Risk Assessments: Avoid the Rock at the Bottom of the Hill


Fighting fires is fun. It almost has to be fun or else no one would do it. For a select portion of the population — some would argue not a very rational portion — fighting fires is a really good time. However, everyone has to admit that even fun can be dangerous. And fighting fires is certainly dangerous. Firefighters exist for two basic reasons: to save people's lives and to save people's stuff. It becomes apparent at some points though that we cannot save either the people or the stuff.

In order for this conversation to continue, you have to admit that there is such a thing as a fire we should not fight from the inside, even if a mother is screaming in the front yard that her child is trapped inside. I am not telling you here what that fire looks like — I am just asking you to admit that it exists. Once you admit that it exists, admit that there is such a thing as a life that is already lost and property that is already lost, you will be able to start framing risk assessments.

The following discussion of risk assessment is necessarily limited; we could talk all day about risk and about different methodologies for quantifying, mitigating and avoiding risk. So, it's limited to "bare bones" risk assessments.

Variables of risk
The framing of a risk assessment depends on many variables. One of the most important of these is being able to predict what is going to happen next with some degree of reliability. For example, we know that if we sit on a sled at the top of a steep, snowy hill and someone pushes us there is a pretty good chance we are going to head toward the bottom. To make the example more interesting, imagine that there is a large jagged rock at the bottom of the hill. If you hit the rock, you will either die or be maimed. To make it more interesting still, imagine that once you are pushed on the sled you have no control during the descent — whether or not you hit the jagged rock is perfectly random.

One way of managing risk is by simply not sitting on the sled. Once you sit there, you have exposed yourself to the risk of being pushed and once pushed you simply have no control. Going into a house with heavy black carbon-laden smoke pouring from every window under pressure is a lot like sitting on that sled. You may be a firefighter and you may have a tremendous amount of experience; you may even have a properly sized hose line. But when the gods send you warning signs of impending flashover, you cannot predict when it will occur and you can rarely stop it. The best thing to do it to stay out of its way.

The risk assessment also depends on a second factor: recognition. Once we realize that we cannot reliably predict outcomes but only recognize warning signs of adverse events, our thinking should shift. When you notice that the compartment you are in is getting hotter and hotter, you have yet to see any flame, you are getting pushed to the floor by heat and you are seeing rollover in the overhead spaces, you must react. You must, almost instantly, do something to prevent the adverse event from happening or leave. You have no way of knowing is how much time there is between when you recognize the symptoms and when the event occurs. If you cannot recognize that the situation is dire, you cannot behave in appropriate ways.

Finally, after recognition, is action. Once you realize that the situation is beyond your capabilities, you must do something to increase them -- such as calling up the back-up line — or decrease your exposure — such as backing out to an area of refuge.  his action can only occur after recognition and only if the reaction has been practiced. Obviously, we don’t put people into flashover-like conditions during training. But we can simulate the adverse events and simulate our response to them.

A question to frame risk
Perhaps the question that unit officers, division/group supervisors and incident commanders should be asking themselves is, "why" or "for what?"  An incident commander should be thinking, "…the potential for firefighters to die or to be seriously injured exists at this incident, at this moment, and the firefighters are in there facing it, for what?" I would offer that if the answer to that question is that they are in there to save couches and chairs, then your answer is not good enough.

I'm not saying that we should be squirting water from the outside every time we go to a house fire. I believe in the aggressive interior attack. What I am saying is that you have to figure out what a house that cannot be saved looks like to you; when the situation you are in starts to look like that, you should leave.  Likewise, you need to figure out what a life beyond saving looks like and avoid incurring death or serious injury for one of those.

Honestly speaking, the answer to these questions really depends on things like how many firefighters, how much water and how much or what type of other things are available when the attack is made. Of course crew and commander experience also plays a role. But in order for this to work, you have to admit some facts. When a firefighter in his gear is pushed to the floor by high heat, two things are true: no one is alive in that compartment and all the stuff is already ruined.

If you stay inside fighting a fire when there is nothing left to be gained by being inside fighting the fire, you are sitting on top of a steep hill on that sled staring at the jagged rock. Sometimes you are going to slide down that hill with your eyes closed enjoying the rush, and get to the bottom safely, telling your friends that your sledding experience is what got you around that rock yet again. But one day you won’t be able to avoid the rock. Then, we'll be forced to admit once again that someone died or was injured trying to avoid a rock that couldn’t be avoided, on a hill we never should have been on, and on a sled that was plastered with warnings about the dangers that lay ahead.

The thick black, brown, yellow or sometimes white smoke that exits a structure under pressure, especially when the interior conditions are hot, dark and flameover exists, is the big rock at the bottom of the hill. We should not confuse the lack of oxygen with firefighting skill.  

The role of confidence and experience
As I get older and continue to go to fires, I find that I am increasingly less confident in my ability to predict outcomes on fires. Sometimes I see fires that one would expect to flashover and they don’t. Sometimes I see fires that one would never expect to be larger than a one-line fire send firefighters to the burn unit. Each fire teaches me that fires are complex systems with a near infinite number of possible input variables. Perhaps I am alive today because someone got lazy breaking out windows and did not break the one that would have provided the vital influx of oxygen the fire was waiting for. Perhaps I am alive today because of some other randomly strange event that did or did not occur.

There was a time when I actually thought I was pushing myself on the sled and steering it down the hill and avoiding the rock at the bottom because of how good I was at my job. That was confidence; a little bit of confidence is necessary. Confidence is necessary if the troops are going to follow you into a burning house, confidence is necessary when it looks like you should not go but you do anyway, and it is most important and most necessary when you have to make the decision to not go in at all.

The decision to not go in should never be taken lightly and should always seriously consider the possibility of persons still being alive on the inside.

I cannot change the fact that fires are dangerous and can never hope to remove all the risks. But while I am sworn to protect lives and to protect property, I no longer see much sense in fighting fires from the inside when there are no lives to save, no property to protect and no way to reliably predict the outcomes.

Some of you will tune me out soon, if you haven't done so already. But if you are still reading, remember I asked you in the beginning to admit that there is such a thing as a fire that should not be fought from the inside. The rest of this discussion simply asked you to be able to recognize what that fire looks like — and to get out of it before you get hurt fighting it. 

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