Weighing the Options
How a risk-versus-benefit fire analysis can help reduce firefighter injuries and deaths
NFPA Journal®, July/August 2012
In this issue of NFPA Journal, you’ll find the “Firefighter Fatalities in the United States, 2011” report, an analysis of last year’s firefighter on-duty fatalities. We highly recommend that all firefighters and fire departments closely examine the statistical information and case studies presented and apply the lessons learned in search of ways to reduce these tragic losses. Conducting a risk-versus-benefit analysis at every fire has the potential to reduce the number of firefighter on-duty deaths.
“Risk,” as used here, does not refer to the risks to a building’s occupants, but rather to the responding firefighters and the likelihood that they could be killed or injured by the fire. “Benefit,” on the other hand, does refer to the occupants and the owner of the burning property. Both risk and benefit are expressed as probabilities. What is the probability, or chance, that a firefighter will be injured or killed if a specific strategy or tactic is employed? In most cases, an offensive strategy at a structure fire represents a higher level of risk than a defensive strategy.
The highest benefit is saving an endangered life, which involves a fairly complex analysis of the occupancy, time, fire stage, percentage of involvement, and other factors. For example, a fire in a school building at 3 a.m. would have a fairly low probability of putting occupants in danger. However, the probability of someone being in the building is rarely zero. There is a chance that a custodian or someone else could be in the building at 3 a.m. In this case, the incident commander, faced with a well-involved fire, would be less likely to initiate an interior offensive attack than he would be if the same conditions existed when classes were in session. During school hours, the incident commander would be willing to accept a higher level of risk, particularly if all students, teachers, and visitors were not accounted for.
The risk-versus-benefit analysis is an ongoing process. When a primary and secondary search verify that a building has been totally evacuated, the potential benefit shifts from saving lives to saving property, so the acceptable level of risk is reduced. NFPA 1500, Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health, states that the concept of risk management should be used on the basis of the following principles: “(1) Activities that present a significant risk to the safety of members shall be limited to situations where there is a potential to save endangered lives. (2) Activities that are routinely employed to protect property shall be recognized as inherent risks to the safety of members, and actions shall be taken to reduce or avoid these risks. (3) No risk to the safety of members shall be acceptable when there is no possibility to save lives or property. (4) In situations where the risk to fire department members is excessive, activities shall be limited to defensive operations.”
Until the fire is controlled, the risk to firefighters increases and the possible benefit of saving lives decreases. It is critically important that first-arriving units and the incident commander conduct a risk-versus-benefit analysis, which includes continuously reevaluating and reassessing the situation and developing a strategy and incident action plan that adequately protects firefighters. Practicing risk management at every fire scene will reduce the number of firefighter injuries and fatalities.
For more on the Multiphase Study on Firefighter Safety and Deployment of Resources, visit firereporting.org.