Friday, May 27, 2016

Assessing Risk Never Stops

[This article is a joint effort between Firehouse magazine and the Wildland Fire Leadership Development Program to promote firefighter health and wellness. We hope all firefighters, regardless of volunteer, structure or wildland, will glean something valuable.]

Golden ruler
(Photo credit: Cornstock Images)
The concept of risk permeates the fire service. We talk about risk/benefit analysis. Our “golden rule”—risk a lot to save a lot, risk little to save little, risk nothing to save nothing—is ingrained into us in the academy. (We could get into a debate about whether this rule serves us well— if a call is dispatched for a house fire with a report of people trapped, does that mean it’s OK to “risk a lot” by driving faster or not wearing a seatbelt? But that’s another article all together.) We are conscious that on every call, we put ourselves at risk, and we do it because we took an oath to serve the people.

Although risk affects every firefighter at every level, managing risk is one of the key challenges for fire service leaders. Successful fire service leaders take steps to identify and mitigate risks—for themselves, for their crews and, of course, for the people they serve.

Inadequate Training

One of the key observations coming out of the TAMPA2 summit on the Life Safety Initiatives was that the fire service has a training problem. Almost universally, new firefighters are well trained and well prepared. But after that, the level of training varies widely across the fire service. Some of this is due to department differences—large metro departments can afford a more formal approach to training, while some volunteer departments struggle to bring together their personnel once or twice a month.

But another big part of the difference is attributable to leadership. From the company officer on up, fire service leaders must make training a priority. Whether that training is every shift or once a month, it must be rigorous, realistic and matched to the types of incidents firefighters will face in their community. It is up to company officers to ensure that every member of the crew is an active participant in training, and that no training opportunity, however small, is wasted. Anything less creates an unacceptable risk when the tones go off.

The other thing that company officers must do—something that is much more difficult—is to understand exactly what the crew is trained to do, and to not commit them to situations that surpass that training. The courage and discipline required to pull back when necessary—these are true qualities of leadership.

Unfit, Unhealthy Firefighters

We talk about fire (or, as Frank Brannigan said, the building) as our enemy. But there’s another enemy within each of us: the voice that says it’s OK to skip a workout, or to swing by the fast food restaurant after that call instead of making a healthy meal in the station, or to drown out the haunting images of a tragic incident with another drink. Often, we are our own worst risk. Sadly, it has become the norm that more firefighters die in the line-of-duty from cardiac events than any other cause. Some of these cardiac events are not due to health or fitness factors, but many are. And behavioral health issues continue to affect a disproportionate number of firefighters.

In most professions it’s considered impolite to remark about someone’s fitness level, or inquire into their health. But the fire service is different. Company officers and leaders at all levels have an obligation to assess the fitness and health of their crew, and to intervene when they see problems developing. Lack of exercise, poor eating habits, sleep disorders, unusual behavior, signs of depression or suicidal ideation—all of these demand constant attention and, when necessary, remediation.

Lack of Community Support

We don’t often think of it as such, but one of the biggest risks we face as firefighters is that we will lose the support of the community we serve. It’s easy to think that we’ve climbed out of the “dark days,” when fire departments coast to coast were under attack by citizens who saw fire service pay, pensions and benefits as one of the systemic economic issues affecting their communities. Some of that pressure has eased in the years since, but we must remain vigilant. Without the support of the community, our funding, staffing and very existence is at risk.

Fortunately, there are countless ways company officers can influence community support. There are the little things—making every outing in the apparatus an opportunity for positive community interaction; taking time to reach out to curious children at the grocery store; training not just at the station but out in your first-due, as often as possible; taking a little extra time on EMS runs to identify slip-and-fall risks and other hazards to residents. And there are the bigger things—getting involved in building code regulations; attending community meetings; running for public office; advocating for fire sprinklers; embracing the fact that our biggest responsibility comes not in fighting the fire, but preventing it.

Stay Vigilant

We most often think about managing risk on the fireground. But threats to our survivability are all around us, and are not limited to fires and medical emergencies. Leaders in the fire service—from the chief down to the company officer and the senior firefighter—need to conduct ongoing risk assessments, and have the courage to intervene, even when it’s uncomfortable or outside the scope of an emergency call. Vigilance is essential.

TIMOTHY E. SENDELBACH is the Editor-in-Chief for Firehouse. A 29-year student and educator of the fire and emergency services, he is responsible for the content and editorial direction of Firehouse® Magazine,, Firehouse Expo, Firehouse World and related products. He has served as an assistant fire chief with the North Las Vegas, NV, Fire Department, as the chief of training for Savannah, GA, Fire & Emergency Services and as assistant fire chief for Missouri City, TX, Fire & Rescue Services. He is a credentialed Chief Fire Officer and Chief Training Officer and has earned a master’s degree in leadership from Bellevue University, bachelor’s degrees in fire administration and arson and an associate’s degree in emergency medical care from Eastern Kentucky University. You can e-mail him at

Editor’s note: Discuss fire service leadership and the NFFF’s New Goals initiative to reduce firefighter line-of-duty deaths to under 50 annually in the following Forums:
On a day-to-day basis, what are the biggest risks you face as a firefighter?
If you were exhibiting unhealthy habits such as overeating and not exercising, would you want your company officer to confront you, and why?

And find more information on the NFFF’s New Goals initiative at

We appreciate Firehouse and Editor-in-Chief Tim Sendelbach's permission to let us repost Assessing Risk Never Stops, June 22, 2015.

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