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Flashpoint: August 2010

It occurred to me that many of the topics I have covered in FlashPoint columns are manifestations of the larger issue of risk management and control.

August 9, 2010  By Peter Sells

It occurred to me that many of the topics I have covered in FlashPoint columns are manifestations of the larger issue of risk management and control. This realization came as I was listening to the Traveling Wilburys song Seven Deadly Sins, so here are my seven deadly solutions for risk on the fire/rescue scene.

■ Elimination
Risk management theorists usually place these control strategies in a hierarchy of most desirable (least exposure) to least desirable (most exposure). At the top of that hierarchy is elimination of risk. While not an obvious option for responders, consider that when an initial incident commander makes the call that the fire conditions are defensive he has effectively eliminated the risks associated with interior fire/rescue tactics.

■ Transfer
One means of eliminating a risk to firefighters is to transfer that risk onto another response organization. This is entirely appropriate if the nature of the risk is incompatible with our purpose and capabilities – for example, a response to a scene at which a fight is in progress or where weapons are being used. Our prudent action would be to hang back and allow law enforcement to stabilize the risk before we proceed with any fire or rescue operation.

■ Substitution
Risk control by substitution involves replacing the use of a hazardous process or material with one that is equally effective but less hazardous. In fire protection, the replacement of halon agents with less toxic alternatives under the Montreal protocol has had a positive effect on the recovery of the ozone layer.


■ Engineering controls
We don’t yet have firefighting robots that are capable of replacing humans but we are constantly adding technology to our arsenal. Thermal imagers may not eliminate risk completely but they allow us to operate more safely and effectively in a structure fire. A button on your mobile data terminal that is pressed by the company officer to indicate that all personnel are seated and belted can be seen as an engineering control or an administrative control.  You’ll see what I mean in the next example.

■ Administrative control
A change to a work procedure or protocol can be designed to reduce the probability or severity of an unfortunate event. A change to communications protocols such that a company officer acknowledges a dispatch with “Pumper 107 responding, belted” to indicate that all personnel are wearing seatbelts is an example of an administrative control. Highway response procedures that include the use of apparatus for scene blocking is another example. Administrative controls include supervision and enforcement of desired workplace performance and procedures for correction of unsafe performance.

■ Education and training
The purpose of education and training is to affect a permanent and positive change in behaviour, or to reinforce current desired behaviours. These behaviours may be in support of administrative controls (learning and practising a new procedure), engineering controls (training with a new thermal imager or mobile data terminal) or, actually, any other type of risk management strategy. Training and education do not replace the need for proper supervision of safe behaviours.

■ Personal protective equipment
In the literature on risk control, PPE is considered the least desirable option. When all other strategies have been considered and rejected as ineffective or inappropriate, we will place humans in harm’s way with PPE between them and the risk. This stands in contrast to the daily fire- fighting routine, in which the use of PPE is a regular part of the job. In this context, we must realize that we are in a desperate position of last resort, similar to a scuba diver or a skydiver who has a finite lifespan dictated by the amount of time before they run out of air or hit the ground, respectively. How many of us treat our SCBA or bunker gear with the care of a skydiver packing a ‘chute?

There is a lot of material out there on risk management and control. Much of it is business related and focuses on financial exposure and risk to assets but even in those cases there are analogies that can be applied to our environment. The hierarchy I used above comes from ANSI Z10-2005, which lists five categories of risk control. I broke transfer out of elimination and education and training out of administrative, to make some points through example and because I needed seven categories to fit my theme. After all, you don’t wanna mess with the Traveling Wilburys.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and
consults on fire service management and professional development across
North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University
of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the
advisory councils of the Ontario Fire College and the Institution of
Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Contact him at

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