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Is the Scene Really Safe?

Recently, I was asked to evaluate my commitment to occupational and personal safety and my department’s implementation of it. I was specifically asked to address Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives #1 (Culture) and #3 (Risk Reduction). It was a welcome exercise to determine if our practice met our intent. It was equally interesting to question the realistic application of scene safety; there is still a lot of perception and interpretation.

Since the introduction of NFPA 1500 in 1988, I think we have done much to identify risk and, in some ways, control risky behavior. But I’ve also seen the extremes: Some firefighters are concerned about participating even remotely risky activities; others disregard risk-reduction measures, accepting extreme risk as part of the job.

Practicing safety in an unsafe work environment can be tricky. Firefighters must regularly address the balance between an honorable decision and a dangerous, potentially deadly outcome. We provide our firefighters with tools for scene, station and social (off-duty) safety. Command staff and company officers must strive to set examples through application and enforcement.

Implementing and enforcing a firefighter-safety program involves more than making rules; it requires making the right decisions. My vision for a culture of safety is to empower firefighters to make appropriate decisions involving risk and benefit. We want to show them how to think, not what to think. To do the right thing when nobody is watching – especially when nobody’s watching. We need to acknowledge people when they perform safe work practices, particularly when the risk is not worth the reward.

Reducing risk tolerance is an adaptive behavior that challenges values, mindsets and beliefs and promotes a professional culture. All firefighters, from the most senior member to the newest recruit, must be responsible for compliance. Many firefighters are driven by adrenaline-seeking behavior; the challenge is to use that energy for positive gain, not unnecessary risk. All firefighters must be responsible for their actions, but we must also hold each other accountable.

Company officers need to supervise those with less maturity and experience, and command-staff officers need to support company officers. The company officer must be willing to step in and stop unnecessary behavior while it’s happening, and they must understand that their actions will not always be popular.

A closer look in my organization found that most agree with the need for firefighter safety and most think that they practice appropriate behavior. However, my evaluation hit a snag when it came to evaluating scene safety; many recited a question they were trained to ask in their emergency medical training: “Is the scene safe?”

My concern is that this simple approach places us in a situation where we check a box and move forward with an operational disadvantage: today’s everchanging dynamic in less-than-safe environments requires more evaluation.

Asking if the scene is safe is not a realistic approach to reducing risk. Scenes are inherently not safe. We want our firefighters to ask,“How can we reduce risk? How can we make the scene safer?”

Anticipating danger allows firefighters to change their decision-making process from one that may cause impulsivity toward one of safety and survival. Acknowledging the risk and being mindful of the danger in our work environment supports situational awareness. In no way will we endorse an unsafe work practice. We will, however, ask our firefighters to consider the possibilities of incident resolution using risk-reduction methods instead of programming them to avoid environments that are unsafe.

Military strategist Colonel John Boyd developed the OODA Loop to provide a framework that addresses the decision-making process, specifically for use in high-risk environments:

  • Observe the evolving situation.
  • Orient to the situation based on personal experience, training and options.
  • Decide on the best option for an intended outcome.
  • Act on that option.

This process is a loop because after acting we must go back to observing how well the implemented option is working.

The OODA Loop can be applied when addressing risk. If our firefighters have situational awareness, they will spend less time observing and orienting themselves to the issue and more time deciding on strategy and acting on tactics.

In the end, our organizational evaluation of firefighter safety concluded that:

  • We need to replace “Is the scene safe” with continual risk assessment.
  • On the emergency incident, we will exercise caution when requiring the elimination of risk before assigning firefighters to life-safety tasks (especially with variables outside our control).
  • We will use our core values to reinforce safety through integrity, professionalism and ownership.
  • We will investigate, evaluate and address unnecessary risk in an attempt to make our work environment safer.

We have heard from Gordon Graham that “predictable is preventable.” In predictable situations, we must eliminate risk to avoid tragic outcomes. However, in spite of best efforts, firefighters may not be able to stay safe in all environments, so firefighters should plan to carefully proceed with operations. They should understand the situation, be prepared to act and stay focused.

Our job should not concentrate on operational restrictions by variables outside our control. We should concentrate on working as safely as possible with strategies and tactics that have been selected to maximize and maintain control.

When firefighters proceed into a scene they think is safe, they are likely to experience delayed reactions to any unanticipated, adverse conditions. If firefighters proceed into unsafe environments while applying appropriate risk-reduction measures and knowing that the scene is unsafe, they will probably orient themselves quickly to the known danger, decide on the best course of action and react appropriately to the anticipated stimulus.

When we operate as critical thinkers, we end up being safer when we encounter danger in a less-than-safe environment.


Watch Gordon Graham on YouTube: Predictable is Preventable


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