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Avoiding Risk Doesn't Make You Safe: It's All About Perception

            There’s a risk to not taking risks, it’s unsafe. Is that possible? I think so, and in today’s time I feel like some have enveloped themselves so much in being safe, that they no longer train to a standard that allows them to be prepared and competent. That’s unsafe. This does not mean that being safe isn’t necessary, and I would never advocate doing tasks that are unsafe just for the sake of doing them, that’s a suicide mission. However, there is no better safety factor than competence and realistic training, preparing yourself for the time you’ll need those skills on the streets. When we perform unsafe tasks in controlled environments that challenge us, and we do this over time, we build muscle memory, skill, and mastery. Those things make the once unsafe practice, safer. The decision-making process surrounding risk is about making a choice from options, and while risk aversion is good for the bosses, it’s bad for their people.

            What is risk? Is your risk the same as my risk? What is unsafe? Is your unsafe different than my unsafe? I was speaking with a group of peers a few months back and we were discussing this exact topic; risk, being safe, and the thought process by some that avoiding risk altogether would keep everyone safe. We all came to the conclusion that risk aversion doesn’t make you safer, it actually does the complete opposite, it sets you up for failure. The fire service has almost numbed itself to certain operations by avoiding risks and telling everyone to be safe for every little thing we do and not allowing the practice of some skills under tough conditions. The firefighters that weren’t allowed to train and drill on a certain skill because it was deemed unsafe by someone will be expected to perform that operation on scene one day, however, they’ll have no prior skills, experience, or mindset to draw from. The conditions will be real and there will be no control factor. The public will expect the crews to execute a plan because that’s what they said they would do, but they won’t be able to because they didn’t train on it. This is a recipe for disaster.

            In this same group, a person was discussing how they listened to a rock climber speak about how he prepared to climb a rock facing off rope, or soloing, meaning he was free climbing a rock wall. If he fell it would lead to his certain death because he has no rope to catch his fall. There are some who might think that’s unsafe and the chance that he doesn’t make it is high, but to the climber, he’s in the safest and most controlled environment he could be in. How is this so? He has no rope, no life line. He discussed further why he believed he was safe and the risk was small. He described many trips up that rock wall, on rope, planning his climbing route. He had climbed that particular rock facing numerous times before, learning every crack and groove. He memorized where he had to pinch and crimp to maintain his grip, where the best footing was, when to go left, straight up, side step, and spots he could pause and get a rest in before continuing. He knew everything he needed to know and did this over and over and over on rope building repetition and preparing for the off rope climb. He went on to delve further. He needed ten hours of sleep the night before, he only climbed on days that had a wind of less than five miles an hour out of a certain direction, a certain humidity had to be in the air, and when he woke up and put his climbing shoes on, if they didn’t feel right when he slipped his foot in, he didn’t climb that day.

          The day comes to climb off rope, he gets up after a solid night of rest, he does all the things mentioned above. He checks the weather to ensure the parameters are met and he slides his shoes on to ensure they feel right. It’s all perfect, he grabs his chalk bag and gear, and off he goes. So, picture this, he gets to the rock facing and begins his ascent on the well-prepared climbing route and as you’re standing there watching him climb you hear a person next to you say, “Oh my gosh, that’s so unsafe and risky, why would he do this?” Is the climber’s level of risk the same level of risk the person speaking would have if they were to start soloing this rock wall because he is doing it? Their risk would be much higher, right? The probabilities of them falling would be exponentially greater than his because they don’t have his skillset, his knowledge of the rock, and they didn’t put themselves in the realistic training environment that he did to prepare himself for that climb. The climber has taken a high-risk low-frequency event and made the frequency of performing a task higher, minimizing the level of risk to himself per se’. He has built recognition of the wall. He now has the recognition prime decision-making skills to execute this solo run, he loaded his mental hard drive. Is the unknown of all the training before hand to the person speaking a poor perception of what’s going on?

          If this rock climber crawled into a high-risk environment such as a structure fire, would his risk be equal to mine considering the experience, training, and knowledge that I’ve gained from fighting fires and preparing myself and he having nil? I believe not, even though we would be up against the same rock wall and the same structure fire, the risk is higher for both of us as we step into the other’s arena. This is no different than someone with little to no roof work skills and experience commenting on a person’s video of firefighters performing vertical ventilation. This person doesn’t know the skill level, experience, or training of the firefighter’s in the video, but his perception is that it’s not safe. In the non-experienced person’s mind, they’re taking too much of a risk up there [on the roof]. However, to the crews on the roof that made their diagnostic cuts, identified the construction they’re working on, sounded to their cut location, put the perfect cut sequence down, sounded back, and exited the roof; all whilst maintaining situational awareness like they had trained and choreographed to do, they were safe. The risk is still present, but the training in a realistic environment minimized it and made the operation safer.

         This example can be applied to almost anything, you see, it’s all about perception, preparation, repetition, and training. We cannot afford to not perform certain operations because they seem unsafe to someone, we should use a realistic training environment to hone our skills, but avoiding risks altogether as firefighters, training officers, or departments because we think something is unsafe, is the most unsafe thing we can do. In the end, risk aversion is not the answer, but building competence is.



Stay “Safe”


“There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception.” - Aldous Huxley


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Comment by Mark J. Cotter on June 28, 2018 at 9:49pm


I agree wholeheartedly with your premise that risk must be addressed and prepared for, instead of merely avoided, but take issue with your choice of rooftop ventilation as an example.  Those of us who are arguing against the use of vertical ventilation are motivated by the new understanding that such an action increases the production of heat and smoke more than it releases either, not because of any shortfall in our training, experience, or courage.  In fact, I come from a department whose members are quite adept at this tactic.  While I am guilty of having commented on a video of firefighters performing rooftop ventilation and questioned the value of that action, I also specifically noted the obvious skills of the firefighters depicted.  The key issue in the vertical ventilation debate regards whether it worsens or improves interior conditions, and dismissing one side as timid or ill-prepared is as inaccurate as labelling the other as suicidal or ignorant.  That said, your main point that risk is better confronted than avoided is on the mark, and helps to better frame the whole risk/benefit decision making process.

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