Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Dealing With the Issue of Risk In the Fire Service

Dealing With the Issue of Risk In the Fire Service

There are few jobs, which expose it’s employees (career or volunteer) to risk more then the fire service. The risks we face have caused line-of-duty deaths exceeding 100 per year and injury rates that exceed 38,000 per year. Todays fire service expectations are unmatched in the types of service we are expected to deliver. Along with that increased expectation, comes a correlating increase in the complexity of the risk we face.

Webster’s dictionary defines risk as someone or something that creates or suggests hazard. By nature, the very work we do is and will continue to expose us to high levels of risk. The fact that we perform a dangerous job should not equate to acceptable levels of death or injuries, unfortunately death and injuries are likely to be a part of our profession.

Reducing fireground deaths and injuries must be one of the highest priority of all fire service leaders. Unfortunately, while serving as a firefighter and in several positions of leadership in the District of Columbia Fire Department, I experienced far to many of these incidents. Rarely a day goes by, that I do not think about those whom we have lost. I have spent countless hours with injured firefighters and their families in the local Burn Center, sitting- watch during the long and painful process that accompanies these injuries. I have and will continue to focus on making the fireground as safe as we can feasibly make it, while keeping my efforts on building strong company officers and stronger incident commanders

Let me put out a disclaimer. Some will view my posts as controversial, some as thought provoking, and some as out right blasphemy. My intentions will always be to inspire critical thought on the very important topic of fireground management and firefighter safety. Critical thinking is being disciplined and thoughtful in how we apply, process, analyze and synthesize information as a guide to, belief (personal truths/values) and action (how we as leaders identify problems and resolve them). The fire service by nature is filled with highly emotional, Type A personalities. While this has long been considered one of the greatest strengths, it would stand to reason that it has also become one of our greatest weaknesses.

Todays fire service is facing countless challenges. Navigating these challenges will take courageous leadership and a strong ability to become critical in thought. “Emotional” thought is one of the single biggest pitfalls we face today. Generally speaking, emotional thought is weak in substance, lacks credibility and rarely provides real solutions to significant problems. Because it is based on emotion, it requires little consideration and produces more of a reactionary response then a well thought out idea.

As fire service leaders we must all start off by acknowledging that regardless of our education, background, and experience, our thought processes can be flawed by reasoning, emotion, prejudices, and laziness to name a few. These influences often cause us to think far too simplistically about very complicated and complex issues such as risk. As fire service leaders we must hold ourselves accountable to self-improvement. That's what others expect of us and what we should expect of ourselves.

If we, as fire service leaders, are to be successful at navigating the complexity of challenges facing us, there will be a requirement to do so by quality of thought. Failing to resolve perplexing fire service issues, through debate, dialogue and discussion based on critical thought, respect and open mindedness, will continue to have us wallow in the plethora of problems, offering little or no real solutions.

There are those in the fire service, who insist that firefighters “become more tolerant” and “open minded” to new ideas, new thought, new culture and new science. Those statements are then followed by a proclamation that the service must change to fit their ideology. This is where they lose many. This form of messaging results in little to no buy-in from the ranks, censors free (conflicting) thought, and puts us at odds with each other, in spite of the fact that we both want the same things, safe and effective firegrounds. The only chance we have of resolving many of these issues is through real tolerance of free thought, followed by dialogue, discussion and debate in a manner of professional decorum.

My experiences have been, that when the only acceptable solution to proper fireground management and the reduction of deaths and injuries is through the ideology of total risk avoidance, the door to discussion is immediately shut. I have seen valuable science, case studies and lessons learned, thrown in the trashcan or immediately deleted from emails, without a moment of contemplative thought due to this one approach fits all mentality. Taking a complex issue such as risk and minimizing risk management techniques to simple risk avoidance policies, is viewed by many as being intellectually arrogant and unattractive. It is my opinion, that much of this valuable information is quickly discarded and devalued simply do to poor messaging.

Risk avoidance becomes a default strategy when our focus, efforts and attention is placed on what we “don't want ” (death/injuries) as opposed to what we “do want” (high performance/safe firegrounds). By taking this approach, are we attempting to deal with the bigger issues of inexperience, ineffective or incompetent decision-making on the fireground? By simply abandoning the idea that individuals must meet required levels of performance? Instead of having the discussion, on how we can effectively increase risk management on the fireground through, building individual competencies in our chiefs and officers, strengthening our system of command and control, achieving consistency in operational performance and improving our communications habits; it has become politically popular to join the risk avoidance club as our default solution.

Let me be perfectly clear, there are times when risk avoidance will be the appropriate fireground strategy, but that can not be our long term default strategy in fireground management. My efforts will be as they always have been, inspiring critical thought on problem management. I hope to do this buy providing a forum focused on, building competency, inspiring better decision making capability, and identifying and challenging poor command habits. The value of discussion becomes more significant when other thoughts, ideas and opinions and experiences are shared.

What are your thoughts on managing risk on the fireground?

Please engage in the discussion

Please be critical in your thoughts

No Emotional arguments

Be respectful of others opinion

Be Safe & Be Competent