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Hump Day SOS - Have We Tipped the Scales?

 

Have We Tipped The Scales? Risk Management vs Risk Avoidance

Edited version of a fb post by my friend Chris Wessels:

Firefighter safety and how to prioritize it continues to be debated throughout the fire service. Since my first days in the fire service I have always been taught that firefighter safety is our number one priority, because we cannot help others if we get hurt. However, this statement doesn’t mean we will not take risks, it means that we use the principles of risk management as we face the dangers of the job. How should we do we do that?

Firefighting is a skilled trade, and like most skilled trades, there are levels of competence that are achieved through training and experience. For the sake of this discussion, let’s utilize the trade terms Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master Craftsman. As you begin your career as a rookie “Apprentice” your skill level is low and your task execution time is high. As you gain experience and support it with training, you become a Journeyman. As a Journeyman your skill level is at a high level and your ability to execute tasks becomes more efficient. All this time your experience enables you to take calculated risks (aka risk management) and effectively mitigate hazards. As a Journeyman you are the “go-to-guy”. As your skill and experience increase, you get to a point where you are at the top of your game, you make critical decisions quickly and efficiently and once again you make sound decisions to manage risk. This is when you become a master craftsman. In our profession the Master Craftsman is that senior apparatus operator, seasoned company officer, hard core senior firefighter, and that chief officer who has commanded the worst of the worst incidents.

This system has served our professional well for a long time. Where the system fails is when members miss out on the progression of skill and experience. In other words, they leave fire operations at the Apprentice or early Journeyman level of their career and then re-enter at a position that requires a Master Craftsman level of skillsets. When this occurs, they have the responsibility of critical life safety decisions but do not have the Journeyman and Master Craftsman level of experience and knowledge. This is the point where firefighter safety morphs from risk management to risk avoidance. We as a service cannot adequately serve our citizens in a risk avoidance posture. Our profession will always have inherent dangers, however dealing with and not avoiding those dangers is the most effective way to serve our citizens.

So what is the answer? Simple, ensure that the members responsible for critical emergency scene decisions have ascended through the levels of our trade (Apprentice, Journeyman, & Master Craftsman) so that they have the knowledge, skill, and courage to make decisions from a risk management perspective rather than a posture of risk avoidance. We owe it to that elderly, mobility impaired citizen who cannot self-rescue from a structure fire. We owe it to those in our communities who cannot help themselves. If not us….who?

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The Hump Day SOS has addressed this in several editions but I thought it would be good to hear it from someone else. It's not that complicated. Competence and experience gained through correct training and lessons learned from real experiences = good decision making and situational awareness which leads to good risk management. A key component is this process is our member understanding the experience and not assuming they know why. I think this is where the UL / NIST research comes into play. We need to know why what happened, happened. Knowledge in fire dynamics and fire behavior is just as critical as building construction, incident command and everything else we attempt to master. It all leads us to be better decision makers on the fire ground.

Researchers have told us that it takes 10,000 hours with a given subject matter to become an “expert at something ”. Even when we follow this process and completely develop a member to the expert level, that does not mean they will not get hurt. They will however prevent more injuries with their competence and ability but injuries and deaths alone cannot be the benchmark of success. When we compare ourselves to other trades who operate in similar high risk situations we find that we really do a phenomenal job based on the potential risk despite what some will lead you to believe. 

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