Margins and risk: How firefighters apply margins in fireground decision-making

Focusing on margin gives us a great way to both monitor risk – and how we respond to it


Andrew Beck and Mark T. Smith are presenting “How risky is it? How we understand and communicate risk” at the IAFC’s ReIGNITE virtual conference on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020. Learn more and register here.

By Andrew Beck

Margin: The space between you and a hazard. The greater the margin, the more uncertainty and unpredictability you can withstand before you will be harmed.

Risk is a big part of our everyday work environment – and, naturally, we also talk about it a lot: “Risk a lot to save a lot,” “It’s not worth the risk,” “We need to reduce the risk ….” But do we know what we are saying? Can we tell when the risk level changes?

Focusing on margin gives us a great way to both monitor risk and how we respond to it. (Photo/Seattle Fire Department)
Focusing on margin gives us a great way to both monitor risk and how we respond to it. (Photo/Seattle Fire Department)

Humans’ brains are generally not very good at evaluating and weighing risk, and they are equally as bad at realizing when the level of risk has changed. It’s challenging to compare moment to moment when risk levels from different factors are continually changing. This can make it challenging to decide what risk to focus on and how to go about reducing it.

Are we just checking boxes?

When we focus on reducing risk, many times, we look at it from a rules/compliance standpoint. We try to imagine what things would remove the risk, protect us from it or displace it to somewhere else. We then monitor for compliance and work to ensure people follow the rules, as we feel that’s the easiest way to reduce exposure. We don’t leave much flexibility in the system for independent action, as that is looked at as a way to potentially shortcut the protection measures.

Don’t get me wrong; there is a place for this type of thinking. Some measures to protect us provide such a wide safety margin backed up by data that there is little disagreement that they should be used all the time. Examples include seatbelts and SCBAs.

It’s a slippery slope, however, because there is always ambiguity in our job environment, as we work in time-compressed and unpredictable situations.

Focusing on compliance with the rules can lead people to do things only to avoid violating policy, continuing to do something that may not create very much safety margin. A great example is the concept of a dedicated four-person rapid-intervention team (RIT). Many times, this is deployed at a fire as a way to comply with two-in/two-out rules, or to check the box that RIT is in place. In reality, we know from research that an average firefighter in full PPE will take 10-12 other firefighters to remove them from the building, and the entire incident goals and objectives will have to be re-evaluated to focus on rescuing the firefighter. In that light, the four-person RIT team standing in the front yard may not be offering nearly as much margin as we think it is, yet it’s done on almost every fire scene every day.

Focusing on margin allows us to be flexible and keep our eye on the ball, even if the situation changes. Think about it, which would you rather have? Let’s look back at the RIT team example.

We can take four people out of the mix for suppression and dedicate them to a RIT team, giving us a small increase in margin. This reduction in staffing itself can add risk depending on the number of firefighters available on scene. Alternativey, the firefighters on scene can stage rescue equipment in standardized location, and go to work “softening” the building by pre-staging ground ladders, removing obstacles to entry or egress on alternate doors, deploying backup hoselines and communicating these actions to the entire fireground.

In this example, the crews are contributing to accomplishing the suppression strategy, while improving margin if something does go wrong, allowing them to pivot to firefighter rescue faster and more effectively.

A focus on margin will also focus decision-making on the actions and interventions that will gain us the most margin balanced against the effort required in a given situation. Think of it as a margin budget. You want only to spend and reduce margin if you are getting a lot of bang for your buck. A viable rescue in a heavily involved compartment is a great example. You also want to make sure you don’t spend an overbearing amount of effort to gain only a small amount of actual margin in your account, something that potentially won’t be worth the effort.

Focusing on margin gives us a great way to both monitor risk and how we respond to it. It can help us monitor our situation while making real-word, in-the-moment decisions to keep us as safe as we can be while also efficiently accomplishing the mission.

It can also help an agency evaluate actions when something does not go as planned. If someone made a risk assessment and adjusted their safety margin in the heat of the moment, it should be evaluated based on the situation rather than simple rules compliance.

Share your stories or risk and margin

While we might not be good at talking about risk, we are good at sharing and retaining stories. We are hard-wired this way, and storytelling remains a powerful tool, even in our digital environment. Sharing stories of calls that went well or could have gone better is a great way to discuss the concept of margin while helping others learn from our experiences. If we don’t share our successes and failures, others are doomed to repeat them.

Submit your story to the Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System.

About the Author

Andrew Beck has been a member of the program staff for the IAFC’s Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System since 2015 as an instructor, reviewer and subject-matter expert. Beck started his fire service career in 2002 with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working in wildland fire operations. He then worked in wildland fire for the U.S. Forest Service from 2003-2006, when he transitioned to structural fire with the Mandan City (N.D.) Fire Department in Mandan, where he is currently on the training staff. Beck teaches thermal imaging at various regional fire schools and is a live fire instructor for the ND state firefighter’s association.

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