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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 5, 2009 at 1:00pm

Great reply and exactly to my point. My tongue was planted firmly in my cheek when I asked the questions. Our duty to ourselves cannot be separated from our duty to our citizens. What is good for us is good for them, as you said. My point is also, are we seeing this trend to "write-off" because we have given-up the fight to provide our members with all of those things that are necessary to provide effective and efficient fire and rescue services? Have we rolled-over and given up our hopes to provide excellent service and the ability to accurately assess risk? Have we allowed those that seek to undermine our mission and to gain a foot hold? Have we become complacent because we don’t believe it can or will happen today? Are the enemies of the fire service going to be allowed to dismantle our combat readiness to the point where the easy or only option is to “write it off”?

Thanks for joining in this discussion. I fear that the current economic environment, combined with complacency and laziness will have a devastating effect on our ability to protect the citizens we are sworn to protect and ourselves.

Comment by Chris Fleming on January 5, 2009 at 9:02am
Excellent questions, Art! I agree that we have obligations to our citizens and our families, but I don't think they are mutually exclusive. Safe and effective firefighting practises mean less LODD and injuries, which benefits both groups. Effective and thorough fire prevention also benefits both groups. Becoming master craftsmen at our trade also benefits both. You can see where I'm going. The economist John Nash (subject of "A Beautiful Mind") proved that the only successful negotiation is win/ win. When one side lets down the other or fails to provide what is needed for the other to succeed, the result is cost for both parties. Poor building codes, lack of staffing, lack of personal responsibility for fitness and training, etc. are all examples of one side letting the other down. When it comes to risk analysis, all these factors have an effect on decision making. The worst thing a fire department could do is not give commanders the tools they need to make accurate decisions on the fire ground. Part of this is defining what is acceptable risk and what isn't. If you base your SOGs on fully staffed companies with appropriate response times and an accurate inspection program, but are rolling out the door with 2-3 firefighters with a long ride to a building noone has ever been in, you are asking for trouble. I think the key to defining risk is defining what is "A known life hazard". There are a thousand different opinions on this, but if you can define that you take away the most important question a fire ground commander has to ask his or her self.

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