Safety & Health

Cognitive Preparation on the Fireground

Issue 3 and Volume 6.

There’s no doubt that one of our most dangerous tasks is an interior structural fire attack. As such, executive fire officers have an obligation to ensure that their firefighters are adequately prepared for these operations. But preparation does not simply include providing the appropriate tools and PPE. Fire officers need to ensure that their firefighters are prepared cognitively as well. After all, most firefighters are given the appropriate tools and training, but how will that training be applied on the fireground when they’re under duress?

Firefighters are aggressive by nature and therefore demand action when confronted with a structure fire. But action without proper forethought or planning can be dangerous in this business.

Foley (2000) identified five consistent contributing factors associated with firefighter line-of-duty deaths (LODDs): lack of incident command, lack of a thorough risk assessment, lack of accountability, inadequate communications and lack of standard operating procedures (SOPs). Two of these factors are associated with initial actions: establishing an Incident Command System and conducting a risk assessment prior to placing firefighters in harm’s way. Consider these factors to be members of a truss. If one member fails, the entire truss fails.

Incident Command
A solid command system establishes the foundation that will guide the incident. Without a system, the other LODD risk factors cannot be adequately addressed, which can have devastating consequences. Further, a strong command presence helps instill confidence among firefighters and determine the course of the incident.

With this in mind, the executive fire officer must determine if each company officer and those who may serve in that capacity are familiar with the system employed by their agency. After all, research has shown that there is a greater chance for errors when fire personnel are assigned to positions they’re not familiar with. Also, freelancing is prevalent where a strong incident command program is absent.

Risk Assessment
It’s frustrating to see firefighters consistently use the same tactics—pull a line and rush in—rather than conducting a size-up and risk assessment prior to deployment. The adage, “We risk ourselves a lot, within a structured plan, to save a savable life” must be considered at every fire. But risk assessment does not begin on the fireground. Prudent executive fire officers evaluate the competency of fire officers (and those who may hold these positions) long before the tones go off. As such, risk analysis should include a review of officer skill sets and cognitive ability prior to their being placed in precarious scenarios. The fire service cannot tolerate the “fill a seat” mentality.

Why is this so important? Decision-making for any company officer or firefighter is impacted by their unique combination of education, experience, cognitive ability and personal history. Similarly, risk assessment on the scene should include a careful analysis of current fire conditions, taking into account information gleaned from a 360-degree survey, weather/wind conditions, potential fire spread, construction or building type, known rescues and resources available. Only after these variables have been evaluated should fire officers commit to an interior attack.

With all this in mind, ask yourselves, “Have we done everything we can to develop these firefighters to a level of performance that ensures safety and survival on the fireground?” Think again about those five factors that contribute to firefighter fatalities. Perhaps it’s time we all take an introspective look at our departments to make sure these elements are adequately addressed.

Foley S. Firefighter occupational safety. Fire Department Integrated Risk Analysis and Management—A PERI Symposium (