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Inciting Bravery - The realities of promoting risk-taking; Part 3 - Should we increase it?

So far in this series exploring the practical limitations inherent in any attempt to motivate firefighters to think less about their own safety and more about the lives and property we are sworn to protect; to display more boldness and less caution, I have suggested that the concept of heroism is so vague as to render it virtually useless as a tool for either change or measurement, and have proposed that the route to maximizing effort is to educate, demonstrate, and support the desired behaviors through training. So, while we can all bask in the warm glow of our profession’s high standing in the eyes of the public, being able to perform this job at the level that actually earns that esteem takes expert guidance and hard work. In this installment, we are going to look at the potential ramifications of any successful attempt at increasing our collective valor. That is, what is the cost vs. benefit of exposure to more danger?

Now, embarking on a discussion of such a fire service hot-button topic as "acceptable risk" is sure to inspire spirited and emotional responses, with every firefighter having their own sense of what is tolerable and manageable, and any of us qualified and ready to provide real-life examples of situations that provide evidence for or against a particular opinion. Before we get ourselves too wound up, though, rest assured that this assessment of the potential effects of any decrease in our collective safety level is meant merely to provide additional considerations for the decision making process, not necessarily to sway the decisions themselves. While I sure wish everyone would do things my way, I have no such delusions regarding my powers of persuasion, and will be satisfied if you just read this piece to the end and come away with some new information that will assist with your firefighting efforts. Additional insight is my intended contribution.

So, from my perspective, I see the primary effect of an increase in risk tolerance on the fireground as being an increase in the number and duration of interior operations by firefighters. Not that the time we spend inside a burning building is our only gauge of danger; it’s just that no one in our profession is advocating that we should stand closer to unstable structures, lighten up our burden with less robust PPE, take short-cuts on size-up, or abandon any of the other safeguards we have embraced in our pursuit of decreasing unnecessary firefighter casualties (with the possible exception of persistent annoyance with, and ignoring of, the Two-in/Two-out rule, which kind of falls into the same category, restricting as it does entry into an IDLH). Therefore, in my opinion, the practical result of accepting more risk will be earlier and more prolonged firefighting operations carried out inside involved structures.

Taking the next step in this logic path, the inevitable results of such a change in behavior will be both more victims saved and more firefighters injured or killed. These consequences, in my view, are not mere speculation, but represent the expected gains and losses from being located inside a burning building sooner and later. There will be more opportunities to both save occupants and to be affected by the hazards from which we are attempting to save them. The need for such a change has been a message repeated by many fire service commentators, so that the uptick in our rescue rate would be seen by that contingent as an improvement. Of course, others who have argued that we need to do more to prevent firefighter injuries and deaths would disagree. As promised, I will not wade into that debate today.

While it is impossible to state how much more success, in the form of rescues, vs. failure, in the form of firefighter casualties, we might expect, I am confident in predicting that failures will be the more common result. (I know; there I go.) The reality that mandates this conclusion is as follows: the percentage of searches that actually result in finding save-able victims, which is small already (that is, we go to lots of burning buildings, and rescue relatively few persons), will decrease further if we begin to search even more places with even lower chances of containing living occupants. (Admittedly and importantly, the percentage will never reach “zero”.) On the other hand, the danger to firefighters is at best independent of building occupancy, but likely greater if entry is being made based on a higher risk tolerance, so that our chances of injury will increase at least proportionally to the more frequent exposures. As the number of interior operations rises, our rate of success will decrease, while that of failure will rise, or at least stay steady, either way resulting in an unbalanced equation.

Still, though I am confident that the chance of harm to us is more likely than the chance of reducing harm to another, I am not saying that those harms are equal, or that the process of determining their relative importance is in any way a straightforward calculation. “Risk a lot to save a lot” is a simple phrase representing an intensely complex decision making process carried out in chaotic, time-pressured settings where uncertainty is the rule, rather than the exception. The internal conflict between self-preservation and duty is also an intense, personal, and ongoing process. Some will see the potential for making more rescues as worth the even larger number of firefighter casualties that would result. Some won’t. So, even if everyone reading this follows my train of thought and agrees with my conclusions (and, of course, many will not), the utilization of this awareness may do little to change firefighter behavior.

Why, then, take the time to ruminate on this topic? To highlight the effect of the law of diminishing returns on the process of firefighting. Viewing our operational choices in this context means that advocating that interior operations - search and fire extinguishment - should be undertaken sooner, as by not “waiting” to initiate water flow from the exterior, and at more incidents, specifically those where the chance of saving a life or property is less likely, must be understood to also be a call to further diminish the value of firefighters’ lives. Again, many have made the argument that our safety is secondary to the need to accomplish our tasks, a position that effectively dismisses mine. For those who might take a more nuanced approach to risk/benefit analysis, here is my key point: expecting personnel to further approach the limits of their abilities and equipment, in the dynamic and unpredictable environment inside a burning building, will increase failures more than it increases success. It might be uneventful most of the time, but, when it’s not, the results can be catastrophic. It’s all fun and games until someone loses a life.

Next installment of Inciting Bravery - The realities of promoting risk-taking
Part 4 - Summary


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