Risk dominance: A better approach to firefighter safety
Firefighters can incorporate tried-and-true military strategies to minimize line-of-duty deaths
When a firefighter dies in the line of duty, there are no happy endings. The cascade of life alterations lasts for generations. We attempt to assuage our grief with ceremonial tributes, memorials, benefits and other efforts, but who wouldn’t trade all the bagpipes, seas of blue, mourning bands, white gloves and last rides to have the firefighter still with us?
Unfortunately, as long as we fight fire, there will be line-of-duty deaths (LODDs). However, a significant number of after-action reviews (AARs) conclude that many LODDs are preventable. Armed with this knowledge, we need to find the balance between reactively “justifying” an occupational death and proactively working harder to reduce a firefighter’s last call. One link in the chain of death we can attack is our interpretation of risk.
Talking about risk
The concept of “risk” elicits visceral reactions among firefighters, superseding reactions to any other four-letter word uttered in a firefighting conversation. Half of the group views the other half as having gone into the wrong vocation (aka being overly risk averse), while the other half views the first as having an incomprehensible death wish (aka being recklessly risk inclined). Neither group budges from their respective fortresses, leaving a chasm one could liken to a mass grave.
A natural extension of this stubbornness is performance degradation. The pattern mismatch resulting from these clashing operational concepts of risk “management” throws incident scenes into unnecessary and disorganized chaos ripe for catastrophe. If we are true professionals, as we all profess to be, it doesn’t have to – and shouldn’t – be this way.
Can we call a truce and consider a new approach to achieve our common goal of making the situation better for our community members facing the worst day of their lives?
A better way to frame risk minimization
I propose a new mindset: Rather than risk management, let’s instead strive for risk dominance. Hear me out. Much of the divisiveness surrounding go/no-go decisions, exterior water, luck versus skill, venting or not venting the roof, and many other contrasting concepts about firefighting are all steeped in the notion of managing risk. But “managing” can come across as imprecise, and many firefighters think in black and white. I believe this perception of “management” is the root of the schism.
Managing risk suggests one is attempting to achieve operational objective(s) by boxing the concept of risk into a corner like a circus lion tamer with a chair and whip. But sometimes the lion gets fed up with having the whip snapped at it and the chair thrust in its face, and it lashes out. The outcome of the lion’s vision of the storyline to the tamer’s vision far exceeds the strength of the chair, the length of the whip, or the rip stop capability of the lion tamer’s clothes.
The same can be said for how we approach “managing” the risks in firefighting. Most of the time, risk management efforts work to the firefighters’ favor when they are consciously employed, or the firefighter’s bucket of luck still has some good fortune sloshing around. But when conditions are misinterpreted, or when the luck bucket is empty, the outcomes align with the lion’s version of the taming demonstration. In short, someone gets hurt, or worse.
What if we approach risk with a different mindset? Rather than looking at a dangerous situation and pondering ways to put a box around the hazards (manage), we adopt the concept of risk dominance – looking at the situation with a more calculated eye, keenly focused on proactive steps to ensure that we’re prepared to dominate the threat, not just hold it at bay.
Lessons from military strategy
We can’t eliminate risk from fire and rescue activities – and this discussion does not suggest we ever will. However, we can do a much better job of dominating the risks in firefighting through a mindset of achieving overwhelming superiority.
To shift from managing risk to dominating risk, the tried-and-true military strategies of attrition, annihilation or exhaustion are easily employed in the firefighting realm. Each seeks to dominate the “enemy” through overwhelming superiority by:
- Eroding the enemy’s power (attrition);
- Destroying the enemy (annihilation); or
- Wearing down the enemy’s will to fight (exhaustion).
The key to dominating the risks that firefighters face is achieving overwhelming superiority through overwhelming force. And the way to become an overwhelming force is to be educated in the principles of dominating fire, physically fit and mentally tough enough to overwhelm the fire, and tenacious enough to outlast the fire’s energy. We achieve this superiority through constantly preparing before engaging in fire suppression, and by remaining properly oriented to the resources-to-conditions ratio when firefighting. Then, and only then, do we achieve the risk dominance needed to best serve the public and preserve firefighters’ lives.
Putting a risk-dominance mindset into action
The next step is to actively apply this mindset. Approach every threatening situation with these steps:
- Take nothing for granted when it comes to mitigating emergencies. Candidly assess how much of your last success was due to knowledge, skills, and abilities (KSAs) – frank assessments that ensure your performance is conscious and intentional, versus blindly aggressive and lucky.
- Stay properly trained and physically and mentally fit. Test your capabilities constantly to ensure peak operational readiness.
- Seek up-to-date knowledge to ensure you are always on top of the latest threats and properly armed to improve the situation. The world we’re fighting fire in isn’t the same as it was 10 years ago, let alone 20. If you are fighting today’s lithium-ion battery fire using what you learned about battery fires in 2013 or even 2003, you are part of the risk, not part of the solution.
- Be aware that the storyline you envision (“Everything goes according to my plan, and we all get back to the station before dinner gets too cold”) may not be shared by your antagonist (e.g., the fire, the overturned vehicle, the gas leak, the violent patient, the burning scooter in a bedroom).
- Check your senses constantly to ensure you are properly oriented to your surroundings and aware of the limitations you face (e.g., limited information, limited resources, limited skills, suppressed senses).
Arrogance kills. Complacency kills. Distraction kills. Fixation kills. Freelancing kills. Uncontrolled aggressiveness kills. Each of these killers is the result of not properly orienting to the situation.
Remaining consciously oriented to the event is the key link to survival. This includes acting on instincts when something doesn’t feel right, instead of making a note and continuing on the path to disaster. It also includes bringing superior forces to bear, consciously assessing progress, and fighting with the knowledge that our superior preparation is actively controlling the emergency. These are the purposeful steps to reduce preventable LODDs.
And, when we can’t dominate the risk because we don’t have the right combination of knowledge or resources, there is one more military strategy to employ – the Fabian Strategy: Hold the enemy at bay until superiority can be obtained. Because when a firefighter dies in the line of duty, there are no happy endings.
- Bateman, R. (2015, November 30). “There Are Three (And Only Three) Types of Military Strategy.” Esquire.
- Cohen-Hatton, S. (2020). “The Heat of the Moment: Life and Death Decision-Making From a Firefighter.” Black Swan.
- UL FSRI Fire Safety Academy