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Can we establish a common understanding of risk? or.. Should we write it off?

Can we establish a common understanding of risk? I believe that this is a very difficult question to answer. Risk, is in the eye of the beholder. The ability to adequately assess risk demands a high level of experience and training, a keen eye for detail, a thorough knowledge of building construction and an ability to process and make sense of incomplete information (much of which is of dubious value). The decisions born of this process are always time critical, often life and death and have to be made with very little information.

The reason I ask this question is that there seems to be a trend in the fire service to quickly “write-off” so called vacant, abandon, unoccupied structures or truss built and engineered lumber system buildings. These are my thoughts as I read through a thread in the Common Sense Firefighting group page. The group is tackling the truss. Well, you show me someone who can identify a “truss built” building every time and I’ll show you someone with x-ray vision. The problem as it relates to that discussion is that we are talking about two different animals. On the one hand, the “traditional “truss. The infamous bow-string and the like. On the other hand, we have the newer truss or as a friend from Chicago calls it the “sixth” type of building construction. This includes engineered and/or light-weight construction including the manufactured or engineered truss. He would call this “Type VI Construction”. Many “traditional” truss buildings are obvious and easily identified. Others are very difficult if not impossible to identify such as remodels and extensive near “tear-downs”. I would consider every strip-mall in America to be light-weight constructed. ETC………

In any case, there is obviously a point where the amount of fire combined with a weakened structure (based on time and construction type) will tip the scale of risk/benefit to the risk side and beg for a defensive attack. However, our job is to protect lives AND property. The best way to accomplish our job is to employ an aggressive, coordinated interior fire attack.

We know that most of the issues that lead to LODDs are repeated, time and again:
• Lack of or incomplete size-up
• Lack of command and control
• Lack of adequate staff
• Failure to wear PPE
• Failure to provide radios for all personnel
• Failure to perform annual physicals
• Failure to be seated and belted
• ETC…………

We need to provide our members with the necessary tools in order to expect a high level of performance. We need to develop what Chief McGrail calls the “firefighter mind-set” so that our members think and believe that it could happen today. If we believe it could happen today, we are compelled to prepare, we are compelled to develop the skills necessary to identify building construction types and we are compelled to develop the knowledge base that allows us to recognize rapidly changing fire conditions. If we believe it could happen today, maybe we will get in shape and stay in shape.

Let us not forget however, the fundamental difference between “us” and the rest of the world. When we take the oath, with our right hands raised, we agree to certain things and these things become our solemn duty, our obligation. These duties include the understanding that a time may and likely will come when we have to be willing to risk everything… save the life of a stranger. We also have a duty and obligation to take risk for a stranger’s property. That’s the deal, that is what makes us different from everyone else, with the exception of the military and……..grudgingly…..cops (ok, I said it).

To be sure, we have other obligations as husbands, wives, fathers and mothers. We have still more obligations and duties to our friends and extended families. However, our duty to perform our job and our obligation to the citizens we protect rightly takes precedence when faced with the saving of a life and given a fighting chance. When our citizens, in spite of all of our education and prevention efforts, end up needing to be rescued, we are all they have. No one else will come, they will surely die alone if not for our efforts.

We also have solemn duties and obligations regarding our brothers and sisters in this service. Because we are all we have when, in spite of our best efforts, extensive training and desire, we get lost, separated, disoriented or trapped. Those obligations include; getting and staying fit, seeking continuous improvement, building the skills necessary to assess risk and rapidly changing fire conditions. Our duty also demands that we train and learn and become craftsmen in our profession, because our lives depend on it. Because in the end, no one else will come, and we will surely die alone if not for OUR efforts. we discuss the truss and other topics in this fine site, can we agree that our Duty and our Obligation to the citizens and each other requires us to take risk? The question is, how much, who decides and is that person capable of making a sound risk assessment. Do we have the experience, the knowledge? Do we provide our members with the necessary tools to assess risk and make sound decisions on the fireground? Or..... should we stay outside and write it off?

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Comment by Art Zern on January 25, 2009 at 2:51pm

Thank you for your comments. You have helped to more clearly define and bring added depth to this discussion. I believe this is one of the more important discussions we need to have today. We can do our job in an agressive manner safe. We shouldn't be seeking excuses not to do our job. We should invest the time in training, learning, reading and thinking, could be the day.
Comment by Bruce Green on January 25, 2009 at 2:30pm
Nicely done,Michael
Comment by Michael Bricault (ret) on January 25, 2009 at 1:42pm
-Art, once again you have made some great observations and some valid points that may cause a sting t some that have "forgotten" or "overlooked" our mission and instead have substituted excuses for competence.
-In accordance with your thoughts it is appropriate to mention that I have tweaked the Risk/Benefit analysis mantra somewhat and teach it so that it reads:
1. Risk a lot to save a life.
2. Risk little for property.
3. Risk nothing for what is already gone.
-To that end, we must always be mindful of another point that you made and something I enjoy throwing into the Risk/Benefit mix when addressing vacant structures; Vacant buildings do not set themselves on fire. Short of a lightning strike, someone got in and started the fire; either by accident or design and that person could very well still be inside and in need of assistance or rescue. (Even arsonists need to be rescued- so they can stand trial)
-The point is, even though the structure is abandoned it cannot be considered vacant until firefighters enter the occupancy and confirm that the structure is clear and devoid of life. Granted that given the condition of the structure and the state of the fire must be factored into the Risk/Benefit model but, the structure will be searched regardless of wether the search takes place when the first company arrives or when it is a heap of smoldering ashes it will be searched. Ideally the search will take place in accordance with a solid Risk/Benefit analysis and the primary search will happen in a timely enough manner so as to protect any savable lives.
-The only time a structure will not be subjected to a primary search is if the structural stability of the occupancy has been compromised to the point that it would needlessly endanger firefighters to enter the structure or the interior environment is incompatible with human live.
-But again, firefighters must be mindful of the resiliency of the human form and that some people can take tremendous abuse before they actually die. In short, we must be reasonably certain before suspending the primary search because it is tantamount to issuing a death sentence to anyone still inside a structure during a fire.
-This does not mean that we will take foolish chances in order to carry out a primary search. In fact, professional firefighting has always been about calculated risks not foolish chances. As Art pointed out at the beginning of the post, "Risk, is in the eye of the beholder. The ability to adequately assess risk demands a high level of experience and training, a keen eye for detail, a thorough knowledge of building construction and an ability to process and make sense of incomplete information".
-I would remind us all of an old axiom, "The devil is in the details", and details will make or break the incident. As Tom Brennen was fond of saying, "It's all about the basics; it's always been the basics".
-With an understanding of Risk must come an understanding and appreciation of the interrelationship between tasks on the fireground.
-The nozzle teams job is not to put out the fire but rather to protect, support and facilitate those performing the primary search. Once the search is complete the suppression takes place.
-All to often we see suppression being paramount in everyones mind and the search being nothing more than an afterthought. The survivability of the structure is placed ahead of the survivability of the occupants. The fire is attacked with abandon and the thermal layering is sacrificed in the name of structural stability.
-The nozzle teams supports and protects those members performing the primary search until the search is complete. Locate, CONFINE, Extinguish. The vent team supports and facilitates all members entering the occupancy, improving the working conditions, the tenability of the environment and maybe buying a few more precious seconds of life for anyone trapped until searching firefighters can find the victim.
-Another ism we teach our new people Ad nauseam is LIP- Life Safety, Incident Stabilization and Property Conservation. All to often though it seems that it happens IPL, when in truth saving property is a consequence of what we do. The very reason we exist at all as firefighters is to save lives first and foremost. Saving property is secondary to the issue.
-I recently was involved in another discussion on this very matter and was told that it is all about saving property as well and that it isn't secondary at all but equally important, You know, Lives and Property". My response was really? Do you really believe that? When was the last time you did ant salvage work at all? When was the last time you took the time to cover or remove property before performing wreaking ball type overhaul?
-None of this is should be interpreted to imply that we don't perform salvage or protect property but lets keep things in proper perspective. LIP Life safety first with all tasks interrelating, furthering and supporting each other, performing a proper Risk/Benefit analysis and achieving our goals correctly and safely.
-There are no such thing as vacant structures, abandoned- yes, vacant- No, not until they have been searched. Abandoned structures are great playgrounds for kids, homes for the homeless and drug dens for the addicted. Search, safely and intelligently. We must all strive to Be thinking firefighters and not reacting ones.
Comment by Art Zern on January 8, 2009 at 4:51pm
Todd, Jim and Ray,

That is exactly my point. I just finished a similar thought on the RIT/RIC discussion thread in the CSF group. The “enemy within” continues to seek reductions in staffing, reduce response levels, dilute training programs and forces us to embrace any number of programs that don’t contribute to maintaining combat readiness. We are losing our edge, and the result I fear, is a further dismantling of our ability to protect the citizens and ourselves.

I believe that a steady decline in basic, fundamental skill level, combined with laziness and a complacent attitude have conspired to increase the risk to firefighters everywhere. We have to stop diminishing ourselves and our service by placing the responsibility for our safety and well being on anyone else. The responsibility is ours, individually and collectively.
Comment by Todd Trudeau on January 8, 2009 at 4:37pm
I've been wondering the same thing Ray mentioned, started to think I was in another world or something. I got into this job to help people and their property. And to me that doesn't mean helping them collect insurance on a total loss because we stood outside and sprayed water.

Teaching and practicing the fundamentals of the job is what is going to get things done safely. Functioning at the level of the least motivated person seems to be the norm where I'm at though and that is a BIG safety issue. I think some jobs could be handled with the minimum of property damage by using the can, but we don't seem to want to use it. We'll stretch a line and set up RIT and by that time, the can won't be the tool needed. I'm still learning...
Comment by Jim Mason on January 8, 2009 at 3:56pm
I like Ray's post. I think that the reason that some chiefs are willing to give up for safety is that they haven;t trained the FF's up We may be too busy doing all the things that should be done other than get them ready to fight fires. So falling back to a defensive attack ( it doesn;t happen that much there , anyways) makes sense based on the preparation that was supposed to be done , but wasn't.
Comment by Wayne Benner Jr on January 8, 2009 at 12:26pm
Found this article while surfing. Talks about risk and etc.$60325
Comment by Wayne Benner Jr on January 7, 2009 at 6:25pm
Risk = Firefighting
Safety = Commen scense
Been there done that = A Jake who should stay home
I saw a video of the FDNY and a Captain was telling the recruits to look around the room as one of them will die during the rest of the others career. Im sure it was a a motivation speach but also a fact when the FDNY runs thousands of working calls. Could you imagine if they didnt take any risks how many would die and building would be lost.

Yes we are losing alot of firefighters but are we losing them do to risk our to our own fireground screw ups. Such as water loss, or not putting the water on the fire right away or I/C having a brain fart.
We spend so much time on RIT and Firefighter survival (which is very important) but not on fire suppression and Building construction which I believe to be the #1 topics in keeping our butts safe.
I might as well become a mailman if were not going to the job I signed up for.
Risk is part of the job.
What we as a fire service needs to do is quit pointing fingers learn from our mistakes and move forward not backwards.

Keep your sticks on the ice and your heads up
Comment by Jeff Betz on January 6, 2009 at 4:24pm
Art, you bring up an excellent discussion, and I agree with your position (in respect to using the easy way out). As an older guy now in the service, I have seen the changes over the years from when we were WAY too aggressive and macho, to the point where we scare the heck out of everyone in basic training.
If I understand you correctly, the crux of the issue is maintaining the fire service as a profession (while being smart and safe), or getting lazy and writing off every fire without a baby in the upstairs window for us to go rescue. I have the same fear occasionally when I discuss these issues with others, and come away shaking my head. It's usually about these times that I apply one of my favorite quotes:
Illegitimi non carborundum - jokingly taken to mean "don't let the bastards grind you down".
Comment by Jim Mason on January 5, 2009 at 8:34pm
I like to think of risk in a fire ground manner - We want to do what we need to do. This is our duty. The fire presents challenges for us to complete this. Location and extent vs. construction style and the way the buidling will perform with the current fire situation inside. The pressure gets cranked up when victim possibility and vicitm probabailtiy is added to the equation.

We have to qucikly and coldly factor this in without getting excited. Can we get in do what we want to do based on the resources, FF experince, etc... and get back out? Some times our goal of protecting lives and porperty needs to be curtailed back to saving just the lives of the civilians. Sometimes the goal must be scaled back even more. in this one the saving lives will only be ourselves. The buidling and any vicitms inside are lost. For me, what I ask myself is this , what is the goal here and can we get in and out to do it? The answer to the problem is found by something that combines actual experince, what we have learned from past fires that we read opr heard about along with what we can predict will happen while we are inside and before we get out of the building. A margin of "industrial sized mistakes" must be added into the equation for what we don;t know this instant that we are making the decision because things can and will happen. We can not try to live by luck.

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