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Between Alarms: Risk management requires thought

Two recent events got me thinking about our occupation. The first was a letter to an editor of a local paper that caused a bit of an uproar between emergency responders, and the second event was a TV show about firefighters.

January 21, 2008 
By Vern Elliott

vernelliottTwo recent events got me thinking about our occupation. The first was a letter to an editor of a local paper that caused a bit of an uproar between emergency responders. In a nutshell, the letter writer was frustrated with an EMT who stayed outside an area where a stabbing had occurred. The letter writer felt the patient perished because the EMT did not enter the scene immediately. The writer went on to say that if he were in a similar situation he would have entered without delay and therefore the outcome may have been different. The second event was a TV show about firefighters. A district chief was asked about gambling within the fire department. He went on a bit of a rant and finished by saying “We are New York City firefighters. Every day of our lives is a gamble.”

People risk a lot every day. They do this to gain financially, personally and professionally. Many people go to casinos and play games of chance; others partake in sports such as rock climbing and some trade in the stock market. The common denominator is that they are all risking something to profit in some other way. 

In most professional situations, firefighters should not gamble, rather we should be prepared to weigh the odds and do what will yield the best outcome for all. When casino-goers walk into a casino, the odds are instantly against them. We need to be better prepared than that. Sure, our job comes with certain inherent dangers and risks but, for the most part, we control the situations we face. We control how we train, the way we maintain our equipment and the teamwork we use to mitigate emergency situations in a safe manner. That is not to say that we do not have periods when we’re essential laying a bet. There are times when we cannot manage all of the occurrences at an incident but, with common sense, experience and training, we wager that we will make decisions that will result in positive outcomes.

The question I asked myself was “What am I willing to risk on the job?” There are many dangerous occupations that we could get into and receive healthy remuneration for the dangerous work. We perform a job that requires us to place a great deal on the line and we do not receive any danger pay. So, have you thought about what you are willing to chance? 


Very few of us have fought enough fires to have the experience to judge every situation properly. So, how do we know what we are willing to risk? I know that as a young firefighter I was ready to throw caution to the wind; I would have (and maybe I did) run into situations with little or no regard for the possibilities. As my experience (i.e., age) increased and my personal life changed to include more responsibilities, so did my personal risk management. I slowly began to look at my training and competence, as well as those around me. I also looked at the equipment I was presented with and how I could use the gear in a variety of conditions. 

So, how do we measure and manage our own risk? First, look at your job within the department. As a firefighter you have a certain amount of accountability to the crew and to the public. You are also accountable to your family and friends outside the job. Next, look at the different situations you can be face – loss of property and/or life being the two main categories. How would you respond to either of them? Think about this carefully; you might not have enough time during the real thing. There is a big difference between responding when you know there are occupants in a structure fire and being asked to retrieve a safe full of investment documents from a fully involved house.

Lastly, look at the resources at your disposal. Who are the people you work with that you trust? It should be everyone; if it isn’t, is more training required? Do you know all your equipment and its limits? If not, do you need different equipment; are improvements for existing systems required? Do you need more training or information? Do you need better gear? How well do you know your highest risk areas within the district? These are all items you should be carefully contemplating to develop your own risk possibilities. 

Now you can evaluate your risk factors and run the different scenarios. Develop your own controls to mitigate stress and risk. Decide what situations would cause you to “fold your cards” and those that would have you “double down.” Develop a system of working through the possibilities so you know what you are capable of in the different scenarios. Obviously, you cannot plan for everything but if you have an understanding of your limitations then decisions may come easier at critical times. Hopefully, you will never have to use this system but if the need ever arises you should be somewhat prepared.

Our job has risk; not as much risk as some other occupations such as underground mining or crab fishing but we are willing to risk our lives for the basic needs of others? Ultimately, should we be risking our lives for anything less? I don’t know the real answer to this but if emergency responders perish in an empty warehouse have they done so for the fundamental needs of someone else?

Vern Elliott has 14 years’ experience in emergency services in municipal and industrial departments as a firefighter/paramedic. He works with Strathcona County Emergency Services in Alberta."

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