What every fire officer must understand about their responsibility

Risk management and policy are vital to protecting your crew, department and community


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By Billy Goldfeder and Gordon Graham

Without question, when it comes to running the firehouse, the department or the emergency scene, the fire officer – from company officer to chief officer – is our favorite subject. Time and time again, we have been able to review problems (both predictable as well as post-incident), and in the great majority of cases, the problem could have been avoided or curtailed if the company officer was properly prepared, trained and equipped to lead.

It’s important for officers to understand the root causes of firefighter injury and death so they know what to train for in advance and then execute on the scene to ensure scene safety. (Photo/Loveland-Symmes Fire Department)
It’s important for officers to understand the root causes of firefighter injury and death so they know what to train for in advance and then execute on the scene to ensure scene safety. (Photo/Loveland-Symmes Fire Department)

Think about some of the challenges you have faced in the last year. Do you conduct post-incident analyses and consider what could have been different? In almost every case, the fire officer was the strong – or the weak – link related to the specific risk.

The risk management connection

Everything we do in the fire service involves a level of risk, be it the risks related to tactical operations or the risk of people in the firehouse. The phrase “risk management” is a very common term in today’s fire service, but what is real risk management? It is certainly more than just operational and tactical safety issues. Everything you do in your organization involves a level of risk.

Key to this is knowing how to recognize real risk and how to prioritize these risks. Just like when we perform a size-up upon arrival at an incident, we should also perform size-ups well before an incident. Some examples:

  • Size up your first-due area: What are you protecting? What are the challenges? Have you actually been inside the buildings? Are you familiar with the buildings?
  • Size up your crew: What’s your staffing? What are their capabilities? What additional training is needed?
  • Size up your crew from a personnel standpoint: Who are the top performers? Who are the slackers? What actions will you take to get that part of “your house” in order?

These size-ups can help departments evaluate their level of risk.

Root causes of tragedy

There are several root causes of tragedies in the fire service. It’s important that fire officers understand the difference between “proximate” cause and those problems “lying in wait” – sometimes for years – that went ignored and really led to the given tragedy.

A simple review of post-incident reports, including NIOSH Firefighter Fatality reports and other LODD and line-of-duty injury (LODI) reports, shows that the same problems occur in many fatality and injury incidents:

  • Poor arrival size-up
  • Poor communication
  • Lack of accountability
  • Lack of interagency training, especially in areas where mutual aid/automatic aid is a daily occurrence
  • Lack of common policies and procedures
  • Poor decision-making
  • Lack of trained, qualified and experienced leadership
  • Lack of company, organizational and leadership preparedness

Recognizing the common factors involved in LODD and LODI incidents better positions departments to mitigate the risks before they become tragedies.

Five pillars of success

Avoiding tragedy on the fireground often comes down some very basic strategies. We call them the five pillars of success:

  1. Getting and keeping good PEOPLE
  2. Developing great fire department POLICY
  3. Ensuring that firefighter and fire officer TRAINING is taken seriously
  4. Making sure that company officers and department supervisors are providing quality SUPERVISION
  5. Emphasizing the importance of the DISCIPLINE process

When officers focus on these five elements, they help develop a fire department culture rooted in consistency and safety.

3 steps of behavioral modification

It’s impossible to discuss barriers to risk management without addressing behavioral change. There are three steps to behavioral change:

  1. Training and "self" enforcement: The organization spent time and invested resources to ensure that their personnel were trained and qualified to do what they are expected to do. When this occurs successfully, the personnel know what the right decision is and makes it; therefore, the behavior has been modified from untrained to trained, which equals qualified.
  2. Peer modification and supervision: Sometimes we veer from our training and need a “coach” to remind us to do this or that. Example: You are driving an apparatus too fast and your company officer reminds you to slow down. You then immediately recognize what you should be doing vs. what you were doing.
  3. The point of no return: This is when the above systems failed and there was a devastating outcome. You didn’t follow policy, your initial training failed, or peer or supervision failed, and the end result was a critical injury or death from which you cannot go back. This can be the impetus for change.

It’s vital that departments manage risk by focusing on the first two options, not waiting until a critical failure to make a change. And when a critical failure does occur, it’s important for other fire departments to watch and learn from that experience to help prevent similar critical failures at their own department.

Fire department staffing

One of the biggest issues related to risk management is department staffing. Regardless of how many firefighters your agency has, there must be a clear understanding about the balance between the number of firefighters responding and the department’s ability to have some level of predictable success. 

Quite frankly, this is simple math, as firefighting is task-oriented. Period. It is impossible to accomplish certain “minimally required” tasks if the staffing is not on the scene. For example, if a department responds with five or six firefighters to a 2,000-square-foot, two-story working fire dwelling, the crew may be able to establish water supply (if hydrated) and pump, stretch a line (two firefighters and one office) and force entry (two firefighters). No other tasks can be accomplished!

The question is, without adequate and trained staffing, who is going to stretch the second line, which is mandatory; perform ventilation; conduct search and rescue; operate in the basement or upstairs floors; perform truck work, such as searching for extension; be on standby for rapid-intervention operations; manage accountability; or serve as sector commanders to ensure your personnel are performing their jobs safely to manage the risks on the emergency scene?

Over the years, we have seen staffing dwindling to less and less because of a failure of city and fire managers to properly look out for both their citizens and their firefighters. This “loss” made it even more clear that a national standard was needed to further enhance the safety of our firefighters as well as look out for the interests of those we serve.

Minimum standards are just that – minimum. We have identified what must be minimally done to properly do the job of a fire department – and the organization must be cost-effective. That’s right! The cost of any fire department must be able to justify the effectiveness of that agency when the call for the expected emergency services comes in. And, when that call does come in, will that department be able to perform the tasks listed above? A fire department must be able to correspond to the needs, expectations and circumstances of the individual community. That is exactly why a minimum standard, such as NFPA 1710/1720 is so critical to benefit the community, its firefighters and maybe even the chief in the area of liability. 

Fire department policy

Transitioning to officer from firefighter is arguably the biggest challenge any person in our profession (career or volunteer) faces. Going from “one of the gang” to the “leader of the pack” is a huge change, in addition to formal training, education and life experiences. As such, the organization’s policy becomes the “heart” of day-to-day operations. After all,

  • Successful hiring is based upon good policy
  • Successful training is based upon good policy
  • Successful station operations is based upon good policy
  • Emergency response is based upon good policy
  • Tactical operations is based upon good policy

And NONE of that happens without good people training on, using, understanding and following that good policy

Put your wants aside: Consistency is key

Gone are the days when Captain A does things HIS way, but Captain B does things her way, because few things leave the organization (and the leadership) wide open to life-altering risk – be it physical, traumatic or legal – more than inconsistent policies. While that may have been the old way, it simply cannot survive long in today's environment of accountability. Whether one officer longs for the "old days" or a new fire officer wants to speak “Millenialeze,” our personal wants or likes are irrelevant when we are responsible for those under our command.

About the Authors

Chief Billy Goldfeder, EFO, a firefighter since 1973, serves as deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes (Ohio) Fire Department. LSFD is an ISO Class 2, full-service ALS department providing a full range of traditional and non-traditional emergency and community services. He is the former chair of the IAFC VCOS and is a member of the Board of Directors of: The IAFC, The September 11th Families Association, The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation; and he provides expert review assistance to the CDC NIOSH Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program. Goldfeder is the recipient of numerous operational and administrative awards, appointments and recognitions; has served on several NFPA and IAFC committees; and has authored numerous articles and presented several sessions at industry events. Goldfeder co-hosts the website www.FireFighterCloseCalls.com.

Gordon Graham is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management

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