In looking at risk management from a fire department standpoint, one must first look at the definition of risk: Risk can be defined as the possibility of meeting danger or suffering harm or of being exposed to the chance of injury or loss. 1 With that in mind the idea behind risk management is to plan for and try to eliminate the potential risk of an emergency incident in the community. Examples of this include but are not limited to:
- Analyze accident, injury, and illness data
- Identify and evaluate any potential risk within your jurisdiction
- Establish any risk management priorities in your area
- Plan out and implement good sound risk protocols to control an emergency incident
- Monitor your risk management plan and fine-tune it if necessary
- Include your risk plan into a local mutual aid county incident management system
- The use of, and the maintenance of proper protective equipment and resources
- Establish and implement public action plans in the event of a local disaster (natural or manmade)
- Establish emergency action plans with the local, and neighboring hospitals in the event of mass casualty incidents (10 or more)
- In the event of an emergency incident, establish emergency response protocols with neighboring departments, counties, emergency management, emergency services, law enforcement personnel, media, etc.
While the concept and process of risk management comes into play in every community, a primary step to assessing the community protection levels fall into four major areas: Loss of life to firefighters and citizens in your community, loss or damages to property, environmental damage, and damage or loss to your communities infrastructure. Making sound risk management decisions is having a thorough understanding of the local and regional hazards, and the full capabilities of your department in your community.
The fire department typically provides many services within the community that may include:
- Fire suppression activities
- First responder and emergency medical services
- Technical rescue activities, trench rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rescue, confined space, rescue dive teams
- Fire and life safety education programs, fire drills, “learn not to burn,” fire detector programs and station tours and static displays
- Code enforcement and inspections
Each of these activities brings with it an associated risk. The basic questions that we need to ask include:
- What span of control, and level of service, is your department providing, and at what risk level?
- Does the community and your public officials have the same expectations, or different expectations than you do?
Educating your community, and your public officials goes a long way in making sure everyone with a staked interest has the same information and is on the same page, and able to make educated decisions.
In looking at the above list, it is easy to see that each of the services the fire department provides has associated risks, which must be considered as a community determines its level of protection, and projects the protection level it would like to have. With this in mind it is just as obvious that with each service provided the cost of that service must be strongly considered.
When thinking in terms of the fire service, the first major category everyone thinks of is fire staffing. The adoption of NFPA standards 1710 and 1720 provide the first national, standard developed documents that address staffing levels and response times. These standards, one for primarily “career” fire service personnel (1710), and the other directed primarily for “volunteer” fire service personnel (1720), have set a benchmark for how departments will respond. 2 The adoption of these standards initiated a large outcry that staffing levels and response times are a “local” community’s focus. If that is true, then that level is where the discussion of “acceptable level of risk” needs to occur. 3 However, what seems to continue to happen is that fire department budgets seem to be based strictly on the financial bottom line without considering any risk models, and for the most part with out any input from the citizens of the community served. The education process of identifying the risks and the costs associated with providing these services to address those risks usually never occurs.
The important question of risk versus benefit has been quantified with scientific evidence in the emergency system response community. The risks related to medical trauma are very basic, and focus on patient (citizen) survivability. The response time criteria and service level requirements for emergency medical services are included in NFPA1710. This inclusion based on the fact that more than 90 percent of all United States fire departments provide some form of first responder or EMS care, 4 and that many firefighters are cross-trained to provide multiple services, and that the time element is exceedingly critical to the patients ability to survive in life threatening emergency situations.
Important issues in patient care include the level of care that the fire department is able to provide. Is it BLS or ALS? The response time necessary for a trained emergency service provider to reach the scene and begin to give treatment, the ability to transport a patient to the proper medical facility using an appropriately staffed and equipped transport vehicle, and some type of measured program to assure that all training is kept up to date and that all local protocols are being followed and maintained. The assessment of a community’s protection as it relates to emergency medical services is critical to communities, no matter which agency or organization delivers the service. Benchmarks, numbers, and other quality control measures of service delivery levels should be furnished to community leaders on a continuing basis.
Special operations include any type or level of technical rescue and hazardous material response.
- High angle rescue teams
- Swift water rescue teams
- Trench rescue
- Structural collapses
- Confined space rescue teams
- Hazardous material response teams
In assessing the risks with your response area, many fire departments have determined it is their task to rescue high angle climbers, swift water victims, persons that have been trapped in structural collapses, trench rescue situations, and indeed any other type of high risk situation. The risk to the person injured and trapped in these situations is great. The risk that you put your personnel in when trying to rescue these parties is also great. City and county officials working in conjunction with the fire department need to take a serious look at those associated risks and determine if the training, equipment, personnel, and time costs are justified.
A critical element in the assessment of a delivery system is the ability to provide adequate resources for fire combat situations. Each fire emergency requires a variable amount of staffing and resources to be effective. Properly trained and equipped fire companies must arrive, be deployed and attack the fire within specific time frames using an incident command/management system if successful fire ground strategies and tactical objectives are to be met. The same hold true for rescue operations, major medical emergencies, hazardous material incidents, natural disasters and other situations, which require varying levels of resources.
In looking and analyzing these risks the question arises: can these risks be passed on to another, more specialized agency? The old saying, “When all else fails call the fire department,” still holds true today for many. When there is no one else that feels comfortable with a job, call the fire department. That’s what happened in the field of hazardous material incidents. When there was an emergency incident involving hazardous chemicals, people would immediately call the fire department. Over the years it just became an additional duty that the fire service provided for their community, as did most of the other service mentioned earlier. The fire service has evolved from being a fire fighting organization in the late 1700s to what it is today. The fire service has become the “GO TO” service for all types of emergency incidents. It continues to evolve through the development of new equipment, new tactics, and new training techniques — all to satisfy the needs of the communities it serves.
Today however, the fire service needs to evaluate the various risks presented, and determine if it is safer for all concerned to identify other specialized agencies that should be responding to some of these emergency incidents. In many locations it is a common practice where the local fire departments have mutual aid agreements with other specialized agencies to handle specialty emergencies
So in reality, can the fire service of today be everything to everybody, and do it professionally, safely and at minimal risk? In many cases — especially in larger departments — given the proper funding, equipment, personnel, and circumstances, probably yes. There are other cases where a fire department may not be able to safely perform certain duties. This is where assessing the risk versus benefit preplanning comes in. The cost of training, time, equipment, and personnel need to be continually assessed. If the community is educated to the risks, citizens also need to be educated to what their fire department can and can not do safely. The old saying, “It’s all part of the job,” does not always hold true today. Today’s fire service needs to start weighing the risk versus benefit of taking on certain functions. There is no shame in saying “Hey, you handle this situation, I’ll back you up.”
- International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) Management & Liability Committee, 1990. Fire Service Risk Management Implementation Guide.
- Jenaway, William F., 1987. Fire Department Loss Control, Ashland, MA: International Society of Fire Service Instructors.
- National Fire Academy, 2002. Course Guide. Advanced Fire Administration: Chapt. , pp6-11.
Todd Shoebridge is a 33-year fire service veteran, former Captain/EMT with the Hickory Fire Department. He is currently Risk Manager for the City of Hickory and a firefighter/EMT with Longview Fire Department. He holds certifications as a National Registry (PROBOARD) Fire Officer III, Manager in Environmental Safety and Health (MESH), Rapid Intervention and NFA Mayday Instructor, Hazardous Materials Technician, Level II Fire Service Instructor, Basic VMR Rescue Technician, and Fire/Arson Investigator (CFI) through the NC Fire and Rescue Commission.