Practical risk management for firefighters

6 ways to ensure you are effectively managing your risk and staying safe


This article originally appeared in the Fall 2019 FireRescue1 Digital Edition, "Risk Management at Every Level." Every single person in the fire service plays a critical role in risk management, from the fire chief to the newest recruit. Find out how each member of a department is crucial in mitigating risk by downloading the full digital edition here.

By Robert Wagner

Risk management? That’s that thing chiefs sit around and talk about when deciding how to allocate our annual budget, right? I’m just a line firefighter; that’s above my pay grade. Not so fast.

What if I told you that you – the hose-line stretching, vent-hole-cutting, apparatus-riding, shift-working firefighter – are an expert at managing risk?

We need to constantly be preparing for the unthinkable and setting ourselves up for success when things don’t go according to plan. (Photo/John Odegard)
We need to constantly be preparing for the unthinkable and setting ourselves up for success when things don’t go according to plan. (Photo/John Odegard)

Tom Ridge, America’s very first secretary of Homeland Security, said it best in his book “The Test of Our Times: America Under Siege … And How We Can Be Safe Again”: “Risk management is a concept all of us practice in our daily lives, but we don’t call it that. People make financial decisions, without ever thinking they’re practicing risk management. Do we really need to pay more in order to raise the coverage ceiling on our auto and home insurance policies today? ... Do we need a car that has side air bags? Should we bother with our seat belt, or should we make appointments to get a flu shot?”

Just as Secretary Ridge was making the concept of risk management relatable to the everyday American, I want to show how it applies to you – the men and women on the fireline.

Whether you realize it or not, your job is full of risk management. From deciding when to don your SCBA to what diameter hoseline to stretch, you’re always subconsciously conducting a risk-benefit analysis – you’re always sizing up how much risk you’re willing to accept in exchange for efficiency in getting the job done. Secretary Ridge put it quite simply when he wrote, “Risk management involves making choices – trade-offs.” Every time you read smoke to predict the time to flashover, decide which rooms in a burning building should be searched first, or put on your PPE, you’re managing risk. You do this every day – and you’re really good at it.

The mental game of risk management

If I’m already great at managing risk, why waste time reading this article? Why study risk management? The world is infinitely complex – too complex for our minds to even grasp just how complex it truly is. In “The Knowledge Illusion,” Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explain that our brain is flooded all day with information about our environment, yet our mind doesn’t seem to get bogged down in the details. How does it do this? How are we able to successfully navigate an endlessly complicated world?

Cognitive scientists once believed that our minds functioned like a computer, but thinking about how a computer works quickly shuts that theory down. Like humans, computers are logical – too logical. They analyze every input of information they are given thoroughly – too thoroughly. Computers lack the ability to see the big picture. In other words, as Sloman and Fernbach put it, if your mind was a computer, you’d never get anything done. 

Unlike a computer, your mind is built for pattern recognition. When it encounters a problem in the form of a familiar pattern, it’s able to quickly reach into memory and produce a response based on what worked to solve a similar problem in the past. In “Deep Survival,” Laurence Gonzales calls this a mental model, and it’s the shortcut that allows you to see the big picture and make quick decisions in fast-paced situations. It’s that gut feeling that tells you where to cut that vent hole and when to open the nozzle. Your mind says, “I’ve seen this before, and I know precisely what to do – I have a model for this.”

We find ourselves in trouble when our mental model doesn’t match our environment and, in an infinitely complex word, that’s not hard to do. Gonzales underscores that our environment is constantly changing, and our models can easily grow outdated or encounter foreign situations. We simply can’t know it all, and we can’t foresee everything.

So, we need to constantly be preparing for the unthinkable and setting ourselves up for success when things don’t go according to plan. How do we do that? Easy: We manage our risks, and we do so by practicing safety. This requires that we identify hazards (things that can hurt us), anticipate their probability of doing us harm, and take steps to minimize the chances of that occurring.

As the risk management guru Gordan Graham likes to say, “Predictable is preventable.” We may not be able to see into the future or completely eliminate all our risk, but we can implement safety measures to reduce the likelihood of bad things happening.

6 easy steps to staying safe

The quality of firefighters I admire most is that they are pragmatic; they like actionable information without the fluff. In this spirit of efficiency, here’s a practical list of six things you can do every shift day to ensure you are effectively managing your risk and staying safe.

1. Train: Half of you are shouting “amen” while the other half are rolling their eyes at “those guys.” I get it. For some of us, this is a job and, for others, a passion. I’m not here to launch into a sermon about how into the job anyone needs to be. No matter where you stand on the debate of how much (or little) we should be training, we can all agree that nobody wants to feel incompetent at their job, everyone wants to go home alive at the end of their shift, and we all want to do the right thing.

In this career, we have the potential to find ourselves in situations that require us to react quickly but don’t encounter often enough for our brains to develop an automatic response. As such, we must artificially build models for these instances – the mental models described by Gonzales – and we do that through training.

Chances are most people reading this article have never had to call a mayday while operating at a fire, yet they can probably rattle one off without giving it much thought if prompted. How are they able to do this if they’ve never actually had to do it? Simple: They practiced calling maydays under stress while attending the fire academy. Their fire instructors artificially built them a mental model – one that, should the situation arise, could very well save their lives.

Things we have to build artificial models for, like calling a mayday, are called critical tasks. These are things we don’t do often but really need to be proficient at should the need arise. We should train on critical tasks every day we are at the firehouse.

Effective training for critical tasks doesn’t have to be long, drawn out or complicated. When I conduct my morning check of my SCBA, occasionally I’ll practice putting it on, securing the waist belt, turning it on, and donning my facepiece – all while wearing my fire gloves. Early in my career, I had my facepiece knocked off during a collapse. It’s not fun, especially if you aren’t prepared to quickly remedy the situation. Adding this simple training drill to my morning routine not only provides me an effective way to prepare for such dynamic situations, it also builds my familiarity with a critical piece of my PPE – an awareness that could possibly save my life in a mayday event.

2. Work out: By now, it’s been drilled into our heads that heart attacks are the leading killers of firefighters, but are you aware that the NFPA has identified overexertion and strains as the leading causes of fireground injuries? Maintaining your physical fitness isn’t just a matter of preventing heart disease, it’s about ensuring your body is fit to do the job. A fit body does the job well, and performing well is the foremost way we stay safe.

And while you’re at it, don’t forget to drink water – a lot of water. Dehydration is a risk that can be easily managed.

3. Take a shower: I can hear your significant others applauding in approval from here. Cancer prevention is a huge topic in the fire service right now, with debates focusing on the best ways to protect firefighters. Regardless of where you stand, we can all agree that you should probably go back to the firehouse and take a shower after a fire.

During every hazmat lecture I give, I conclude by reminding students to go back to the firehouse and take a shower after the response. The hazmat industry recognizes that, in most cases, contamination can be effectively mitigated by removing your clothing and washing off. In fact, if you ever attend the Hazardous Materials Technologies Course at the Center for Domestic Preparedness, colloquially known as the Live Agent Course, you’ll probably end their decontamination process with a shower. 

Research shows that dermal absorption is a significant source of our exposure to carcinogens during structure fires. We can easily manage this risk by simply practicing good hygiene. Even if you don’t buy in to the arguments for post-fire contamination reduction, your coworkers will appreciate you not stinking, as will your significant others. 

4. Rest: Yes, I’ve just told you to nap on the job. Before I’m flooded with angry letters from chiefs and taxpayers, let’s consider the science. For firefighters, risk management is a game that requires extensive use of the mind. The sleep deprivation and interruption that come with 24-hour shift schedules wreak havoc on firefighters’ ability to perform cognitively. They also contribute to fatigue, depression, cancer, and host of other health issues that negatively impact firefighters’ ability to do the job well.

As the famed Dr. Louis Pasteur said, “Luck favors the prepared mind” – and a prepared mind is one that’s well rested. Firefighters must show up to emergencies mentally and physically ready to make good decisions and take quick actions under unfavorable circumstances. Napping and going to bed early increase the likelihood that you will perform optimally under stress.

5. Communicate: In almost every post-incident critique I read, poor communication is listed as a contributing factor to failure. It is fascinating how people can be so terrible at something they do so frequently. It proves that communication isn’t inherent to humans; it’s a skill. Fortunately, skills can be learned, practiced and improved upon. By doing so, you ensure your ability to operate successfully and safely under high-stress conditions.

In “Team of Teams,” General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of special operations forces in Iraq, explains that teams that promote an atmosphere of openness, transparency and mutual trust among members are the most successful at facing adversity. Be a thinking firefighter, actively engaged in the tactical decision-making process on the fireground, not a well-programmed robot. Understand the overall strategic aims of your officers, and trust the judgment of your teammates. Most importantly, speak up when something doesn’t feel right – it probably isn’t. This is your mind’s subconscious way of saying, “I’ve seen this before, and I know how the story ends.”

6. Study failure: As Gonzales advises in “Deep Survival,” “If you could collect the dead around you and sit by the campfire and listen to their tales, you might find yourself in the best survival school of all. Since you can’t, read the accident reports in your chosen field of recreation.” In your case, study the investigatory reports covering line-of-duty deaths and serious injuries. By learning from the fatal mistakes of others, you can steer clear of similar situations.

Safety IS risk management

Risk management is not an obscure, abstract idea or strategic game played out in the offices of agency executives; it is a mental process we employ every day. By practicing safety, we manage our predictable risks and prepare for the day our mental models fail to accurately forecast the future. While you are already great at managing risk, including these six steps in your daily routines will improve your chances for success when the stakes are high.

About the author

Robert Wagner is a firefighter with the Indianapolis Fire Department, assigned to Engine and Tactical 7. He’s a hazardous materials specialist for Indiana Task Force 1, a radiation specialist for Indiana’s Radiation Nuclear Detection Task Force, and a USAR/CBRN subject-matter expert contracted to U.S. Army North. Wagner is a nationally registered paramedic and currently pursuing his masters degree at the Naval Postgraduate School.

Editor's Note: What safety-related tips do you have for firefighters? Share in the comments or at editor@firerescue1.com.

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