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Near-Miss Case Study: Conscious, Critical Thinking

Many firefighter near misses and line-of-duty deaths share common elements. If we review these events as they relate to fireground activity, we can identify the common contributing factors that predict firefighter close calls.

For example, many firefighters and company officers fail to conduct a risk-to-benefit assessment before engagement. In addition, many fail to comprehend an incident's complexity. The risk-to-benefit assessment isn't always understood.

Superficially, it's quite simple: We'll risk a lot within a structured plan to save a savable life. Literally, we'll risk our lives for those we can save. But a lot is implied within that simple statement.

Several activities must happen before engaging in an interior structural firefight: evaluating the risk-to-benefit assessment is of paramount importance. Does the value of what will be gained outweigh the risk of certain activities? This must be a conscious consideration based on an up-to-date assessment of the situation:

  • Are you familiar with the structure and its history, occupancy and construction?
  • Is the structure vacant or unoccupied or is there a known occupant?
  • Is there a preplan?
  • Did you do a 360° survey?
  • What is the extent of involvement?
  • What resources are available on scene?

The path of least resistance is to blindly pull a hand-line and aggressively advance into the interior of an involved structure. Most firefighters have done this time and time again and without consequence.

We're accidentally successful, and over time, this tactic becomes the norm. Once conditioned, we find it's difficult to overcome this pattern. Being an aggressive firefighter is a source of pride and we identify with that persona.

A more appropriate approach involves critical thinking, rational decisions and sense-making. This involves risk—not risk from physical harm, but risk of being ostracized or criticized from the mainstream. It's imperative for chief officers and company officers to shatter this paradigm and embrace a more conservative approach.

Critical thinking can be likened to evidence-based reasoning. In other words, every firefighter brings a world of knowledge and experience to the profession. Fire departments conduct prefire plans, or should, of target hazards in their first-response district at a minimum. They're aware of the peculiarities in a preplan—or should be aware.

On arrival, a 360° survey should be conducted to gather intelligence on fire behavior from all sides, the location of possible victims and the identification of other hazards. During this evaluation of all sides of a structure, an assessment can be conducted on the survivability of victims. Can we affect a rescue or is the operation really a body recovery? What do witnesses say about the likelihood of an occupant still inside the structure? What resources are immediately available and what should we summon to the scene.

Sense-making is giving meaning to experience and is a component in decision-making. Whether correct or not, sense-making is often used interchangeably with situational awareness. All of our relative experiences, education, memory, positive and negative career reinforcements, job knowledge and culture contribute to how an individual interprets a given situation.

These elements can collectively tell us if we actually have enough GPMs to neutralize the BTUs. If not, should we realistically be inside? This evaluation is referred to as sense-making.

Situational awareness is also maintenance of what's happening around us, a constant size up.

Armed with this information, a rational decision can be made on whether or not to engage in an interior firefight. Rational decision-making is the ability to organize information, evaluate alternatives and choose a best action based on the information obtained. While truly rational decision-making models are time consuming, much of this data is obtained before an event. Then, variables on scene are processed quickly and decisions are rapid.

Finally, do the arriving firefighters comprehend the complexity of the event they're engaging in? If not, perhaps an interior firefight isn't warranted.

Understanding the complexity of an event is intertwined with the risk-to-benefit assessment. How can firefighters conduct an accurate risk-to-benefit assessment if they don't understand an event's complexity? Any actions taken may be based on misinformation and may have disastrous results.

Firefighter near misses can be reduced by embracing an approach of conscious thought and critical thinking. Don't blindly react to an event because it's quick, popular and follows the path of least resistance. Chief and company officers must set the example and proactively approach the responsibilities of the job and lead by example.

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