Safety & Health

Dynamic Management of Risk During Fire Attack

Issue 4 and Volume 4.

Risk recognition and communication of risk

The demands and requirements of modern firefighting will continue to require the placement of personnel within situations and buildings that carry risk, uncertainty and inherent danger. (Wayne Barrall photo)

The continuing emphasis on improving our safety culture and the reemergence of “safety” as a strategic pillar is evident in current fire service operations and initiatives. The 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives (LSIs), first developed in 2004, provide a basis to further refine and improve areas of fireground operations.

The LSIs have refocused attention on fire service practices and culture, which have, at times, demonstrated an indifference toward safety, including the management of risk at the command level. But despite the LSIs and other efforts, incident commanders (ICs) still employ inconsistent practices and exhibit cultural indifference related to the management of risk during structural fire suppression.

The Rearview Mirror
In 1952, Chief Lloyd Layman first published “Fundamentals of Firefighting Tactics,” in which he presented the formulative principles of fireground size-up—the foundation of risk management in the fire service today. Chief Layman stated, “Size-up is the mental evaluation made by the incident commander, which enables the IC to determine the course of action and to accomplish the mission.”

Size-up factors were subsequently expanded to include facts, probabilities, situation, decisions, plans and operations. ICs primarily made decisions based on what they knew about fire behavior in certain types of construction and occupancies; they used this information to determine fire suppression needs, resources and operational deployment.

During the ensuing “war years” of the mid-1960s through the 1970s, firefighting size-up and structural fire engagement continued to place an emphasis and acceptability on aggressive interior operations, at times directly opposed to qualitative size-up risk indicators that suggested marginal or defensive operating profiles. In other words, we continued to promote and justify interior operations, in the face of high-risk operations.

These aggressive firefighting doctrines translated into the operational culture we struggle to modify today. Through several common themes, size-up and risk began to be related to building construction. Examples include Brannigan: “The Building Is the Enemy” (1971); Dunn: “No Building Is Worth the Life of a Firefighter” (1985); Brunacini: “We Will Risk” Doctrine (1985); Brennan: “Make the Building Behave” (1995); IAFC: “Risk Assessment & Rules of Engagement” (2001); Goldfeder: “Everyone Goes Home” (2001); and NFFF: 16  Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives (2004).

As a result of these concepts, long-held beliefs and established tactics began to be questioned. Risk/benefit, safety, assessment, and firefighter injury and LODD reduction were introduced into the size-up formula.

Today, we’re at a crossroads when it comes to risk management on the fireground. The risk-preferring traditional practices are being reassessed in today’s fire service at the command and company level. Size-up has evolved into “fireground risk assessment and management.”

Size-Up Isn’t Enough
Changes in building construction, occupancy profiles, materials, and construction assemblies and systems make a “traditional” size-up inadequate for effectively managing risk on today’s fireground. Fire behavior principles from the last 75 years are no longer valid. The predictability of performance within our buildings and occupancies is significantly challenged in today’s fireground setting.

In addition, although size-up has helped us manage risk to some degree, significant cultural and technological impediments to firefighter safety still exist. These include:

  • Modern building construction is not predictable;
  • Command and company officer technical knowledge may be diminished or deficient;
  • Technological advancements in construction and materials have exceeded conventional fire suppression practices;
  • Some fire suppression tactics are faulty or inappropriate, requiring innovative models and methods;
  • We don’t consider redundancy in firefighting operations;  
  • Fire dynamics and behavior aren’t being effectively considered during fireground size-up;
  • Risk management is either not practiced or is willfully ignored during most incident operations; and
  • Some departments or officers show an indifference to safety and risk management.

Stop the Entertainment
But there’s another factor contributing to unsafe practices, one that we rarely talk about. In short, we need to stop “entertaining” ourselves during fire suppression operations and instead focus on comprehending and reacting to evolving risks.

What do I mean by “entertaining” ourselves? Rather than practicing appropriate risk management, I believe many individuals employ adverse behaviors that occur on a tactical level while ICs assume firefighters are completing their assigned tasks, thus compromising accountability. These behaviors include:


  • Tactical amusement: engaging in any practice or tactic during fire suppression, support tasks or operations that places personnel at risk for the sake of entertainment.
  • Tactical diversion: diverting from an assignment while engaging in fire suppression, support tasks or operations in such a way that places personnel at risk.
  • Tactical circumvention: deliberately “getting around” an assignment or disregarding risk assessment and incident action plans.

If we’re going to reduce firefighter injuries and deaths, we must be doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reasons, and in the right place. We must stop the entertainment.

Dynamic Risk Assessment
Fortunately, there is a strategy to help us overcome the limits of the traditional size-up: dynamic risk assessment, a continuous process of identifying hazards and taking action to eliminate them. The IC employing dynamic risk assessment doesn’t complete a size-up, form a plan and move on. They constantly monitor and review the fireground conditions, which are usually in a rapidly changing state, and they adjust their plan accordingly. The management of dynamic risk comes down to effective, informed and decisive action during all phases of an incident.

Within the dynamic risk assessment model, two concepts stand out: risk recognition and communication of risk. All command and supervisory personnel and their operating companies must be able to recognize and appreciate the risks present at an incident. At the same time, they must be able to communicate what they see. Unlike conventional size-up, dynamic risk management requires a fluid flow and integration of observations throughout the command structure up to the IC level.

In Sum
The demands and requirements of modern firefighting will continue to require the placement of personnel within situations and buildings that carry risk, uncertainty and inherent danger. As a result, risk management must become fluid and integrate all personnel. We must manage dynamic risks with a balanced approach of effective assessment, analysis and probability within command decision making that results in safety conscious strategies and tactics.