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Scene safety: Ask ‘what?’ questions to really understand your risk

Risk identification must go beyond simple yes-or-no questions to consider the various mitigation options


As emergency responders, we respond to unsafe situations. To truly check the box for scene safety, we need to go beyond yes-or-no questions in our decision-making.


By Nathaniel Hurley

“Is this scene safe?”

This is not the question to ask on the emergency scene or training ground, as it shows a lack of critical thinking. As emergency responders, we respond to unsafe situations. To truly check the box for scene safety, we need to go beyond yes-or-no questions in our decision-making. Instead, we should ask “what” questions, like “What are the hazards?”

As the world changes and the emergencies change, we can train our minds to think critically about safety so that no matter what the emergency, we can help others while avoiding hazards.

Situational awareness

The “L-180 Human Factors in the Wildland Fire Service” course focuses on how situational awareness affects decision-making. Your opinions, communication with others, observations of the scene, and stress level affect your situational awareness. As you would expect, the more aware you are of the situation, the more likely you are to quickly and effectively resolve the emergency. We must improve our situational awareness by first focusing on what constitutes hazards or risks on the emergency scene.

After identifying the hazards and risks, naturally, you must decide how to deal with them. Note: There does not have to be a complete removal of possible risk in order to mitigate the hazards. For example, we could identify a fire on the first floor of the house and throw a ladder to the second floor to make a rescue. Throwing the ladder did not remove the risk, but we still handled the situation while being aware of the risk – and hopefully there was a fire attack crew simultaneously working to resolve that risk for us.

5 ways to mitigate a hazard

There are five primary ways to mitigate risks and hazards: elimination, substitution, engineered controls, administrative controls, and PPE. This gives us a variety of options to decide how we will mitigate a hazard. Choices may differ from situation to situation, even for the same hazard. Let’s consider each option.

1. Elimination: We separate ourselves from the hazard completely. Electronics in a vehicle might present a hazard during an extrication. Cutting the battery cables eliminates much of the risk in most vehicles. This could also mean removing ourselves from the hazard area until the hazard has been controlled, such as an active shooter situation.

2. Substitution: Pick a different option. Normally you would transport the patient out of the building on the cot, but when the elevator is not available, we can use the stair chair instead. Trying to roll a stair chair down a stairwell has a lot less risk than trying to roll a cot down a stairwell.

3. Engineered controls: Change the work environment. Common versions are guards, like a cover over a saw blade. For us this might be similar to closing a door to separate you from the fire or using a roof ladder to walk on a slippery roof. A low-air alarm or a gas detector could be included in this category as well. While alarms or alerting devices do not physically protect from the hazard, they are engineered systems that notifies us of hazards.

4. Administrative controls: These controls tell us how to behave around the hazard. This can be policies and procedures outlining safe methods for working, such as a policy against using a phone while driving. The management of emergency responders, such as rest scheduling or crew assignments, also falls in this category.

5. PPE: PPE depends on the emergency, body substance isolation (BSI) for medical emergencies, turnouts for structure fires, and greens and yellows for wildland. This can change as the situation changes. If I have my wildland pack on but find some brush that needs to be cleared, I insert my hearing protection and put on chaps.

Certainly, controlling hazards typically involves a combination of controls. For instance, turnouts are the PPE control and the minute drill is the administrative control on how to use the PPE.

It’s important to reiterate that these controls often do not remove the risk. There must be an acceptable level of risk.

Preparedness is key

Let’s add one more concept for risk mitigation: preparedness. While preparedness does not technically control a hazard, it does help us recognize the hazard and manage its effects. Further, preparedness is what helps us when things go wrong.

In sum

Observe the emergency incident around you, ask “what are the hazards?”, decide how you will deal with hazards, and repeat. Hazards will be present through the entire incident beyond just the size-up. To be critical-thinkers on the emergency scene, we need to stop asking safe vs. unsafe and instead ask “what?”


Limmer, D., O’Keefe, M., Grant, H., Murray, R. H., Bergeron, J. D., & Dickinson, E. T. (2004). Emergency Care 10th Edition. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Manuele, F. A. (2006). Risk Assessment and Hierarchies of Control. ASSE Professional Development Conference and Exposition (pp. 33-39). Seattle: American Society of Safety Engineers.

The Scope and Functions of the Professional Safety Position. (2003). ANSI/ASSP Z590.2. American Society of Safety Professionals.

About the author

Nathaniel Hurley has served in wide variety of emergency service roles in both Ohio and Montana and in Tak Province, Thailand, along with disaster relief efforts in Myanmar (Burma). He has a bachelor’s degree in industrial systems engineering from Ohio University. He continues to work on business development efforts in former conflict areas in Southeast Asia. He can be reached at