mantra to a new normal

Those firefighters and officers must strive to achieve a “new normal” by being unyielding in their adherence to those rules of engagement. We cannot expect improved outcomes (e.g., reduced firefighter exposures, fewer firefighters dying of cancer) if we continue to operate the way many fire departments are still doing business.

Many of you are probably thinking, “But what about our mantra: ‘Risk a lot to save a lot. Risk a little to save a little. Risk nothing to save nothing’?”

What risk is that mantra addressing? When I remember first hearing it circa early 1990s, the risk was from the physical threats to firefighters present in a structure fire (e.g., structural collapse, flashover, backdraft) because of the advent of lightweight building construction materials and open floor plans being used by developers. How can we apply that mantra to the newly characterized risk to firefighters–the exposure to toxic agents that are causing firefighters to develop cancer at a greater rate, and at a younger age, than the public? Let’s consider the application of the mantra.

Risk a lot to save a lot – a life

  • How many interior searches each year result in the location and removal of an occupant?
  • And of those occupants located and removed from the structure, how many resulted in that individual receiving medical care and transportation to a medical facility?
  • How many of those individuals were eventually discharged from the medical facility?

I’ll venture to say that many fire department leaders do not know the answers to those questions because they’ve not collected and analyzed the necessary data to learn the answers. A better question is why aren’t we collecting that type of data in NFIRS (National Fire Incident Reporting System) and creating annual reports on par with those for firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODD) and LODI (line-of-duty injuries)?

Why not? If a fire department continues to operate with an aggressive interior fire attack as their default mode of fire suppression, shouldn’t that be a data-driven decision, especially when that strategy immediately puts firefighters into an IDLH environment with exposure to chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogens that can lead to the development of cancer?

Risk a little to save a little – property

When firefighters enter a burning structure, they are not only being exposed to those toxic agents, they’re also being exposed to those materials under pressure at elevated temperatures. That pressure that’s pushing smoke out of the front door is the same pressure that’s forcing those hazardous materials into your coat, pants, and hood. And those elevated interior temperatures in the structure are raising your skin temperature inside your PPE. With every 5-degree increase in your skin temperature, the rate of absorption through your skin increases 400%! No matter how you slice it, that’s not “risking a little to save a little.”

Resetting the environment – and our mindset

The fire behavior research that’s been done and continues to be done by NIST, the U.S. Fire Administration, the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and other researchers has demonstrated beyond a doubt that fire departments should be preaching and teaching to their firefighters and officers the necessity of “resetting the environment” with a transitional fire attack following the SLICE-RS model developed by ISFSI.

Resetting the environment has been shown scientifically to improve the chance of survival for any occupants in the structure and decrease the impact heat stress that produces the “terrible twins” of hyperthermia and dehydration on a firefighter. Heat stress can be the catalyst for a sudden cardiac event (e.g., heart attack or stroke) and can have a negative impact on a firefighter’s ability to do their job safely, effectively and efficiently.

Resetting the environment also reduces the aforementioned pressure inside the structure that’s forcing those chemicals, chemical compounds, and carcinogen into your PPE and through any gaps in your PPE’s interfaces (e.g., coat to gloves, hood to coat, coat to pants).

Finding our new normal

There are many fire departments that are doing the right things, but how many other fire departments know that? How do we get better at promoting and amplifying the efforts of those departments and their efforts to create a new normal for the fire service? A new normal where the decision about whether to commit firefighters to an interior fire attack is not a no-brainer but rather one where the fire officer undertakes a mode of operation that’s based on a thorough evaluation of structure and the fire conditions present, the available staffing, and true risk assessment.

The more things change, the more they remain the same. It’s far past time to put that axiom to rest, no?

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.