The fire chief as chief risk manager

Effectively reducing the risks facing your department and your personnel requires embracing this unique role


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 Gordon Graham

Gordon Graham here! Thank you for taking the time to read this special coverage on risk management.

Everyone in the fire service – from the highest leadership position to the least-tenured recruit – has a role in risk management. That may seem strange because we tend to think of “risk management” as  the realm of insurance companies and adjustors and actuaries –people we generally try to avoid and certainly not who you were hoping to become when you joined the fire service.

Everyone in the fire service – from the highest leadership position to the least-tenured recruit – has a role in risk management. (Photo/Getty Images)
Everyone in the fire service – from the highest leadership position to the least-tenured recruit – has a role in risk management. (Photo/Getty Images)

After getting over the idea that risk management isn’t one position on an organizational chart devoted to
a “numbers guy” whose realm is not fire calls, EMS calls and community education, but rather calculators and spreadsheets, we tend to make another mistaken assumption regarding risk management. We assume it’s the “safety stuff.”

And we are right – risk management is about the safety stuff. But it’s about so much more. I have the rest of this article to convince you that everything you do in fire service operations involves a level of risk. And if you understand the breadth and depth of “real” risk management, you can do so much to proactively prevent problems. In doing so, you will better protect yourself, your team, your community, your noble profession and our great nation.

Your role as CRM

Now, if everyone in the fire department plays a role in risk management, it begs the question, how do the roles differ? Other articles in this special edition will focus on the roles of the company officer and the line firefighter. It falls to me to focus on the special role chiefs play in fire service risk management.

Congratulations, you’re the Chief Risk Manager! That means you must be thinking about risk at every level of the fire department. Let’s consider some examples:

  • You are constantly hiring people; there is a level of risk in this process. Everyone you hire is a potential plaintiff (someone who will sue you) or a potential defendant (someone who will do something stupid and cause you to get sued by a member of your community).
  • Perhaps you are firing someone; there is a level of risk involved in this process. “Oh, he’s just a volunteer, I can get rid of him for any reason I want.” You are right. Technically, you can get rid of a volunteer for any reason. But get rid of a volunteer for the wrong reason, and you can end up in a ton of trouble.
  • Your members are backing up a piece of apparatus; there is a level of risk involved. Each and every year firefighters die in vehicle accidents that were completely preventable.
  • You are doing a performance evaluation; there is a level of risk involved in this process.

  • Your training officer is conducting a live burn; there is a level of risk.

  • Your company officer is doing a size-up prior to making entry on a burning building. You guessed it: There is a level of risk involved in this process, and every year firefighters die because this job was not done correctly.

Have I made my point yet?

“Well, Gordon, you can preach this risk management stuff all you want, but our job is so complex and so risky that bad things are just going to happen – and there is nothing we can do to prevent bad things from happening.” 

To that I respond, nonsense. I can show you fire chiefs around this country whose departments are grossly underrepresented in negative outcomes because the chiefs have made a commitment to “real” risk management.

Everything you do in the fire service carries risk. As Chief Risk Officer, you need a process to “recognize, prioritize and mobilize” to address the risks you face.

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The 10 families of risk

In the early 1990s, I put a process together to make your job as the Chief Risk Manager a bit easier. This process involves organizing all the risks you face into 10 families:

  1. External risks

  2. Legal and regulatory risks

  3. Strategic risks

  4. Organizational risks

  5. Operational risks

  6. Information risks

  7. Human resources risks

  8. Technology risks

  9. Financial and administrative risks

  10. Political risks

Although fire chiefs must address all 10 families, I will focus on the one most important for fire service leaders: organizational risk management.

At the top of the page is a graphic I developed to simplify your understanding of Family No. 4.

On the right side of the graphic are the negative outcomes that occur when things do not go right. On the left side are the causes for these negative outcomes. When we examine what happened before an incident, we often focus on the proximate cause – what happened immediately before something bad happened. There are thousands of proximate causes.

What I want to focus on, however, are the five root causes – the problems lying in wait – that ultimately cause the tragedy.

The 5 root causes of fire service tragedies

The five root causes for most tragedies in the fire service involve people, policy, training, supervision and discipline.

As such, as the Chief Risk Manager in your department, you are responsible for:

  1. Getting and keeping good PEOPLE
  2. Developing and maintaining good POLICY
  3. Ensuring TRAINING is taken seriously
  4. Ensuring supervisors are doing their job in SUPERVISION
  5. Having a meaningful DISCIPLINE system in place to address those few people who are convinced your policies do not apply to them

When you address these five elements proactively and properly, you flip them from being causes of tragedy to pillars of success for your organization. Let me give you a brief overview of each of these pillars.

1. People: If your agency is going to be successful, you must get and keep good people. Please note this is the first risk we address because it is a key foundation for your ultimate success. There are several key components to managing risk when it comes to people:

  • Recruitment. You hire from an applicant pool. If your pool is a puddle, that is a problem lying in wait. The bigger, broader, wider and deeper the pool is, the higher the probability you will get good people – smart people who reflect the makeup of your community. You have probably read countless articles about recruitment, but here is my bottom line: Make everyone on your department a recruiter. If everyone on your department made it their goal every day to find one highly qualified applicant, you are en route to getting that wide, broad, deep pool that is so essential.
  • Background investigations. Next, you must have comprehensive background investigations. Please note the modifier present in the prior sentence. “Comprehensive” means more than a criminal history check! Remember that 19 out of 19 of the 9/11 hijackers were devoid of a criminal history prior to their nefarious, murderous behavior. “Well, Gordon, background checks are very expensive.” To that I say, yep, but you can pay me now or you can pay me later – and trust me, it is always more expensive later. Also, consider repeating background investigations every few years. Some people go bad over time and ultimately will cause you tremendous grief. The control measure to prevent this is to have an ongoing process to validate that the person you hired is the same person today.
  • Probation. Probation (as defined) is part of the hiring process. If you have women or men on probation who can’t or won’t do the job, get rid of them. Don’t talk about it. Don’t pray about it. Get rid of them because they will not get better over time.

  • Performance evaluations. If you are not committed to taking performance evaluations seriously, please do away with them! I would rather have no process than to have a process that is being misused and abused. Far too many fire departments (and cop shops for that matter) overrate their personnel every year, creating documents that come back to haunt them in the future.

2. Policy: Having good people is essential, but it is not enough. Take 10 people and give them a task with no associated policy guidelines, and you will have 10 people doing it 10 different ways with 10 different results. And some of these results will wind up on the right-hand side of the above graphic, in tragedy.

What are the risks when it comes to your fire department’s policies?

  • Missing policies (e.g., your manual lacks a policy on lactation breaks, which are federally mandated for nursing mothers)
  • Inconsistent policies (e.g., in one place your policy manual says only the chief can speak to the media; in other it outlines guidelines for members speaking to the media)

  • Unconstitutional policies (e.g., “Firefighters from this department shall not date any other city employee”)

  • Outdated policies (e.g., your EMS protocol involving naloxone has changed in response to the opioid epidemic, but your policy has not)

  • Just plain stupid policies (e.g., “In no case shall a member ever drive a department vehicle over 55 mph”)

“But Gordon! No one in our department knows how to write policies, and we can’t possibly stay up to date with all the changing legislation and trends.” To that I say, you are hardly alone, Chief Risk Manager, and I founded Lexipol to help public safety leaders just like you. But for now, let me leave you with this thought: If your department is involved in some event that gets the attention of the local or even national news and the public is clamoring to look at your policy manual, would you hand it over with fear and anxiety, or would you confidently comply, knowing your policies are up to date, comprehensive, legally defensible and professional?

3. Training: A little over 20 years ago, Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder and I put together the popular (and not-for-profit) website FirefighterCloseCalls.com. If you have visited this site, you are familiar with the saying, “Every day must be a training day.” Let me add to this sentence: “Every day must be a training day – and the training must focus on the core critical tasks in every job description in your fire service agency.”

What is a core critical task? In every job description, there are a very small number of tasks that are over- represented in tragedy. As chief, it’s your responsibility to ensure that these tasks are identified for every job in your fire department, and that your people are training on those tasks. FirefighterCloseCalls is a great place to start.

What are other key training priorities? At the California Highway Patrol, I designed a training program called SVROT: Solid, Realistic, Ongoing, Verifiable Training. In 2001, I built a similar program for the U.S. Forest Service called “Six Minutes for Safety.”

These and other training programs for high-risk professions share some essential characteristics:

  • They are based on real-world events

  • They incorporate policy

  • They are verifiable, meaning you have a way of documenting that the training was completed)

  • They are quick, taking just a couple minutes each day

  • They put training in front of personnel every day

Lexipol’s Daily Training Bulletin program and the courses offered through FireRescue1 Academy and EMS1 Academy are excellent examples of this approach to training your people on core critical tasks.

4. Supervision: The “weakest link” in too many fire departments is supervision. Show me a tragedy in the fire service and I will show you a proximate cause of X, but the real problem lying in wait is a supervisor not behaving like a supervisor. Or alternatively, a supervisor who tried to behave like a supervisor and got no support from management personnel.

What is the primary mission of a supervisor? I pose this query in my live programs, and very few people understand that the primary mission is “enforcement of organizational policy.” Management builds the rules and keeps them up to date. Supervisors enforce the rules. Line personnel follow the rules. If you have supervisors who cannot or will not enforce policy, that is a problem lying in wait.

So, Chief, do your company officers understand their role in enforcing policy? Do you have the needed training and mentoring processes in place to prepare personnel to take on leadership roles – and support them after promotion?

5. Discipline: Rules without enforcement are just nice words on a piece of paper or computer screen. When people fail to follow policy, you as chief must address it! Please remember that discipline is never a function of outcome, but a function of policy. Just because things end up OK does not mean we did our job correctly. In a high-risk profession such as the fire service, you cannot rely on luck; you must rely on process. When rules are ignored or intentionally violated, you must act.

Here’s a quick example. Let’s say you’ve adopted the very smart policy that your engineers will come to a complete stop at red lights. En route to a fire call with reported entrapments, an engineer blows through the red light. The crew arrive safely on scene, extinguish the fire and even make a save. Will the captain celebrate with the crew, or does the captain understand that regardless of the outcome, a policy violation occurred and must be addressed? And you, Chief, let’s say you knew this happened and that the captain chose not to discipline the engineer. Will you hold the captain accountable as well as the engineer?

In a nutshell, discipline must be prompt, fair, consistent and impartial. Without it, you’re sending the message that it’s not important to follow the systems in place at your department. And that’s a risk you can’t afford.

Recognize, prioritize, mobilize

I started this article by acknowledging the thousands of risks you face as a chief officer in the fire service and mentioning the need to recognize, prioritize and mobilize to respond to those risks. Hopefully, the “10 families of risk” and the “5 pillars of organizational success” I’ve shared today help you recognize and organize the risks you face.

The next two steps – prioritization and mobilization – are equally important, and they depend on
your analysis of what risks are greatest for your department and your people, and what resources you can tap into to address those risks.

I wish you great success in your role as your department’s Chief Risk Officer!

About the author

Gordon Graham is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and is the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. He is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney and has presented a commonsense approach to risk management to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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